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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off-duty pilot accused of trying to crash Horizon plane over Oregon says he thought he was dreaming or dead

Joseph David Emerson, 44, was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Tuesday, Oct. 24. Emerson, a pilot, is accused of attempting to disable the engines of a plane on which he was riding while off-duty last Sunday.  (Dave Killen/Oregonian)
By Douglas Perry Oregonian

“Is this real?” Joseph Emerson kept asking.

While being held in a detention room at Portland International Airport, the Alaska Airlines pilot said he stripped off his clothes and urinated on himself, hoping this would wake him up.

It didn’t work. He was already awake.

Earlier in the day on Oct. 22, while off-duty and flying in the cockpit jumpseat of a Horizon Air flight from Washington state to San Francisco, Emerson had attempted to shut down the plane’s engines. The crew managed to stop him, declared an emergency and redirected the plane to Portland, where police arrested Emerson.

In an interview with the New York Times, Emerson has now opened up about his state of mind when he was in the cockpit jumpseat and how it led to him facing 83 counts of attempted murder in Oregon state court.

Emerson was returning that October day from a gathering to honor a close friend who had died unexpectedly five years ago.

In the interview, he appeared to blame his actions aboard the plane on the lingering effects of taking psychedelic mushrooms at the gathering. Emerson became paranoid, convinced his friends there were making fun of him. He “felt fearful of them,” he said.

But then he became concerned that what he was experiencing wasn’t real – that he was dreaming. He found himself reliving the most traumatic, shameful moments of his life, he told the Times.

“Am I dead? Is this hell?” he said he wondered.

Emerson arrived at the Everett, Washington, airport early on Sunday, Oct. 22. Initial court records indicate he said he took the magic mushrooms about 48 hours before the flight. The New York Times article isn’t clear on the timeline, but it gives the impression he said he consumed the hallucinogenics the night before.

As he went through airport security and continued on to the plane that was supposed to take him home to California, he said nothing made sense. He was disoriented, confused by mundane observations, he said.

“I just want to hold you,” the 44-year-old pilot texted his wife as he settled into the cockpit jumpseat on Horizon Air Flight 2059, according to the Times.

He also texted a friend that he was having a panic attack. “Send love,” he wrote. “I need to be home.”

He still hasn’t made it home.

Instead, he remains in the county jail in downtown Portland.

He told police he had been battling depression for some time, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported last month. A recent Washington Post investigation found that many pilots who struggle with their mental health do not seek help, fearing it will result in their employer or the Federal Aviation Administration preventing them from flying for months.

Most mental health conditions, “if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying,” the FAA has stated, but many pilots believe otherwise.

As the plane flew over Oregon, Emerson, in his account, completely lost the thread attaching him to reality. He leaped out of his seat, declared, “I’m not okay!” and grabbed the emergency fuel-cutoff handles.

After the crew ejected him from the cockpit and a flight attendant put flex cuffs on him, he texted a group of friends: “I’m having a mental breakdown and tried to turn off both engines on my flight home.”

He told The New York Times that he spent five days after consuming the psychedelic mushrooms struggling to figure out what was real and what wasn’t. The effects of “magic” mushrooms typically only last a few hours, but experts say it depends on the size of the dose and other factors.

“I am horrified that those actions put myself at risk and others at risk,” Emerson said.

He has pleaded not guilty to the charges he faces.