Pilot Tried To Shut Off Engines To Escape Hallucinogenic Dream


The Alaska Airlines pilot who tried to shut off the engines from a flight deck jump seat says his earlier consumption of magic mushrooms triggered deep-seated mental issues that put him in a dreamlike state. In an exclusive interview with The New York Times, Joseph Emerson, who was the safety representative for Alaska’s San Francisco-based pilots, said he tried to deploy the engine fire suppression systems for both engines on the E175 to snap out of the hallucinogenic state. “I thought it would stop both engines, the plane would start to head towards a crash, and I would wake up,” he told the Times.

Instead, the on-duty pilots flying the plane wrenched his hands from the ceiling-mounted handles and restored fuel flow before the engines were affected. Emerson ran out of the flight deck and essentially surrendered to flight attendants who put his hands in plastic restraints. Emerson said he was profoundly affected by the death of his closest friend and was at a memorial weekend getaway for him when he sampled the mushrooms. He’d not been feeling like himself after the friend’s death but avoided discussing his potential depression for fear of losing his flight privileges. He’s now being held without bail on 83 counts of attempted murder, one for each of the people on the plane.

His interview came as the FAA and Congress are discussing pilot mental health and ways to allow pilots who suspect they need help to do so without catastrophic career consequences. As we reported Thursday, the FAA is establishing a Pilot Mental Health Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to deal with the issue. For his part, Emerson told the Times he will be open and transparent as his case grinds through the courts, fully aware that his promising aviation career is likely over, and he said he was horrified at the risk he put himself and the others on the plane through. “That crew got dealt a situation there’s no manual, checklist or procedure that’s been written for,” he said. “And they did an exemplary job keeping me and the rest of the people on that plane safe.”

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.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. WGAS…Its a “reason” not and excuse”. He belong in Jail! If he needs mental health treatment, he can get it from the prison shrink.

  2. The psilcybin he consumed had nothing to do with this incident. Psilocybin leaves the system in 12 to 24 hours, and the psychoactive effects subside well before that.

    This individual was dealing with sleep deprivation that was a product of untreated depression. The effects of sleep deprivation can be quite aevere. Back in the early 80s the US Navy did a study that found that after 16 hours of duty, each hour of sleep deprivation had the effects of consuming one alcoholic beverage.

    That said, while psychedelics have been found to be very effective in treating depression and anxiety when used as part of a structured treatment program that includes an integration period, recreational use can be unpredictable. For most people, psychadelics pose no threat, but if you have a pre-existing mental health condition, recreational use should be avoided.

    I honestly believe that this individual did not have any conscious intent to do harm. He suffers from an illness that requires professional treatment. It took an incident like this for the FAA to start looking into mental health as a typical risk we all face thar requires a rational solution.

    • “Earlier consumption” is all that is mentioned here. He could have swallowed them just before arriving at the airport.

  3. I agree that it is a medical issue. Obviously his career is over. But it doesn’t sound like any intent to actually hurt the plane or passengers. He could have been much more aggressive at a more critical time. And his actions following the event were very passive and cooperative. He’s unfortunately a potential mental mess. Treatment, not jail. No harm done. And he brought forth awareness of his issue.

    • Minor correction: he brought forth *further* awareness of the mental health crisis in aviation. He wasn’t the first, and he likely won’t be the last until the FAA wakes up to the crisis that their very own medical rules have created.

      • Not just mental health. I wonder how many heart attacks and strokes could be avoided if people weren’t avoiding their doctors?

  4. Maybe “we the people” should spend $200 billion on mental health medical care instead of spending it on 100 B-21 bombers that we don’t need.

    • While I agree with the mental health aspect of your comment, if you wait until you need a weapon to acquire it, then it’s too late.

  5. Unfortunately this isn’t an isolated case. Alcohol and drugs are prevalent in this industry, whether you want to believe this or not. If it wasn’t, the Fed’s wouldn’t have created this “mental health committee.”
    This wasn’t the first and won’t be the last time that a crew member is impaired.
    Flying, as a crew member or a passenger, should be fun.
    When a pilot enters a plane impaired, it’s ALWAYS pilot error, sometimes with disastrous results.
    Aviation takes another, ding. More regs on the way equals more stress.
    Watch, the public will want to see a clean drug test, from the crew, before each flight.
    Welcome to aviation.

  6. Recreational drug use is simply NOT consistent with being a commercial pilot PERIOD ! This guy made some enormously POOR choices. Makes me wonder how he even got as far as he has.

