Charging papers say off-duty pilot who tried to cut engines told police he was having a breakdown

Claire Rush And Gene Johnson
Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who tried to cut the engines on a regional jet midflight on Sunday told police after his arrest that he believed he was having a nervous breakdown, thought he was dreaming when he pulled fire handles in the cockpit, and that he had experimented with psychedelic mushrooms recently as his mental health worsened, according to a federal complaint made public Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear from the court document if 44-year-old Joseph David Emerson was high on mushrooms when he was on the plane, but an FBI agent wrote in a probable cause affidavit that the pilot spoke with police about the use of psychedelic mushrooms and “said it was his first-time taking mushrooms.”
Emerson, of Pleasant Hill, California, was initially arrested in Oregon on Sunday night on state counts of attempted murder after the flight crew reported that he attempted to shut down the engines on a Horizon Air flight from Washington state to California while riding in the extra seat in the cockpit. The plane was diverted to Portland, where it landed safely with more than 80 people onboard.
A federal charge of interfering with a flight crew made public Tuesday said Emerson, who as an off-duty pilot was authorized to ride in the cockpit’s jump seat, made casual conversation with the captain and first officer when the plane was between Astoria, Oregon, and Portland, before trying to grab two red handles that would have activated the plane’s fire suppression system and cut off fuel to its engines.
After what the flight crew described as a brief struggle, lasting only about 30 seconds, Emerson left the cockpit, the FBI said.
Flight attendants placed Emerson in wrist restraints and seated him in the rear of the aircraft, but as the plane descended, he tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit, according to the document. A flight attendant stopped him by placing her hands on top of his, it said.
The Associated Press has been unable to contact Emerson’s family or others who might speak on his behalf. Court records did not indicate if he has obtained a lawyer.
When asked whether Emerson took psychedelic mushrooms right before the flight, Kevin Sonoff, the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon, said that was still under investigation.
The captain and first officer told police after the plane landed that Emerson said, “I’m not OK” just before he reached up to pull the handles. They were able to stop him before he pulled the handles all the way down, the affidavit said.
Emerson walked calmly to the back of the plane after being told to leave the cockpit and told a flight attendant, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” the affidavit said. Another flight attendant heard him saying, “I messed everything up” and “tried to kill everybody.”
According to the affidavit, he asked police if he could waive his right to an attorney: “I’m admitting to what I did. I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys.”
He also told them: “I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up,” the affidavit said.
Emerson was to remain in state custody pending an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Portland, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a news release.

Johnson reported from Seattle.