Charges Reduced For Pilot Accused Of Trying To Kill Plane's Engines Midflight

A grand jury has dropped 83 counts of attempted murder against an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who is accused of attempting to shut down a plane’s engines while riding in the cockpit, with the incident taking place after he said he consumed psychedelic mushrooms.

Joseph Emerson was instead indicted in Portland, Oregon, on a felony count of endangering an aircraft and 83 misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday.

The 44-year-old, who previously pleaded not guilty in the case, remains behind bars following the Oct. 22 scare involving a Horizon Air flight. In addition to the state charges, he faces a separate federal charge for allegedly interfering with flight crew members and attendants. He is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday on the newly reduced state charges.

Emerson said he was having a “nervous breakdown” and had recently consumed psychedelic mushrooms before attempting to pull emergency handles in the plane’s cockpit that would shut off fuel to the airliner’s engines, according to the previously filed federal complaint.

Joseph Emerson (left) is seen in a Portland, Oregon, court on Oct. 24.
Joseph Emerson (left) is seen in a Portland, Oregon, court on Oct. 24.

Joseph Emerson (left) is seen in a Portland, Oregon, court on Oct. 24.

In a later interview with The New York Times, Emerson said he never intended to hurt anyone and that he was struggling to discern reality after consuming the mushrooms two days earlier.

The mushrooms had been given to him during a memorial for a close friend who died, the Times wrote. It was his first time trying them, and he had six days until he had to fly again so he figured, as his friends assured, that it’d be OK, he said.

Instead, when he made his way to the airport to fly home, he said he felt extremely paranoid and like he was in a dream. He didn’t understand GPS directions in the car and didn’t recognize the other two pilots in the cockpit, which seemed strange and concerning to him.

He thought he could wake himself up from what he thought must be a dream, he said, by pulling the emergency fire-suppression handles.

“I thought it would stop both engines, the plane would start to head towards a crash, and I would wake up,” he told the Times from a county jail in Portland, where he was being held without bail.

One of the pilots managed to stop him from completely activating the fire suppression system. A pilot later told the FBI that if successful, he would have turned the plane “into a glider within seconds.”

According to the Times interview, Emerson’s therapist had believed he was depressed following his friend’s death. But Emerson said he was wary of taking antidepressants, fearing he could be grounded from flying under the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules. The FAA has a strict policy on prohibiting pilots with depression from flying or taking certain antidepressants.

One pilot, who recently spoke with Oregon Public Broadcasting under the condition of anonymity, said that they weren’t able to fly for years after taking antidepressants for six weeks due to all of the paperwork it created.

“The process is very time consuming and very expensive, and insurance will not pay for it because it’s an FAA issue,” the pilot said.

The FAA on Tuesday announced the establishment of a committee on pilots and mental health issues. The committee “will provide recommendations to the FAA on ways to identify and break down any remaining barriers that discourage pilots from reporting and seeking care for mental health issues,” the FAA said.

Multiple passengers on Emerson’s flight have filed a class-action lawsuit against Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines, an affiliate of the smaller, regional operator. The passengers accused the companies of failing to properly screen Emerson before he entered the cockpit.

The flight’s pilots had told law enforcement that Emerson appeared completely normal when he entered the aircraft. It wasn’t until after they had taken off that they said he declared he was “not OK” and reached for the handles, according to the federal criminal complaint.