• Washington Post

Off-duty Pilot Accused of Trying to Cut Plane’s Engines Caces 84 Counts

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo
An Alaska Airlines aircraft flies past the U.S. Capitol before landing at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., January 24, 2022.

A Multnomah County, Ore., grand jury on Monday indicted an off-duty pilot on 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of endangering an aircraft – but determined that he should not face attempted-murder charges – after he was accused of trying to shut down a plane’s engines during a flight in October.

Joseph David Emerson, 44, a pilot for Alaska Airlines, was flying in the jump seat in the cockpit of a San Francisco-bound Horizon Air flight Oct. 22 when authorities say he tried to shut down the plane’s engines by activating an emergency system. His attempt was thwarted by the plane’s pilots.

The flight was diverted to Portland International Airport, where Emerson was taken into custody. No injuries were reported.

Emerson told police he thought he was dreaming and was trying to wake up when he tried to grab two handles that activate the plane’s fire suppression system. He also told investigators he had been struggling with depression, had taken psychedelic mushrooms 48 hours earlier and hadn’t slept for 40 hours before he boarded the flight.

He is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday.

Emerson was initially charged with 83 felony counts of attempted murder, 83 misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment and one count of endangering an aircraft, a felony.

“The attempted murder charges were never appropriate in this case because Captain Emerson never intended to hurt another person or put anyone at risk – he just wanted to return home to his wife and children,” Emerson’s lawyers said in a statement. “Simply put: Captain Emerson thought he was in a dream; his actions were taken in a single-minded effort to wake up from that dream and return home to his family.”

Emerson’s attorneys said they were disappointed that he still faces charges in the case.

“Captain Emerson had no criminal intent, and we look forward to being able to present a fulsome defense at trial and bring forth all the facts and circumstances to a jury,” the statement said.

The incident prompted calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to reexamine the system it uses to evaluate pilot mental health. The agency established a committee that will recommend ways to remove barriers pilots face when reporting mental health concerns. The same committee also will look at similar issues facing air traffic controllers.

The National Transportation Safety Board has scheduled a summit for Wednesday on pilot mental health.

The FAA requires pilots to undergo a medical examination every six months to five years, depending on their age and type of flying they perform. Emerson, an experienced pilot who flew for Alaska and Virgin America, had been given his most recent medical exam in September, according to an FAA database.