Off-duty pilot took psychedelic mushrooms 48 hours before flight, prosecutor says

Joseph David Emerson, left, 44, was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Tues., Oct. 24, 2023, in Portland, Ore. Emerson, a pilot, is accused of attempting to disable the engines of a plane on which he was riding while off-duty last Sunday. Emerson pleaded not guilty Tuesday. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP, Pool)
Joseph David Emerson, left, is arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Oct. 24 in Portland, Ore. Emerson, a pilot, is accused of attempting to disable the engines of a plane on which he was riding while off-duty on Sunday. Emerson pleaded not guilty. (Dave Killen / Associated Press)

The flight started normally, with two pilots and an off-duty colleague in the cockpit talking about the weather as they took off from Seattle for San Francisco a few minutes ahead of schedule.

But the Horizon Air flight ended about as strangely as it could: An emergency landing in Portland, Ore. The off-duty pilot handcuffed and strapped to a seat in the back of the plane after allegedly trying to shut off fuel to the engine. And an investigation by the FBI into whether he was on psychedelic mushrooms during the flight.

"This event is a unicorn," said Robert Ditchey, an aviation expert and former executive at numerous airlines. "It is almost unthinkable to me."

Federal prosecutors in Oregon charged Joseph Emerson, 44, with interference with flight crew members and attendants. Emerson, an Alaska Airlines pilot of 22 years, was arrested after crew members detained him Sunday following an outburst in the cockpit in which he "tried to kill everybody" on the flight, prosecutors alleged in court papers. Horizon Air is a regional carrier owned by the parent company of Alaska Airlines.

Read more: Off-duty pilot booked on 83 counts of attempted murder after allegedly trying to shut down plane's engines

The FBI said in a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday that it is investigating whether Emerson was on psychedelic mushrooms, an official told The Times. In the complaint, an agent revealed that Emerson told investigators about his use of psychedelics and said "it was his first time taking mushrooms."

But FBI officials declined to confirm that Emerson had taken mushrooms at the time of the midair incident.

"It is vague in [the complaint], but that is part of what [the] FBI is investigating," said Joy Jiras, an FBI Portland field office spokesperson. "The FBI is investigating the timeline of his use of magic mushrooms. We are trying to figure out whether he was on them that day or whether they were in his system or not."

In an affidavit filed in state court, the Multnomah County district attorney said Emerson told officers he had consumed magic mushrooms 48 hours prior to the midair incident.

An officer who spoke to Emerson said he did not observe the off-duty pilot to be "outwardly under the influence of intoxicants," the affidavit said.

It was the rarest of rare occurrences, experts said, but recalled similarities to a suicidal Germanwings pilot in 2015 who locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit and crashed the plane into a mountain, killing everyone on board.

Emerson had been flying in the "jump seat," a foldout seat usually placed behind the captain's seat, according to experts.

"I am not OK," Emerson said during the flight after he had been casually engaging the two pilots in conversation, according to the complaint.

Both pilots then saw Emerson grab on to the red fire handles, also known as the "T-handles," which are used to extinguish engine fires and shut off all fuel to the engines, potentially turning the plane into a glider, the pilots told federal investigators.

"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," Alaska Airlines said in a statement.

Read more: Unruly airplane passengers disrupting more flights, despite FAA's zero-tolerance policy

One pilot struggled with Emerson for about 25 or 30 seconds before the off-duty pilot "quickly settled down," according to the complaint.

The other pilot saw Emerson throw his headset across the cockpit before saying he was not OK.

The pilots said the interaction with Emerson lasted about 90 seconds before they were able to remove him and secure the cockpit, according to the complaint.

Flight attendants then saw Emerson "peacefully walking to the back of the aircraft," the complaint said. They had received a call from the pilots saying that Emerson was "losing it," and he told one attendant that he "just got kicked out of the flight deck," according to investigators.

"You need to cuff me right now, or it's going to be bad," he told the attendant.

He was cuffed and seated in the back of the plane, according to the complaint, where he tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit before he was stopped by a crew member.

Read more: Man who crashed into Chinese Consulate in San Francisco was armed with knife and crossbow

Another crew member said that Emerson made statements about how "he tried to kill everybody," the complaint said.

"The flight attendant noticed Emerson take out his cellular phone and appeared to be texting on the phone. Emerson was heard saying he had just put 84 peoples’ lives at risk tonight including his own," FBI Agent Tapara Simmons wrote in the complaint.

After the plane made an emergency landing in Portland, Emerson was detained. He told police he had become depressed six months ago, according to the complaint.

Alaska Airlines said in a statement that Emerson had completed his mandated Federal Aviation Administration medical evaluations and was never suspended from the job.

Emerson also told investigators that he was in the midst of a "nervous breakdown" and that he had not slept in 40 hours, according to the complaint.

He talked with the officer about "the use of psychedelic mushrooms" and said "it was his first time taking mushrooms."

“I’m admitting to what I did. I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys," he told police, according to the complaint.

Emerson was booked by police in Multnomah County on suspicion of 83 counts of attempted murder. It was unclear whether the state case would continue in light of federal charges.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.