    • People (and especially pilots) who are afraid to seek professional help for mental health issues will try all sorts of things to self-medicate. Until the FAA (and society as a whole) come to recognize that stigmatizing those with mental health issues (many of which are highly-treatable, not not necessarily all with medication), there will be many more instances of pilots self-medicating and hiding their conditions with the resultant negative outcome to aviation safety.

  7. Why am I thinking that this isn’t the first time this lad dabbled with mind altering substances? Let’s legalize all drugs and mind altering substances. That sounds like a great way to improve our Society, doesn’t it?

  8. I’m a retired parole officer and read the NY Times article about the interview with Joseph Emerson which portrays him as a victim of sad, unfortunate circumstances. The article glosses over the decisions he made that facilitated a near mass murder incident.
    * Eating psychoactive mushrooms at an extremely depressing point in his life despite being a pilot who is prohibited from drug use and required to disclose depression;
    * Getting on an airplane when he’s tired, depressed and feeling like he’s in a bad dream from which he can’t awaken;
    * Sitting in the jump seat where he has the ability to affect the course of the flight;
    * Knowingly and suddenly trying to disable the engines with the fire suppression system.

    One lesson I learned as a pilot is there are times when mistakes, lapses of attention, or bad choices will turn into disaster. As a commercial pilot, Emerson knew this better than most other people because it is a recurring theme in his profession.

    National Institute of Justice statistics show that 80% of active shooters were in a mental health “crisis” at the time of their crimes and that 31% of them suffered from “severe childhood trauma.” According to the NY Times article, Emerson suffered “brutal teasing” in school and went to counseling about it. I wonder what other mental health issues he may have not mentioned.

    I suspect Emerson was at a low point about his friend’s death, tired from the emotional impact of the funeral and lack of sleep, feeling guilty about eating mushroom that could jeopardized his career, and hopeless about the future when he got on that plane. He took the jump seat and considered that he could end his life and the lives of every one else on the plane in spectacular fashion by activating the fire suppression system. He made the effort and would have succeeded if not for the immediate and forceful reaction of the pilots to stop him. In my mind, they are no less heroic than Sully and Skiles during the Miracle On The Hudson, perhaps more so because they had to combat a crazed man actively trying to crash the airplane rather than a few errant geese minding their own business.

    I’m curious to learn the facts of the case and wonder if Emerson’s defense will mention Twinkies as another cause of his mental condition.

    At the end of the interview, Emerson said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever fly an airplane again.”

    If his trial judge doesn’t prohibit him from ever entering an airplane again, I sure hope the FAA does.

  9. ‘I’m curious to learn the facts of the case and wonder if Emerson’s defense will mention Twinkies as another cause of his mental condition.’

    Bingo. You have offered a perfect example through haughty condemnation of the immense effort required to win the battle over mental illness in society and its related ostracization from co-workers, family, friends and even religion. This also shows a total lack of understanding of psilocybin and the frightening alternate states of reality it, combined with other triggers, can produce. Re-read the interview in the Times objectively and it’s easy to see.

    This type of attitude shows why the social fears and paranoia of mental illness are so ingrained that we need a Pilot Mental Health Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to at least try and help deal with the issue. It runs as deep as Racism and Antisemitism, now on full display the world over.

    • Mr. Miller,

      Your conjecture that my “attitude” about the mental health system, “runs as deep as Racism and Antisemitism,” is a shameful and pathetic smear tactic of people who don’t have legitimate arguments to support their position when addressing contrary opinions. The intent of this tactic is to censor, discredit and silence (“cancel”) their opposition. It won’t work on me. You also made it clear where you stand on the issue of freedom of speech. I am sad to see that a reader of AVweb and presumable pilot would resort to that.

      My “attitude” and criticisms about the mental health system are based on 20 years of working closely with multiple MH professionals in an effort to provide meaningful treatment for the hundreds of probation and parole offenders on my caseload who suffered from various mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and personality problems. What I found in my county was that many MH workers wanted nothing to do with criminals, addicts or homeless people and avoided them when possible. Of course, the vast majority of probationers and parolees felt the same way about MH workers and treatment, so positive results were few and far between.

      In one case, I had to go directly to the MH Director just to schedule an evaluation for one of my probation clients who fantasized about killing his parents and dying in a shootout with police. I agreed to wait outside the interview room to make sure the evaluator was safe and when he was done he told me the client had anti-social personality disorder which wasn’t treatable.

      I remember attending an 8-hour training at the MH department where they showcased their programs. I came away thinking someone should do a cost-benefit analysis because the budget was high and the results seemed unimpressive. I only recall seeing a handful of cases where treatment made a lot of difference, but I remember numerous situations that frustrated all my efforts to get help for someone in dire straights. I only recall a couple of individuals who were so deranged that I was able to get them committed to the state mental hospital, but there were many more who seemed eligible, but were not accepted.

