Off-duty pilot accused of trying to crash passenger flight told police he thought he was dreaming

ByDan Noyes KGO logo
Tuesday, October 24, 2023
What we know about Bay Area pilot involved in mid-air scare
Here's what we know about Joseph David Emerson, the pilot accused of trying to shut off the engines of an Alaska Airlines flight.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The off-duty pilot accused of trying to crash an Alaska Airlines passenger plane allegedly tried to shut down the engines "by engaging the Engine Fire Handle," according to the airline.

The fire suppression system on the plane consists of a T-valve handle for each engine, and if those handles are fully deployed, a valve in the wing closes to shut off fuel to the engine, Alaska Airlines said.

The "quick reaction of our crew to reset the T-handles ensured engine power was not lost," Alaska Airlines said.

At the time of the Sunday incident, off-duty captain Joseph David Emerson was sitting in the flight deck jump seat, which is in the cockpit, Alaska Airlines said. Emerson was heard in the moments prior to the incident saying something similar to, "I'm not right," preliminary information obtained by investigators indicated, according to a federal official briefed on the probe.

Emerson engaged with the pilots in "casual conversation" before allegedly trying "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," prosecutors said.

RELATED: Alaska Airlines passengers describe Bay Area pilot's demeanor, moments leading up to arrest

Passengers who were onboard Alaska Airlines describe what led up to the off-duty pilot arrest after he allegedly tried to shut down the engines.

"After a brief physical struggle with the pilots, Emerson exited the cockpit," prosecutors said.

The flight was en route from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco when it diverted to Portland, Oregon, the airline said. Emerson was scheduled to be on a flight crew of a 737 leaving San Francisco, according to a federal official.

Flight attendants put Emerson in wrist restraints and sat him in the back of the plane, prosecutors said.

As the plane descended, Emerson allegedly "tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit" but was stopped by a flight attendant, prosecutors said.

Emerson was taken into custody in Portland and faces charges, including 83 counts of attempted murder, according to officials. He is due in court on Tuesday afternoon, ABC News reported.

According to court documents, Emerson told police he hadn't slept in 40 hours, and started suffering from depression six months ago.

He also told flight attendants to restrain him, told police he was having a "nervous breakdown," discussed use of psychedelic mushrooms and said he thought he was dreaming and just wanted to wake up.

The FBI is investigating when exactly he took the mushrooms, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

There were 80 passengers and four crew members on the flight, according to Alaska.

"We didn't know anything was happening until the flight attendant got on the loudspeaker and made an announcement that there was an emergency situation and the plane needed to land immediately," passenger Aubrey Gavello told ABC News, "... About 15 minutes later, she got back on and said that there was a medical emergency."

Passenger Alex Wood said the pilot announced that "there was a disturbance in the cockpit."

Gavello said she heard a flight attendant tell the suspect, "We're going to be fine, it's OK, we'll get you off the plane."

"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. We needed to get him off the plane immediately,'" Gavello said.

Alaska said Emerson joined the carrier as a Horizon First Officer in 2001. He then left the airline in 2012 to join Virgin America as a pilot.

Emerson returned to Alaska in 2016 when the carrier acquired Virgin America and he became a Captain with Alaska in 2019, the airline said.

Alaska said during Emerson's time with the carrier he "completed his mandated FAA medical certifications in accordance with regulatory requirements, and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked."

The event is being investigated by law enforcement, the airline said. The FBI said it "can assure the traveling public there is no continuing threat related to this incident."

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement to carriers that the incident is "not connected in any way shape or form to current world events."

ABC San Francisco affiliate KGO I-Team reporter Dan Noyes looked into Emerson's background to see if there were any warning signs that may have led to the close call in the cockpit.

A comprehensive records search showed no criminal record, tax liens, or divorce proceedings.

RELATED: Audio reveals moments after off-duty pilot allegedly tried to shut down engines of SF-bound flight

Here's the Air Traffic Control audio recording moments after off-duty pilot allegedly attempted to shut down an Alaska Airline plane's engines.

He was born in Washington State and moved to Contra Costa County in 2008.

He has a wife who teaches at Peralta Community College and two young sons. He owns his home in Pleasant Hill, California. On Monday, neighbors were struggling to make sense of what happened.

RELATED: Expert shows how off-duty pilot was able to reach controls to shut off Alaska flight's engines

"He's never had a negative statement about his job or anything like that," said one neighbor.

"Yeah, he's very understanding... we have a grandson with special needs and he's very good to him, so we just can't imagine him doing anything that would hurt anyone," said another neighbor.

He was active on X, formerly known as Twitter, during the pandemic, discussing Alaska Airlines pilots being furloughed. He wrote in December 2020, "The future of air travel remains highly depressed. Immediate relief for the airline industry is critical."

And one of his Facebook posts especially struck Noyes: "I tell my son every night, 'Every day is another gift of this great adventure called life, good, bad, happy, sad. All are equally important.'"

RELATED: Off-duty pilot tried to take control of SF-bound flight, charged with 83 counts of attempted murder

ABC7 News has reached out to Emerson's family for comment but have not heard back.

ABC News' Amanda Maile and Emily Shapiro contributed to this report.

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