Pilot who allegedly tried to shut off engines hadn’t slept in 40 hours: Authorities

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(PORTLAND, Ore.) — Stunning new details emerged Tuesday in the terrifying incident aboard an Alaska Airlines plane where an off-duty pilot is accused of trying to shut down the engines mid-flight.

Joseph David Emerson, who was en route to fly another plane on Sunday, had not slept for 40 hours and had discussed using psychedelic mushrooms, according to a criminal complaint.

At the time of the incident, off-duty captain Emerson was sitting in the flight deck jump seat, which is in the cockpit, Alaska Airlines said.

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.

He allegedly said, “I’m not OK,” and reached up to grab the red fire handles, according to the criminal complaint.

But Emerson was “unable” to pull the red T-handles down all the way and fully activate the engine shutoff because of the pilots “wrestling with Emerson,” the complaint said.

From the time Emerson said, “I’m not OK” to when he exited the cockpit was about 90 seconds, the complaint said.

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.

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.

Emerson allegedly told one flight attendant that “he just got kicked out of the flight deck” and “you need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” the complaint 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.

Alaska Airlines said Tuesday that Emerson was “removed from service indefinitely and relieved from all duties at Alaska Airlines,” and it was “consulting with our partners in labor regarding his employment status,” pending the investigation.

Emerson allegedly told officers he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown,” the complaint said.

According to the complaint, he allegedly said, “I pulled both emergency shut-off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

Emerson also stated he became depressed about six months ago, according to the complaint.

The FBI is investigating when exactly he allegedly took the mushrooms, according to a source familiar with the investigation. They’re trying to figure out whether this was a psychedelic trip, a mental health crisis or something else, the source said.

Alaska Airlines said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that it was “deeply disturbed” by the allegations revealed in the criminal complaint. It noted that the airline’s flight attendants and gate agents are trained to “identify signs and symptoms of impairment.”

“At no time during the check-in or boarding process did our Gate Agents or flight crew observe any signs of impairment that would have led them to prevent Emerson from flying on Flight 2059.

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.”

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.”

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