Deadheading Pilot Tries To Douse Engines In Flight


The FAA says an Alaska Airlines pilot flying in the jumpseat of an Embraer E175 on Sunday tried to disable the engines on the aircraft by attempting to set off the fire extinguishers on both. The flight, operating as a Horizon Air service, was headed from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco and diverted to Portland. According to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Portland, Joseph David Emerson, 44, has now been charged with 83 counts each of attempted murder and reckless endangerment and one count of endangering an aircraft.

According to the Seattle Times, the FAA issued an alert on its Domestic Events Network, which is distributed to airlines, that a pilot passenger tried “to disable aircraft engines while at cruise altitude by deploying the engine fire suppression system.” To fully activate each system, a ceiling-mounted handle must be first pulled down. This cuts off fuel, electrical power and hydraulics to the engine. Twisting the handle then releases halon gas inside the engine to smother a fire.

It’s not clear at which point the pilots intervened, but there was no power loss according to the airline. “Fortunately some residual fuel remains in the line, and the quick reaction of our crew to reset the handles restored fuel flow and prevented fuel starvation,” Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Alexa Rudin told the Times. The FAA said the crew was then able to subdue the jumpseat passenger and get him out of the flight deck.

The story began making the rounds in social media late Sunday with a LiveATC clip (go to about 10:30) that captured a brief conversation between the captain and air traffic control after things had settled down. As the controller was directing the E175 to Portland for an emergency landing, he asked the crew about the “threat level” onboard. “I’ll just give you a heads-up. We’ve got the guy that tried to shut the engines down out of the cockpit,” a pilot told the controller. “It doesn’t seem like he’s causing any issue at the back. I think he’s subdued. Other than that, we want law enforcement as soon as we get on the ground and parked.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. News agencies say that it was on a Horizon aircraft. This had me believing it was on an Alaskan Airline jet.
    I’d imagine a change in company policy that halts who can occupy the jump seat will start popping up.

    • Or a terrorist organization member? They are amongst us, independently of their nationality, either we recognize it or not.

      • So, in your mind, this is more likely a terrorist than a mental problem because:
        1) Rather than crashing an airliner he was actually PIC/SIC of (perhaps where the pilot non flying went to the bathroom and the cockpit door barred and locked) he waited to try on another airplane with two other pilots there to stop him.

        2) Slow power-out glides likely to a safe landing are such effective propaganda for terrorists as opposed to slamming his plane something.

        I’m glad we’ve got your keen eye finding the terrorists among us.

  2. “Deadheading,” is a time honored tradition, and a great benefit for employees. This idiot risks the policy for everyone – always someone ready to piss in the well.

    • This would cause a lot of disruption if off-airline jumpseating went away. Lots of pilots rely on that to get to work. Especially lately now that flights seem to be full or oversold all the time.

    • Correct!
      I’ve given up a confirmed seat in the cabin while deadheading and taken the jumpseat so a paying passenger could take my cabin seat. Only proper. Jumpseat=good thing.
      Several truths in this story jump out at the reader:
      1. This is not a unique situation. Ala German Wings, Federal Express, and others.
      2. The media (as usual) cannot distinguish between a major airline and a regional. Anyone who has been through the interview process knows.
      3. The FAA will be under pressure to “do something.” Knee-jerk reactions to single events (or rare events) usually don’t work.
      4. My primal inner self hopes that the crew beat the living daylights out of this ne’er-do-well while “restraining him!”

  3. Apparently just went looney according to another article I read. And with that, nothing can be prepared for. If he is a certified Company PIC, then you can’t let him be Capt when scheduled and not permitted in the jump seat otherwise.

  4. Wonder what his end-game was. In a Twin Otter, I once had a pilot-passenger pull the master warning and fire bell switch (located out of sight in the overhead panel, behind and to the right of me) just before rotation on a very short grass runway. My morning coffee must have kicked-in by then because I realized it had to be a spurious error, since all alarms can’t go off simultaneously. I looked back and, well, if looks could kill…. anyhow, I carried on with the takeoff.

  5. I don’t have much sympathy for potential loss of jumpseat “privileges”. Unless airline pilots can go to work online :-), they should live where they can be assured to get to work like the rest of us employees.

    • A pilot’s career path takes him or her through many different airplanes an/or ‘seats’, meaning Captain or First Officer seat in any given airplane. Frankly, flight attendants face the same situation. Assignments for each plane or seat can be exclusive to specific bases and widely scattered across entire countries, or the world. With respect, this provides a challenge to family life and other practical considerations for pilots as well as flight attendants in comparison to a ground job where you can be trained to handle multiple types of planes that come through a given city. If you start telling crews they have to relocate every time their base is moved, often without choice, many will decline advancements or leave the industry completely. At a time when staffing is thin to begin with, that would be very bad for everyone. While being able to commute by plane may seem like a privileged policy to those who don’t do it, it is more often a means to maintain a respectable quality of life and family integrity in a dynamic industry. Try to look at the other side of the coin. Most crewmembers would love to be based at a fixed location for more of their career and be able to advance, but it isn’t the nature of the job. Commuting by plane is not enjoyable, but neither is picking up you family and moving them every year or two.

    • Live where they work? Seriously? So, a pilot starts his day in Sacramento, flies to Houston, then ends his day in Miami. Does this run multiple times per month. Where does he work?

      • Where ever he is based. You’d be surprized at the percentage of pilots that don’t live near their base. It’s considered normal.

      • It’s been kept this way because of union seniority rules.

        For industries without such market intervention, many pilots would simply change jobs more often. This would cause salaries to be pushed up and down though, and older pilots wouldn’t have as much pricing power over their salaries.

        Also, I suspect when GA was healthy, a lot more pilots flew piston planes to commute, but good luck flying your spam can into a major airport and parking it there while you work anymore. I talked to a charter pilot the other day who actually drives almost an hour to work even though he lives a couple blocks from an airstrip and owns a Mooney.

  6. Unless I missed it in the comments, nobody said anything about the fact that he chose to do this as he was jump seating instead assigned to a flight where there would have been only one other crew member in the cockpit to handle a lunatic and the and the fire suppression handles.

  7. The fire protection system sends gas into the cowling area surrounding the engine, not into the engine itself, inside the engine is supposed to be on fire, the surrounding external area is not