      Yes, I think it’s important for the public to know that MH treatment can be effective for certain people in certain circumstances, but also that it has its limitations and shortcomings. It is definitely no panacea, as many people make it out to be, especially for criminals, addicts and homeless, who urgently need it, but won’t accept it, even under court orders. The commitment process is so inert it seems to take an act of Congress and we all know how efficient and contentious that is. I agree that many functional people with mental illness, including Joseph Emerson, and those in groups at high risk for depression and trauma, could benefit from treatment if they pursued it and followed through with determination, but not everyone will make that kind of commitment. It’s a heroic journey to work on changing your life and there are a limited number of heroic people with mental illnesses. I wish there were better ways of persuading people to look into treatment before they give up. I wish more people would recognize the signs of trouble in people they know and try to engage in conversation about it with them, and I wish they would report those people when there are signs they are about to do something horrific, like go on a shooting spree. Until we find better incentives and methods, there will continue to be tragic events and losses.

      Stigmas aside, I believe that as long as self-reporting certain mental illnesses results in the loss of access or privileges such as the ability to fly, own firearms or work in specific vocations, there will be strong resistance to come forward and disclose. That’s a powerful force of human nature to overcome. I’m not sure how a “Pilot Aviation Mental Health Rulemaking Committee” could resolve those kinds of issues for pilots, but good luck with that.

      I found a database of aircraft crashes on Wikipedia titled, Suicide By Pilot, which shows multiple incidents of pilots deliberately crashing airplanes that also killed the passengers. The most recent one was on March 24, 2015, when the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 locked the pilot out of the cockpit and crashed the airliner into a mountain in France. The co-pilot had previously been treated for depression and suicidal tendencies.

      Joseph Emerson may have been a wonderful person and exemplary pilot in every way until October 22. We may find out more as the trial progresses. I saw a couple comments above about his situation that suggested, “No harm, no foul.” Really?

      On that October day, Emerson actively and figuratively “pulled the trigger” on an airliner full of innocent people, initiating a chain reaction that would stop the engines and transform the plane into a weapon of mass murder that very likely could have killed everyone on board. It was ONLY because the pilots reacted immediately and with enough force that they were able to INTERRUPT the chain reaction after Emerson pulled that trigger. How sympathetic and forgiving would you be of Emerson’s act if you and your loved ones had been on that plane?

      I do regret making the flippant, “Twinkie,” comment without the back-story for context, so here it is. In 1978, former San Francisco City Supervisor, Dan White, shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk (both shot multiple times, 2 shots in the head each to kill them). White was charged with 1st-degree murder with special circumstances and the possibility of a death sentence. His defense claimed he suffered diminished mental capacity due to depression and could not have premeditated the crime. The media took the liberty of reporting White’s depression was aggravated by eating junk food and the tag line, “Twinkie Defense,” became a misnomer of the trial. The jury accepted White’s defense that he could not have premeditated the murders and only convicted him of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison and served 5. A detective in the case spoke to White in 1984, the year he was paroled, and said White admitted the crime was premeditated and that he had planned to kill two other people in City Hall that day, including State Senator Willie Brown. This is an example of someone manipulating a jury by exploiting a mental illness and getting a substantial break on a heinous crime. When I read the NY Times article about Emerson I immediately thought of Dan White’s trial and wondered if Emerson will try a similar defense. We shall see.

  10. I just read the entire NYT article, and it leaves me sad for my fellow pilot, my fellow human being. Yes, I understand full well that a terrible loss of life could have occurred had things gone differently that day. But that didn’t happen, and now a man and his family will suffer for the rest of their lives for a momentary event when this very good man, husband, father, and pilot (by all accounts) temporarily lost his mind. He has been a pilot for 26 years (18 to 44), well over half his life. He was about halfway through an exemplary airline career with a clean record. And then he reached up for those fire handles. And in that one instant, it all went in the toilet. Yes, I understand the seriousness of trying to pull those handles that day. No, I don’t understand the lack of grace by the rest of us about it. Let he or she who is perfect cast the first stone. Good luck, Joe. I am rooting for you and your family. I hope you get the help you need, aren’t bankrupted by this, and do not spend a day in jail.

    • When it comes to public safety, especially in an unforgiving environment like commercial aviation, a “momentary event” like this one is a show stopper.

    • Leaving out would before shoot made the question nonsensical. And generally, pilots are quite sensible. Try again.