Pilot Who Tried To Shut Off Engines Was On Psychedelics


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On Sunday evening, a nightmare scenario unfolded, whereby an off-duty pilot seated in the jump seat of a Horizon Air Embraer E175 attempted to shut off the plane’s engines. He ended up having to be removed from the cockpit, and the flight had to divert. Fortunately no one was injured, but this incident has understandably rattled a lot people, as it could have ended very differently.

The Department of Justice has just brought criminal charges against the pilot, and we now have the statements of the pilots who were flying the plane, the flight attendants, and the off-duty pilot. It appears that psychedelics played a role in this unfortunate situation…

What unfolded on Sunday’s wild Horizon Air flight

44-year-old Joseph David Emerson of Pleasant Hill, California, has been charged related to what happened on this Horizon Air flight. Emerson is an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 captain, and previously worked at Virgin America and Horizon Air. He was in the jump seat on this flight, as he was trying to hitch a ride, but the cabin was full.

Let me just cut to the chase — apparently Emerson had grown depressed in recent months, and took psychedelics a couple of days before the flight. He claimed he hadn’t slept in a couple of days, and felt like he was losing his mind.

This is such a wild story that I think it’s worth just directly quoting the criminal complaint, which contains interviews with both the two pilots flying, the flight attendant, and the pilot who caused this mess. Let me just post those verbatim, and then I’ll share my take.

This incident happened on a Horizon Air Embraer E175

What the pilots flying the plane had to say

During the initial stages of the flight, Pilot 1 said there was zero indication of anything wrong, and EMERSON engaged both Pilots in casual conversation about types of aircraft. Pilot 1 advised that the incident occurred approximately halfway between Astoria, Oregon and Portland, Oregon while the aircraft headed south.

While sitting in the cockpit jump seat, EMERSON, said “I’m not okay.” Pilot 2 turned and observed EMERSON reaching up and grabbing the red fire handles and pulling them down. Pilot 1 explained to the interviewing police officer that by pulling the red fire handles, this effectively activated the aircraft fire suppression system used to extinguish aircraft engine fires.

Pilot 1 added that the activation of the fire suppression system would shut off the fuel supply to the engines. Pilot 1 grabbed EMERSON’s wrist while Pilot 2 declared an inflight emergency. Pilot 1 said EMERSON initially resisted him, and they physically engaged for a duration he estimated to be 25-30 seconds, and then EMERSON quickly settled down.

Pilot 1 asked EMERSON to leave the cockpit and EMERSON exited the cockpit. Pilot 1 estimated that from the time EMERSON told the pilots he was not okay until EMERSON exited the cockpit was approximately 90 seconds.

Pilot 2 advised that at the beginning of the flight, EMERSON engaged in casual conversation with them about the weather. EMERSON told the Pilots that he (EMERSON) had been working for the airline for 10 years. Then, during the flight, Pilot 2 observed EMERSON throw his headset across the cockpit and announce “I am not okay.” Pilot 2 observed EMERSON grab both red engine shutoff handles.

Pilot 2 advised that EMERSON had to be “wrestled with” for several seconds before EMERSON stopped what he was doing. Pilot 2 declared an inflight emergency, turned the autopilot off, and changed the aircraft’s course to fly to Portland. Once EMERSON exited the cockpit, the pilots secured the cockpit door. Pilot 2 advised the interviewing police officer that EMERSON was unable to pull the red handles down all the way and fully activate the engine shutoff due to the pilots “wrestling with EMERSON.”

If EMERSON had successfully pulled the red engine shutoff handles down all the way, then it would have shut down the hydraulics and the fuel to the engines, turning the aircraft into a glider within seconds. Pilot 2 stated that EMERSON’s actions interfered with their ability to operate the aircraft.

What the flight attendants had to say

During the flight, the flight attendants received a call from the cockpit that EMERSON was “losing it” and he needed to get out of the cockpit. EMERSON was observed peacefully walking to the back of the aircraft. EMERSON told one flight attendant that he “just got kicked out of the flight deck.” EMERSON said to the flight attendant, “you need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.”

The flight attendants sat EMERSON in a flight attendant seat in the back of the aircraft and placed cuffs on EMERSON’s wrists. During the flight’s decent, EMERSON 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 flight attendant engaged EMERSON in conversation in an attempt to distract him from trying to grab the emergency exit handle again. Another flight attendant observed EMERSON make statements such as, “I messed everything up” and that “he tried to kill everybody.” The flight attendant noticed EMERSON take out his cellular phone and appeared to be texting on the phone. EMERSON was heard saying he had just put 84 peoples’ lives at risk tonight including his own.

What the off-duty pilot had to say

EMERSON advised that he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown,” and had not slept in 40 hours. EMERSON said he was an employee of Alaska Airlines and had been a pilot since 2001. EMERSON said he felt dehydrated and tired. EMERSON confirmed that he sat in the cockpit during the flight.

EMERSON said, “I didn’t feel okay. It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on. They didn’t…it didn’t seem right.” EMERSON also said, “yah…I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

EMERSON denied taking any medication, but he stated that approximately six months ago he became depressed. The officer and EMERSON talked about the use of psychedelic mushrooms and EMERSON said it was his first-time taking mushrooms.

EMERSON was brought to the Port of Portland police department. While in custody and in front of officers, EMERSON asked if he could waive his right to an attorney. EMERSON said, “I’m admitting to what I did. I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys.”

The off-duty pilot was an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 captain

What a terrible situation…

This is truly such a shocking story, that I don’t even know what to make of it. A few thoughts:

  • Huge kudos to the pilots working this flight and the flight attendants for their quick response, and for their work getting the plane on the ground safely; I hope they’re recognized for what they did here
  • I guess one silver lining is that this “only” happened while the pilot was in the jump seat, and there were two other pilots in the cockpit, rather than when this guy was in command of an aircraft
  • It’s clear that this guy has been struggling with depression and other mental issues, and was exercising very bad judgment; the cockpit jump seat isn’t the ideal setting to come to term with your first experience with psychedelics
  • Unfortunately metal health is a taboo topic among pilots; pilots are scared to talk about it because they don’t want to have their license revoked, but little seems to be done to help with this, as pilots are only human
  • Of course this guy shouldn’t be in charge of an aircraft, and also needs to he held accountable; but it also sucks that he has probably just ruined his decades-long career, and also faces major legal consequences

As much as most people try to put on a happy face and make the best of their lives, so many people are quietly suffering…

Bottom line

Details are emerging about what happened on Sunday night’s Horizon Air flight, where a commuting captain in the jump seat attempted to turn off the plane’s engines. The pilot had reportedly been depressed in recent months, and used psychedelics for the first time, leading to him not sleeping for a couple of days.

Immediately after the incident he realized he had made a horrible mistake, and he’ll be paying the price for that for quite some time…

What do you make of this situation?

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