An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who tried to shut down the engines during a flight Sunday told investigators he had been sleep-deprived and dehydrated since consuming psychedelic mushrooms about 48 hours before boarding and had been depressed for a long time, federal court documents state.
The pilot, Joseph D. Emerson, 44, also told police in an interview after he was taken into custody that he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown,” according to federal court documents. He said he had been struggling with depression for about six years and that a friend had recently died.
The officer and Mr. Emerson “discussed the use of psychedelic mushrooms, and Emerson said it was his first time taking mushrooms,” according to federal documents. The documents do not specify the amount of psilocybin from the mushrooms he said he consumed, and it is not known whether the authorities gave him a drug test.
In the interview, Mr. Emerson also gave his version of what happened when he was riding in the cockpit in a jump seat, a common practice for off-duty pilots commuting to and from work.
“I wasn’t feeling well,” he told police, according to the federal complaint. “It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on.”
He also told police, according to the complaint, “I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanted to wake up.”
Mr. Emerson of Pleasant Hill, California, was charged in federal court on Tuesday on one count of obstructing crew members and attendants, prosecutors said.
He was also charged in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Ore., with 83 counts of attempted murder and one count of endangering an aircraft, court records show. During a brief court appearance on Tuesday, a lawyer entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
Mr. Emerson has been an airline pilot for more than two decades. During his career, he completed his required FAA medical certifications, and his certifications were never denied, suspended or revoked, Alaska Airlines said. Multnomah County court records show he has no criminal record.
On Sunday, Mr. Emerson rode in the seat of a jet, an Embraer 175, authorities said. Flight 2059, operated by Horizon Air, a regional subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, left Everett, Wash., at about 5:23 p.m. for San Francisco, with four crew members and 80 passengers on board.
There was no indication at first that anything was wrong with Mr. Emerson as he spoke to the two pilots about the weather and different types of aircraft, court documents said.
But when the plane was about halfway between Astoria, Ore., and Portland, one of the pilots saw Mr. Emerson throw his headphones over the cockpit and announce, “I’m not okay,” the complaint said. The pilot then saw Mr. Emerson try to grab the two red handles that had cut off the fuel to the engines, the complaint said.
After a brief physical struggle with the pilots, Mr. Emerson “quickly calmed down” and left the cockpit, according to the complaint.
Alaska Airlines said in a statement Monday that because “some residual fuel” remained in the line, “the quick response of our crew to reset the handles restored fuel flow and prevented a fuel shortage.”
If Mr. Emerson had successfully pulled the engine shutdown handles all the way, “he would have then shut off the hydraulics and fuel to the engines, turning the aircraft into a glider within seconds,” the complaint said.
As he walked to the back of the plane after leaving the cockpit, Mr. Emerson told the flight attendant, “You have to handcuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” the complaint said. After Mr. Emerson was restrained in the back of the plane, he tried to grab the emergency door handle but was stopped by a flight attendant, federal prosecutors said.
Another flight attendant heard Mr. Emerson “make statements like, ‘I messed everything up,’ and that he ‘tried to kill everyone,'” the complaint said.
The crew diverted the plane to Portland International Airport, where it landed safely around 6:30 p.m.
After being escorted off the plane, said passenger Aubrey Gavello ABC News: “The flight attendant came back on the loudspeaker and said, plain and simple, ‘He’s had a mental breakdown. We had to get him off the plane right away.’”
Mr. Emerson joined Horizon Air as a first officer in August 2001, Alaska Airlines said. In June 2012, he joined Virgin America as a pilot. When Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin in 2016, Mr. Emerson rejoined the company as Alaska Airlines’ first employee. In 2019, he became a captain, the company announced.
The pilot’s claim of using psilocybin mushrooms before boarding comes as psychedelics gain medical and legal acceptance, fueled by a growing body of research suggesting they can be used to treat mental disorders.
But experts were skeptical that Mr Emerson was still under the influence in the cockpit.
Juliana Mercer, a Marine Corps veteran in San Diego who has helped connect former military members with psychedelic therapies, said that in her experience, the effects of psychedelic mushrooms last no more than seven or eight hours and completely leave a person’s system within a day. .
“There is potential for paranoia,” Ms Mercer added, “but not 48 hours after consumption, unless there is underlying mental health.”
Bob Jesse, an advisor to the UC Berkeley Center for Psychedelic Science and the Johns Hopkins Center for Research on Psychedelics and Consciousness, said that by then, psilocybin will have long since disappeared from the body.
“But a powerful transient mental experience, drug or non-drug, could further destabilize someone who is already unstable or fragile,” Mr. Jesse said.
On January 1, Oregon became the first state to legalize the use of psilocybin mushrooms for adults. And voters in Colorado last year approved a measure to decriminalize them, setting the state on a path toward a legal therapeutic market. In other states, including Texas, lawmakers have approved studies to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. And the federal Food and Drug Administration has granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” status for research.