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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Kelly Rissman

Who is Joseph Emerson? The ‘mushroom’ pilot arrested for trying to take down a plane

Joseph Emerson/Facebook

A Horizons Airlines flight took an astonishing turn as an off-duty pilot riding in the cockpit attempted the unthinkable.

Joseph David Emerson was travelling in the cockpit jumpseat of Flight 2059 as a passenger on a two-hour trip from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, California, on Sunday (22 October) when prosecutors say he tried to shut off the plane’s engines.

Mr Emerson, a pilot for Horizon’s parent company Alaska Airlines, was eventually subdued, the flight was diverted to Portland, and no one was injured.

He is now facing a myriad of charges, including 83 counts of attempted murder and a federal count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.

Mr Emerson told the police after the fact that he had been experiencing a “nervous breakdown” during the flight due to what appeared to be a bad first experience trying psychedelic mushrooms.

As the stories about his trip circulate, the man who was sitting in the jump seat remains a bit of a mystery. Here’s what we know about Mr Emerson so far:

An experienced pilot

The 44-year-old, according to the airline, joined Alaska Air Group as a Horizon First Officer in August 2001.

In June 2012, Mr Emerson left Horizon to join Virgin America as a pilot but became an Alaska Airlines First Officer following Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America in 2016. He became an Alaska Airlines Captain in 2019.

“Throughout his career, Emerson completed his mandated FAA medical certifications in accordance with regulatory requirements, and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked,” Alaska Airlines, which owns Horizon, said in a statement on Tuesday.

FAA records show that Mr Emerson has an Airline Transport Pilot certification with ratings to fly certain planes, including Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. However he does not seem to hold a certification to fly the Embraer 175LR, the aircraft which he is accused of interfering with.

Joseph Emerson was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court
— (AP)

What people who know him are saying

Records show Mr Emerson is a resident of Pleasant Hill, California. The Daily Mail spoke to his neighbors, who shared that he lives with his wife and two young sons. They described him as friendly, happy and a “fantastic father” - saying he liked to play basketball with his children on a court that he built in his backyard.

One neighbour, Karen Yee, mentioned this week’s headlines, telling the outlet: “It is just really shocking, disturbing news.”

She continued, “He’s very understanding of other people...We have a son with special needs, and he’s very good to him. We just couldn’t imagine him doing anything to hurt someone.”

“It’s very hard for us to believe that he would do anything intentionally like that,” she added. “I can’t fathom him doing anything that would hurt anyone.”

Lou Rossi, another neighbour, also sounded stunned by the news. He told the Daily Mail: “I watched the news all the time, and I see things happen in neighborhoods where people say they could never believe someone would do something like this.”

He added, “I’ve helped him do things around his house. He does a lot of stuff with his kids. I can’t say one word that would be derogatory towards him at all.”

Mr Rossi, who is retired from the US Air Force, said had related to Mr Emerson, talking to him about planes and said Mr Emerson “seemed to enjoy his work.”

What happened on the Alaska Airlines flight

Mr Emerson was flying jumpseat on the flight. Alaska Airlines wrote in a statement: “At no time during the check-in or boarding process did our Gate Agents or flight crew observe any signs of impairment that would have led them to prevent Emerson from flying on Flight 2059.”

But the situation quickly changed once the plane took off, records reveal.

At one point, according to an affidavit obtained by The Independent, threw his headset across the cockpit and said “I am not okay.” One of the pilots witnessed the 44-year-old grabbing the red shutoff handles and pulling them down.

One pilot declared an inflight emergency and then turned the autopilot off before diverting aircraft to Portland.

Flight attendants described Mr Emerson as “losing it” and thought he should be removed from the cockpit, the affidavit stated. He then apparently told one flight attendant: “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.”

Flight attendants then moved Mr Emerson to the back of the plane and put him in flex handcuffs.

During the flight’s descent, he allegedly turned towards an emergency exit door and tried to grab the handle. “A flight attendant stopped Emerson by placing her hands on top of Emerson’s hands,” the affidavit said.

Why did he do it?

It’s unclear exactly, but the answer seems to be related to what he told the police later: he hadn’t slept for 40 hours and was experiencing a “nervous breakdown” mid-flight.

He divulged that he felt dehydrated and tired during the flight. Mr Emerson added: “I didn’t feel okay. It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on. They didn’ didn’t seem right.”

He also admitted, “Yah...I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

Although at first he denied taking any medication, he said six months ago he became depressed. He then admitted that this was his first-time taking psychedelic mushrooms.

The aftermath

After landing, Mr Emerson was apprehended and hit with 167 charges, including 83 counts of first-degree attempted murder. He pleaded not guilty to all of the state charges.

He also faces a federal charge of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.

No one was hurt in the incident, officials said. The FBI is working with the Port of Portland police to investigate the incident.

The incident got the attention of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who wrote on X on Monday: “I am grateful for the professional flight crew and air traffic controllers who stepped up to guide this plane safely to Portland. FAA supports law enforcement in their response and will be focused on any safety considerations for the future that emerge from investigations.”

He is currently being held in custody in Multnomah County.

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