Jumpseat Pilot Was Battling Depression


An Alaska Airlines off-duty pilot who tried to disable an aircraft on Sunday told investigators he had self-medicated with psilocybin (magic) mushrooms 48 hours before the incident to battle his escalating mental health issues. He had also not slept in 40 hours. In charging documents reviewed by the Associated Press it was revealed that Joseph David Emerson, 44, had a long history of depression and that before trying to pull the handles that cut fuel and power to the engines he told the on-duty pilots “I’m not OK.” Emerson pleaded not guilty to a total of 167 charges (one each of attempted murder and reckless endangerment for the 83 people onboard) and a single federal count of endangering an aircraft.

Emerson was deadheading in the jumpseat on the E175 when he reached for the fire suppression system for both engines. The documents say he only got them partway down before the flying pilots intervened and put them back in position. There was no interruption in power. The incident occurred over the coast of Oregon as the flight, operated by Horizon Airlines, made its way from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco. The pilots told investigators they struggled with Emerson for 30 seconds or less before he got up and left the flight deck on his own. Flight attendants said he told them, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.” They did put him in plastic restraints, but he tried to release an emergency exit door during the descent and a flight attendant had to intervene.

Emerson has been “relieved of all duties” and is being held in jail before his next court appearance. Magic mushrooms have been touted as a promising therapy for depression, but clinical trials have only started recently. Oregon legalized the mushrooms for adults but they remain a controlled substance in the rest of the country. It’s unlikely he was still impaired by the dose he took two days before the flight. Emerson’s most recent medical was in September.

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. Non to nitpick, but it appears he was commuting, not deadheading.

    Self-medicating with mushrooms, huh?

  2. As always Russ has some interesting articles for thought. Sadly, those who supervised him didn’t see the change in his behavior, prior to the incident. I will pray this gent gets the help he needs and that he can find a favorable career that allows him to live in peace.

    As far as the charges against him, I hoping some lawyer will have most of them dropped, not sure he needs prison time but rather some mental counseling. Started flying back in 1970 with the Marines and saw a few breakdowns with alcohol but never drugs.

    One thing is for sure, he should never be allowed back in a cockpit no matter what type of help he gets.

    • “I’m depressed and not allowed to receive proper treatment” is different. This guy needs professional treatment, not jail time. Jail time will not deter this behavior, but proper treatment will prevent this behavior.

      • Tell that to the 83 people he tried to kill. He needs to rot in a cell for many years. He can get his “treatment” from the prison shrink.

        • What is the societal benefit to locking up someone who is suffering from a medical condition? It obviously doesn’t deter others from doing the same thing, and it definitely doesn’t help the individual who did it to return to being a productive member of society.

          How do we prevent these things from happening again? The way we prevent it is to address the root cause, with is a mental health breakdown. That by its very nature means punitive punishment will not be effective.

          • WGAS. What ever happened to personal responsibility? Do the crime do the time….Period. All this snowflake touchy feely crap is great for a college classroom, but doesn’t do anything except solidify that people can do ANYTHING, claim a mental health issue and basically get away with it. BS! I bet if it were your family on that plane you’d be less “evolved” and more realistic in your thinking.

          • The goal should be to prevent something like this from happening again. Simply jailing someone who has an actual mental health issue will not accomplish that. If the guy survives his jail time and is released back into society without the treatment he needs, he’ll just do the same thing again (albeit not from inside the cockpit of an aircraft). That is the reality of only jailing mentally-ill people.

