A pilot has been charged with 83 counts of attempted murder after allegedly trying to turn off a plane's engines while flying in the cockpit off-duty.
Joseph Emerson, who works for Alaska Airlines, was arrested on Sunday in Portland after he tried to disable the engines on a flight from the Seattle area to San Francisco, but crew members subdued him, officials said.
The 44-year-old was booked into jail on 83 counts of attempted murder, 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of endangering an aircraft, according to the local prosecutor's office.
Formal charges against Emerson, 44, were expected to be filed on Tuesday in Multnomah County court in Portland, where he was due to appear for an afternoon arraignment and enter a plea, a spokesperson for the county district attorney said.
Alaska Airlines Flight 2059, operated by Alaska Air Group's regional subsidiary Horizon Air, departed Everett, Washington, on Sunday bound for San Francisco but was re-routed to Portland after reporting a security threat, the airline said.
Emerson joined Alaska Air Group as a Horizon first officer in August 2001 and in 2012, left Horizon to join Virgin America as a pilot, Alaska said.
Emerson became an Alaska Airlines first officer after Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America in 2016 and became an Alaska Airlines captain in 2019. Alaska said "at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked."
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told U.S. airlines in a notice seen by Reuters that the off-duty pilot, flying as a "validated jump seat passenger," sought to disable the engines of the twin-jet Embraer 175 by attempting to activate the engine fire-suppression system while the plane was at cruise altitude.
"The crew was able to subdue the suspect and was removed from the flight deck," the FAA notice said. The engines were never disabled, Alaska said.
Radio chatter from the flight deck moments later was captured on audio posted by LiveATC.net, an online service that streams communications between air traffic control and commercial jets.
"I’ll just give you a heads-up. We’ve got the guy that tried to shut the engines down out of the cockpit," the Horizon pilot told air traffic control, according to the audio.
"It doesn’t sound like he’s causing any issue at the back. I think he’s subdued. ... We want law enforcement as soon as we get on the ground and parked."
Alaska Airlines said Emerson grabbed the engine fire handle, also known as the fire suppression system, which consists of a T-shaped handle for each engine.
"If the T-handle is fully deployed, a valve in the wing closes to shut off fuel to the engine. In this case, the quick reaction of our crew to reset the T-handles ensured engine power was not lost," Alaska said. Port of Portland police officers met the flight and took the suspect into custody without incident.
An FAA pilot database showed Emerson listed as a certified pilot who received a medical clearance last month. Aviators are expected to self-report any mental health conditions, two U.S. pilots told Reuters.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world's largest pilots union, which represents aviators at Alaska, said in a statement that the airline "profession in North America is one of the most highly vetted and scrutinized careers."
Adam Silverthorne, president of California-based NRI Flying Club, said the incident was incongruous with the kindhearted, methodical family man he knew Emerson as several years ago when Emerson was a club member and flight instructor. A club newsletter mentioned Emerson was at NRI in 2016.
"To say that it was out of character would be a huge understatement," Silverthorne said by phone. "It's bonkers."
The FBI in Portland said it "is investigating and can assure the traveling public there is no continuing threat related to this incident."
The FAA told airlines in a separate notice on Monday the incident "is not connected in any way, shape or form to current world events" but said it is "always good practice to maintain vigilance."
It is standard practice for off-duty pilots to sit in jump seats for flights home or en route a future flight assignment.
Alaska Airlines said all passengers on board traveled on a later flight.