Pilot charged with trying to crash plane appears to have ties to University of North Dakota

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GRAND FORKS — An off-duty pilot from California who allegedly tried to crash a plane with 80 passengers on board appears to have ties to University of North Dakota (UND), a university that in recent years has recognized the importance of mental health care for pilots.

Joseph David Emerson, 44, appears to be a UND alumnus, according to Grand Forks Herald graduation and dean’s list archives, as well as David Dodds, UND communications director.

Dodds confirmed that a Joseph David Emerson attended UND from 1997 to 2001, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration in aviation management, but he said “any connection by this individual to the incident … would have to be confirmed by proper authorities, including the Federal Aviation Administration.”

Herald archives show Joseph Emerson on the dean’s list in a report published in March 2000, as well as the graduation of Joseph Emerson, of Cheney, Washington, in a list published on July 1, 2001.

On Sunday, Oct. 22, Horizon Air Flight 2059 — Horizon Air is a regional carrier owned by Alaska Airlines — was traveling from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, as reported by numerous news agencies. Emerson, off-duty at the time, was seated in the flight deck jump seat behind the crew when he allegedly tried to shut down the aircraft’s engines, according to a pilot’s air traffic control statement.

The attempt was unsuccessful, and Emerson was subdued.

Emerson was booked in Portland, Oregon, after the aircraft made an emergency landing. He is charged with 83 counts of Class A felony attempted murder, one count of Class C felony endangering an aircraft and 83 counts of Class A misdemeanor reckless endangerment.

From July to December 2020, Emerson used social media to share concerns about the aviation industry, which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The future of air travel remains highly depressed,” he wrote in December 2020. “Immediate relief for the airline industry is critical.”

He tagged multiple political figures in the post, asking them to support the economic rebuilding of the airline industry.

“Don’t let our voices go unheard!” he wrote.

Sunday’s Alaska Airlines incident happened just days after the two-year anniversary of a UND aviation student’s plane crash death near Buxton, North Dakota. A final report from the National Transportation Safety Board later confirmed what loved ones already suspected about the crash: it was intentional. John Hauser, 19, died by suicide.

In the wake of Hauser’s death, UND arranged an Aviation Mental Health Summit, held in Chicago. As reported at the time by the Herald, UND administrators met with representatives from several other colleges with flight training programs, members of the FAA and the Airline Pilots Association. UND aerospace students, faculty and administrators participated online from the Memorial Union’s ballroom.

“Countering myths with factual evidence should help reduce the stigma of seeking help,” UND Dean of Aerospace Robert Kraus said after the event, as quoted by the website UND Today. “And providing a confidential and trusted network of peers, mentors, or professional counselors will get people the help they need when they need it. The hope is that we can instill a culture of talking early and talking often.”

At the event, according to UND Today, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said: “For many years, being honest about mental health has been one of those risky areas. But I’m here to tell you that it’s a perceived risk, and we’re doing our best at the FAA to make that very clear. … The important thing to stress to our pilots is to please ask for help.”

It’s unclear whether mental health issues played a role in Sunday’s incident. The airline seems to have had no concerns about Emerson prior to that day.

“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,” read a statement the airline issued on Monday.

Emerson’s FAA airman details report shows his most recent airline transport pilot certificate was issued on July 10. His medical information is dated back to last month and doesn’t reference any notable issues.

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