          • The societal benefit is that those pilots who are in need may now get past the fear of going to a shrink. On the other side, The FAA’s draconian approach to all illnesses needs to come into the 20th century.
            I would guess that more than 20% of professional pilots hide ailments from their AME’s. In their minds seems too risky to reveal these things that are being effectively treated by their Primary Care Doctor.
            This guy? He went waaaaayyy past that. Throw the book at this guy. Make him an example of the repercussions of ignoring these things.
            I have absolutely no sympathy for this guy. He was a professional pilot. He has taken yearly classes concerning recognition of depression issues. He holds many peoples lives in his hands every working day, in fact, several times a working day. Professional pilots are held to a higher standard. If there is a deviation from this standard then people die. Not just maybe die, no, people actually die. That is what he signed up for.
            I thought we were past this as a group. We went 0 tolerance on alcohol and drugs a while ago and it was a huge step forward for safety. The “old school” pilots were either fired or retired and the permissive culture was changed. Now I hear people say, “well he was depressed. Why didn’t anyone notice?” Indicating that somehow this is not his fault. Really? Kind of like people railing on about Fentanyl on the streets but saying absolutely nothing about the fact that the person purchased it and then stuck it into their body. But hey! The Cartel is 100% at fault.
            I’ll leave you with this. HE TOOK MUSHROOMS JUST PRIOR TO GOING TO WORK? Disgusting.

          • “We went 0 tolerance on alcohol and drugs a while ago and it was a huge step forward for safety.”

            It’s a forward step for safety only because most airlines have a very effective dependency treatment program where you get to *keep your job* provided you follow the program and don’t have any relapses. If it was instead “if we catch you drinking, you’re one-and-done without a job”, I can guarantee there would be a lot more pilots with dependency issues trying to hide it, rather than seeking help.

            So-called “zero tolerance” programs have been proven to be unsuccessful if they don’t have a method where the offender can seek treatment without fear of losing their job.

          • Can’t help but to think, somewhere in his mind he wanted to end it all in a glorious fashion. Where was his AME and General Practitioner? He is a pilot for pete’s sake.

  3. It seems this is yet another case of how the current FAA medical system is completely broken, and how it encourages pilots to hide medical conditions rather than seek treatment for them. The FAA’s virtual zero-tolerance for any mental health issue is completely contrary to public safety, and there will only be more instances of events like these until there is serious medical reform that *encourages* pilots to seek treatment without fear of losing their jobs. Sure, there will always be some conditions that simply won’t be compatible with flying, but all of the ones I can think of would have that person likely realize on their own that they shouldn’t be flying.

    • Gary. Thanks for this post. Absolutely true. I was a GA pilot with a third class. I asked my therapist to code my treatment in such a way that it wouldn’t affect my medical in case someone dug into it. There was never risk of mental health issues that would affect my flying but I didn’t want to lie on the form either. And BTW sorry you had to spar with previous poster, surprised you stayed on it as long as you did.

    • Yes. The problem is all the bureaucrats’ careers depend on avoiding blame, not actually reducing incidents. Their only constraint is not going so far they ground all the airlines.

  4. Well, obviously he lied on his Class 1 medicals given the alleged nature of his supposed stated background and psychological status for some time. Revoke all his certificates and give him psychiatric treatment while incarcerated.
    If he was jump seating to commute to a duty trip, as an F/O, under these conditions as stated, without sleep for 40 hours, and mentally impaired, the outcome might not have been as fortunate if he was part of a 2 person flight crew and he did the same actions.

  5. Mental illness isn’t a categorical description, as neat as say, appendicitis. Irrational behavior, similarly, isn’t as simple as good / bad. Plus, predictability isn’t 100% either.
    Punishing a person for assaulting someone, or committing a burglary is typically appropriate. However, if the person is really operating without full mental capacity, reflexively saying “punish him” is neither logical or humane. Do we punish people with broken arms because they cannot open a door?, for example, while exiting a building during a fire? That could be construed as attempting to murder the occupants who may be behind the person with the broken arm. And, yes, the FAA needs to become a bit more enlightened and educated about the intricacies of mental health and disordered perception and thinking that result from known and unknown causes.

  6. FYI, the half-life of psilocybin (actually, of psilocin, the active metabolite of psilocybin) is between two and three hours. So, after five half-lives (no more than about 15 hours), it’s 97% gone. So, it is unlikely that he was impaired by drug at the time of the incident.

