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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pilot accused of trying to crash a plane tells his story

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 07: An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport on March 07, 2022 in San Francisco, California. Airline stocks fell sharply on Monday as jet fuel prices surged to their highest level in thirteen years hampering airline efforts to rebound from two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)  (Justin Sullivan)
By Mike Baker New York Times

PORTLAND – In the minutes before he boarded an Alaska Airlines flight home last month, Joseph Emerson, a pilot for the airline, texted his wife. He was eager to be home with their two young children and her.

The flight was full, and Emerson was off duty, so he settled into the cockpit jump seat, making small talk with the pilots as the plane climbed southward out of Everett.

The plane reached cruising altitude and crossed into Oregon on its way to San Francisco. But Emerson appeared to grow agitated, throwing off his headset, the other pilots told authorities later. “I’m not OK,” he told them.

Emerson suddenly reached up and yanked the plane’s two fire-suppression handles – designed to cut the fuel supply and shut down both engines. The pilots snatched his wrists, wrestling his hands away in a frantic attempt to avert disaster. They radioed that the flight needed to make an emergency diversion to Portland, Oregon.

In his first interview since the Oct. 22 incident, Emerson painted a terrifying picture of the hourlong flight, one where he was overcome with a growing conviction that he was only imagining the journey and needed to take drastic action to bring the dream to an end.

“I thought it would stop both engines, the plane would start to head towards a crash, and I would wake up,” he said, speaking in a cramped visitation room at the county jail in Portland, where he was being held without bail.

Upon landing, police officers took Emerson, 44, into custody, and Multnomah County prosecutors charged him with 83 counts of attempted murder – one for every passenger and crew member he was accused of trying to kill. Separately, federal prosecutors accused him of interfering with a flight crew.

Emerson’s account of what happened during the flight is corroborated in its key details by what flight attendants and pilots told the police, as well as text messages and his wife’s description of her conversations with her husband both before and after the flight. Prosecutors did not discuss the case beyond the charging documents.

Emerson, who has pleaded not guilty, said he had no intention of hurting anyone that day. Instead, he said, he was desperate to awaken from a hallucinogenic state that had consumed him since taking psychedelic mushrooms two days earlier, during a weekend getaway with friends to commemorate the death of his best friend. It was a loss that had plunged him into deep grief and triggered a search for help with what he realized were long-standing mental health issues.

For decades, the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded pilots dealing with depression or other mental diagnoses, with policies so strict that the decision to seek psychiatric help or a prescription for standard antidepressant medication is enough to trigger a suspension of their flight eligibility. It is a system that has left many pilots, including Emerson, to struggle largely alone.

“A lot of us aren’t as forthcoming as we otherwise would be,” Emerson said.

As a child, Emerson had such a deep fascination with airplanes that his friend’s father helped organize an introductory flight for him in fifth grade. The instructor flew over Emerson’s house, and by the time they were back on the ground, the boy knew what his future would be.

After college, Emerson began working as a commercial pilot. By 2015, Emerson was tapped to begin working as an instructor.

But in 2018, his life was jolted by the sudden death of his closest friend, Scott Pinney, who had been best man at his wedding and died while jogging during a work trip to Hawaii.

Emerson had been through counseling in the past, he said, beginning in childhood to help deal with brutal teasing at school and later as a way to better himself and his marriage. But Pinney’s death left him dealing with what his therapist said looked like depression. He did some research and learned that taking any medication would most likely ground him from flying for a prolonged period of time.

For decades, the FAA banned pilots with depression from flying and prohibited them from using prescription treatments, even common antidepressants, hoping to avoid suicide attempts or other mental breakdowns in the cockpit. Pilots undergo regular medical assessments in which they must disclose to the FAA a range of medical diagnoses, including depression or anxiety, and document the health professionals they have consulted. Such a strict system led many pilots to avoid both consultation and treatment.

Alaska Airlines said that Emerson completed his medical certifications throughout his career, “and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked.” In an email Thursday, the company said that “more can be done” to support pilot mental health.

In October, Emerson and several friends gathered on a remote property in Washington’s scenic Methow Valley to honor Pinney’s life. One night, someone had the idea of taking psychedelic mushrooms. Emerson had never tried them; he would often avoid even secondhand marijuana smoke in case it showed up in a drug test. He said his friends assured him they were safe, did not last a long time and would not show up on a drug test. He was not scheduled to fly again for six days.

He ate a bit of the mushrooms. But as the others started going to bed that night, Emerson said, he began to feel a deep unease. He woke up the next morning desperate to return home. He spent the day with a nagging sense that he was locked in purgatory.

For many people, the acute effects of a psychedelic trip last for several hours. But as a legal therapeutic market for mushrooms recently launched in Oregon, some researchers have cautioned that psychedelics may have prolonged effects for those vulnerable to a psychotic disorder.

Having had little sleep, Emerson departed the getaway with a friend Sunday and made his way to the airport in Everett, still with the recurrent feeling that none of what was happening was real.

As the plane took off, he said, with him in the cockpit, he struggled to understand the pilots’ response to a report of mild turbulence ahead. Were these really pilots? Was he still dreaming?

He threw off the headset and yelled at the pilots for help. When nothing happened, Emerson said, he panicked, convinced he was indeed imagining the whole thing. He needed to wake himself up.

He grabbed the engine shut-off handles, located just above the jump seat where he was sitting.

The pilots sprang into action, grabbing his wrists. They pushed the emergency handles back into place, acting before the engines were starved of fuel.

Temporarily jarred back to reality, Emerson recalls leaving the cockpit, closing the door, asking a flight attendant for help and walking to the back of the plane.

The pilots turned toward Portland, looking for a place to make a swift landing, and called for the aid of law enforcement.

At the back of the plane, Emerson asked a flight attendant to restrain him. Crew members affixed a set of flex cuffs, connected in the front, that still allowed Emerson some movement.

When the plane landed, a line of law enforcement officers moved in to take him into custody.

He still could not shake his sense of confusion. One officer reported in documents that Emerson asked if their conversation was real. When the officer replied that it was, Emerson told him, “If this is real, and all of that was real, then I have done something to me that is unfathomable.”

Held in a detention room at the airport, he recalls stripping naked, trying to jump out a window – all in hopes of waking up.

At his court arraignment two days after his arrest, Emerson said, he was still struggling to determine whether the proceedings and his lawyers were real. It was not until Wednesday, five days after consuming the mushrooms, he said, that things started to become clearer.

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

What happens next, he said, is out of his hands. He understands that however it ends, life may never be the same as it was before he boarded that plane.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever fly an airplane again,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.