The off-duty Alaskan Airlines pilot arrested on Sunday for allegedly trying to shut down the engines of a fully occupied passenger flight in midair has been charged in federal court.
Joseph Emerson of Pleasant Hill, California, was charged with one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants, according to a statement from the District of Oregon Department of Justice.
Emerson, 44, was riding in the cockpit jump seat as a passenger on Horizon Air flight 2059 — an affiliate of Alaska Airlines — when he attempted to shut down the plane’s engines during a flight that departed from Seattle Paine Field International Airport and was scheduled to land at San Francisco International Airport.
Emerson was sitting in the jump seat located in the cockpit just behind the captain and first officer flying the jet. Pilots commonly ride in the jump seat to hitch a free ride when traveling personally or professionally.
Airline officials said in a news release following the incident that the pilots were forced to divert the aircraft to Portland International Airport in Oregon for an emergency landing because of “a credible security threat related to an authorized occupant in the flight deck jump seat.”
“The jump seat occupant unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt the operation of the engines,” the airline said in a portion of the news release reported by NBC. “The Horizon Captain and First Officer quickly responded, engine power was not lost and the crew secured the aircraft without incident.”
Federal authorities said the incident began halfway between Astoria, Oregon, and Portland.
“Emerson attempted to grab and pull two red fire handles that would have activated the plane’s emergency fire suppression system and cut off fuel to its engines. After a brief physical struggle with the pilots, Emerson exited the cockpit,” authorities said.
During the flight’s descent into Portland, authorities said a flight attendant had to stop Emerson from attempting to grab another emergency exit handle after other attendants had already placed Emerson in wrist restraints and seated him in the rear of the aircraft.
Alaska Airlines released a follow-up statement on Monday night identifying Emerson, saying he tried to shut the engines down by engaging the Engine Fire Handle, also known as the fire suppression system.
“The fire suppression system consists of a T-handle for each engine,” the statement read in part. “If the T-handle is fully deployed, a valve in the wing closes to shut off fuel to the engine. In this case, the quick reaction of our crew to reset the T-handles ensured engine power was not lost.”
Audio recorded by LiveATC.net revealed that Seattle-area air traffic controllers were alerted about the attempt to turn off the plane’s engines.
“We’ve got the guy that tried to shut the engines down out of the cockpit, and he doesn’t sound like he’s causing any issues in the back right now,” the pilot told Seattle-area air traffic controllers in audio recorded by LiveATC.net. “I think he’s subdued. Other than that, we want law enforcement as soon as we get on the ground and are parked.”
Upon arrival, the Port of Portland Police Department arrested Emerson for trying to seize control of the flight filled with 80 passengers on board, including lap infants, two pilots, and two flight attendants in the passenger cabin, according to local media.
Emerson was charged with 83 felony counts of attempted murder, 83 counts of reckless endangerment, and one count of endangering an aircraft, according to Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office booking records.
Emerson remains in custody in Multnomah County on a federal hold pending his first appearance in federal court on a later date.
According to court documents reported by ABC, Emerson told police he has been struggling with depression for six months and hadn’t slept in almost two days. He said he told the flight attendants to restrain him and said to authorities he was having a “nervous breakdown.”
Emerson also claimed to have used psychedelic mushrooms and wanted to wake up from what he thought was a dream.
Aubrey Gavello, a passenger on the plane, told ABC that a flight attendant alerted the other passengers that Emerson had suffered a mental breakdown.
“After we did land and the gentleman was escorted off, the flight attendant got back on the speaker and said, plain and simple, ‘He had a mental breakdown,'” Gavello said. “We needed to get him off the plane immediately.”
Alaska Airlines said in a statement reported by the Daily Mail that the crew responded without hesitation to the “difficult and highly unusual situation.”
“All passengers on board were able to complete their journey with a new crew and aircraft,” the statement continued. “We are grateful for the patience of our guests throughout this event and are reaching out to each of them individually to discuss their experience and check-in on their well-being.”
According to the airline, Emerson joined Alaska Air Group as a Horizon First Officer in August 2001. He left the company in June 2002 to join Virgin America as a pilot. After Alaska acquired Virgin America in 2016, Emerson became an Alaska Airlines First Officer.
He later 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,” the statement said.