    OTOH, not sleeping for 40 hours (if true in this case), will impair judgment in many (most?) humans and induce psychosis in a larger proportion of people than you might think (although data are sparse).

    And, yes, incarcerating persons who are mentally ill does little or nothing to deter other mentally ill persons from engaging in dangerous or sociopathic behaviors. I hear that treatment is more effective.

    Russ, please note the spelling error of “psilocybin” in your article.

    • Good point. The sleep deprivation itself would have been enough to trigger psychosis or hallucinations. If I’m reading the article correctly, he was jumpseating home after having operated revenue flights with so little sleep. Scary if true.

  7. I should have noted, “…unlikely that he was impaired pharmacologically by the drug he claimed to have taken some two days prior to the incident.”

  8. The guy needs serious mental health treatment, not punishment. In fact, I’m not sure he actually tried to kill the plane. After he was stopped, he requested he be put in handcuffs and told the flying crew, “I’m not ok”. He was not ok for a long time and sounds like the mushrooms pushed him over the top.

    • I agree. According to another article on the subject he walked himself out of the cabin and asked to be restrained- sounds like this guy was looking for help and wasn’t really about to kill 80+ people. He could have done worse things if he really meant it.

  9. A pilot I flew with regularly committed suicide. In retrospect he showed many signs of a manic depressive disorder. Looking back I knew something was wrong but never engaged with him or the company, something I deeply regret.

    We are our brothers keeper, but there is such a culture of shame around mental health issues, especially in aviation admitting you have a problem is hard, reporting problematic behavior in others almost impossible.

    I am relived that this incident ended uneventfully and hope he will receive the help he needs to return to being a productive citizen, albeit not in the cockpit.

  10. I don’t really know what to say here….

    depressed – bad
    self medicated – bad
    40 hours no sleep – bad
    someone said he had just flown as pilot in command on another flight, if true, – bad
    coping mechanism of shutting down engines – bad

    OTOH, i’m trying to Imagine the mental strength it would take to say, “Hey boss, I’m a depressed basket case and need meds and therapy, The FAA won’t let me do that and keep my job, so I guess i’ll just quit my career that’s the only thing i’m qualified to do. I’ll be screwed personally and lose everything i’ve worked for, but hey it’s for the best for society.” An incredibly strong mentally fit person in our self absorbed society would have an incredibly difficult time making that kind of self sacrifice, let alone a depressed, sleep deprived, hallucinogenic filled person. The older I get the more I see how life really sucks for some people.

    • Agreed. I don’t think anyone feels what he did was OK, but it’s certainly ok to feel sympathy for the guy and hope he receives the treatment he clearly needs.

      Every person has an eventual mental breaking point. Some just have lower thresholds than others, or are simply fortunate never to have been pushed to their limits.

  11. After the German Wings mass murder by a depressed pilot this is concerning in the extreme. If this guy was in command and flying when he broke this could have ended much differently. People who know this guy had to see problems or changes with his behavior and should have at a minimum contacted his airline.

    With all the close calls due to ATC and other issues our luck is running low, if you see big changes in someone’s personality or behavior who does safety sensitive work, speak up.

  12. I’m not sure how reports of unstable mental behavior could be fairly vetted. Anybody have a vengeful ex-spouse?

  13. Last time I check Jail is a deterrent. And is the cockpit really the place for people with mental health issues? Call me “crazy” but I’d rather see captain’s and first officers, sober, clear minded and stable. Flying isn’t a social program. Codling the weak is a receipt for disaster.

  14. Another mass killer strikes in Maine. According to many of you, we should give him a hug and treat his depression. Its all esoteric liberal blather until a tragedy happens and innocent people die! “I’m depressed” is not a legal defense. Lock these A-holes up and throw away the key. Or better yet, put a needle in their arm.