Off-duty pilot told Horizon Air cockpit crew ‘I’m not okay,’ took psychedelic mushrooms before trying to shut off engines

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The harrowing encounter that nearly doomed a Horizon Air plane flying Sunday from Seattle to San Francisco began without warning when an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot from Pleasant Hill riding in a cockpit jump seat blurted out to the flight captain and first officer: “I’m not okay,” according to a federal court affidavit.

Joseph David Emerson, 44, then reached up and pulled red handles that cut off fuel to the plane’s engines, intended as an emergency safety measure if they catch fire, the affidavit said. The pilot grabbed Emerson’s wrist and the men “wrestled” for about 30 seconds, then Emerson “quickly settled down,” it said. The pilot asked Emerson to leave the cockpit, and Emerson left on his own, it said.

The plane landed in Portland, where officers arrested Emerson, 44, on charges of attempted murder, reckless endangerment and endangering an aircraft, and he was expected to be arraigned in court Tuesday.

Federal authorities have since charged Emerson with interfering with a flight crew that carries a sentence of up to 20 years if he’s convicted. The affidavit by FBI Special Agent TaPara Simmons Jr. was filed in support of those charges, and said Emerson “became depressed” about six months ago, talked to police aboutusing psychedelic mushrooms and “said it was his first-time taking mushrooms.” It was not clear from the affidavit whether Emerson was under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms during the flight.

The cockpit incident, which the affidavit said lasted only a minute and a half, shocked friends and neighbors who knew Emerson as a safety-conscious pilot and a devoted family man.

“He’s everything you would want to have in a good neighbor,” said longtime neighbor Karen Yee. “Great guy. Great family.”

Added Adam Silverthorne, president of the NRI Flying Club in Concord, where Emerson was a member and served as a flying instructor about five years ago: “It came as a shock. I’ve known him to be an upstanding citizen in every way.”

No one answered the door at Emerson’s home Monday and family members didn’t respond to requests for comment. It was unclear if he has a lawyer.

Emerson was riding in an extra “jump seat” in the cockpit of Horizon Air flight 2059, an Embraer 175 that left Everett, Washington, at 5:23 p.m. Sunday, headed for San Francisco.

Alaska Airlines, which owns Horizon Air, said in a revised statement Monday evening that Emerson had joined Alaska Air Group as a Horizon first officer in August 2001. In June 2012, he left Horizon to join Virgin America as a pilot. Following Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America in 2016, he became an Alaska Airlines first officer again and rose to 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 said.

Ross “Rusty” Aimer, president of Aero Consulting Experts, said jump-seat accommodations are a professional courtesy extended to off-duty U.S. pilots so they can travel to and from where they live and the flights they are working. The flight’s pilot, or captain, must clear the off-duty pilot to join the flight, and to sit in the cockpit.

According to the FBI affidavit, the flight 2059 pilot said he’d never met Emerson but that “there was zero indication of anything wrong” before the flight, and that Emerson engaged both pilots in “casual conversation about types of aircraft” and the weather.

That changed about 39 minutes into the flight, when Emerson suddenly threw his headset across the cockpit and said “I’m not okay,” then grabbed both the red engine shutoff handles, the affidavit said. The pilots kept Emerson from pulling the handles all the way — had he done so, it would have turned “the aircraft into a gliderwithin seconds.”

The pilots alerted flight attendants that Emerson was “losing it,” and they saw him “peacefully walking” toward the rear of the plane, the affidavit said, saying he’d “just got kicked out of the flight deck” and that “you need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.”

They escorted him to a flight attendant seat, secured the seat belt and put his hands in flex cuffs, the affidavit said. As the plane descended toward Portland, Emerson allegedly tried to grab an emergency exit handle, and told flight attendants that he “tried to kill everybody” and had “messed everything up.”

In a recorded statement to police after they had read him his rights, Emerson allegedly said he had not slept in 40 hours and was having a “nervous breakdown,” and was dehydrated and tired, the affidavit said.

“It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on,” Emerson was quoted telling police in the affidavit. “They didn’t…it didn’t seem right . . . Yah…I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

Though he denied taking any medication, he said he “became depressed” six months ago and “talked aboutthe use of psychedelic mushrooms,” and he “said it was his first-time taking mushrooms.” It wasn’t clear from the affidavit if that meant he was under the influence of mushrooms during the flight.

The affidavit said that Emerson told Port of Portland police “I’m admitting to what I did, I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys.”

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