By Claire Rush and Gene Johnson
An off-duty commercial pilot riding in an extra cockpit seat on a Horizon Air flight said “I’m not OK” just before trying to cut the engines midflight and later told police he had recently taken psychedelic mushrooms as his mental health worsened, according to a federal complaint made public Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear from the court document if 44-year-old Joseph David Emerson was high on mushrooms when he was on the plane; in a written statement, Alaska Airlines, which owns Horizon, said neither the gate agents nor flight crew noticed any signs of impairment that might have barred him from the flight.
But an FBI agent wrote in a probable cause affidavit that the pilot spoke with police after his arrest about the use of psychedelic mushrooms and “said it was his first-time taking mushrooms.” Kevin Sonoff, the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon, said it was still under investigation whether Emerson took psychedelic mushrooms and when.
Emerson, an Alaska Airlines pilot from Pleasant Hill, California, was initially arrested in Oregon on Sunday night on state counts of attempted murder after the flight crew reported that he attempted to shut down the engines on a Horizon Air flight from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco while riding in the extra seat in the cockpit. The plane was diverted to Portland, where it landed safely with more than 80 people onboard.
A federal charge of interfering with a flight crew made public Tuesday said Emerson, who as an off-duty pilot was authorized to ride in the cockpit’s jump seat, made casual conversation with the captain and first officer when the plane was between Astoria, Oregon, and Portland, before trying to grab two red handles that would have activated the plane’s fire suppression system and cut off fuel to its engines.
After what the flight crew described as a brief struggle, lasting only about 30 seconds, Emerson left the cockpit, the FBI said.
Flight attendants placed Emerson in wrist restraints and seated him in the rear of the aircraft, but as the plane descended, he tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit, according to the document. A flight attendant stopped him by placing her hands on top of his, it said.
The Associated Press has been unable to contact Emerson’s family or others who might speak on his behalf. Court records did not indicate if he has obtained a lawyer.
Alaska Airlines said Tuesday that Emerson had been relieved of all duties.
The captain and first officer told police after the plane landed that Emerson said, “I'm not OK” just before he reached up to pull the handles. They were able to stop him before he pulled the handles all the way down, the affidavit said.
Emerson walked calmly to the back of the plane after being told to leave the cockpit and told a flight attendant, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” the affidavit said. Another flight attendant heard him saying, “I messed everything up” and "tried to kill everybody.”
According to the affidavit, he asked police if he could waive his right to an attorney: “I’m admitting to what I did. I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys.”
He also told them he thought he was having a nervous breakdown and said: "I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up,” according to the affidavit.
Pilots are required to undergo psychological screening as part of their regularly scheduled medical exams. There have been crashes that investigators believe were deliberately caused by pilots. Authorities said the co-pilot of a Germanwings jet that crashed in the French Alps in 2015 had practiced putting the plane into a dive.
Emerson took his most recent exam in September, FAA records show — but according to the FBI's affidavit, Emerson told police he became depressed about six months ago.
Oregon this year became the first U.S. state to legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms by adults. While psilocybin remains illegal in most of the country, the Food and Drug Administration in 2018 designated it a “breakthrough therapy” that might be used for mental health conditions or substance use disorders. Some researchers believe psilocybin changes the way the brain organizes itself, helping a user adopt new attitudes and overcome mental health issues.
Emerson was to remain in state custody pending an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Portland, the U.S. attorney's office said in a news release. He was also scheduled to be arraigned in state court on Tuesday afternoon.
The federal charge of interfering with a flight crew carries up to 20 years in prison.
Mark Angelos, a senior flight instructor at the NRI Flying Club in Concord, California, has known Emerson for more than 10 years. Emerson used to be president of the club and designed its safety program, meaning he was in charge of making sure instructors followed standard operating procedures, Angelos said.
Angelos said that when he and other club members initially heard the news, they thought Horizon Air must’ve been conducting some sort of emergency drill. They couldn’t believe that a person they saw as a family man who loved his children could be accused of such a thing.
“We thought the airline was conducting a test of its crew, to be honest,” he said. “We know now it was not.”
Lost for words, he expressed his shock. “It just couldn’t have been our Joe.”
Johnson reported from Seattle.