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Alaska Airlines pilot was on magic mushrooms when he tried to crash SFO flight, feds say

Federal court documents charging a pilot who tried to cut a flight's engine power Sunday say he told investigators he had eaten psychedelic mushrooms.
Federal court documents charging a pilot who tried to cut a flight's engine power Sunday say he told investigators he had eaten psychedelic mushrooms. | Source: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

An Alaska Airlines pilot who allegedly tried to crash a flight bound for San Francisco International Airport (SFO) was high on magic mushrooms, federal court documents say.

Federal officials allege off-duty pilot Joseph David Emerson tried to shut down the engines in mid-flight as he rode in the jump seat, a third seat in the cockpit used by pilots to travel for work.

Emerson's attorney entered not guilty pleas on his behalf Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.

One pilot heard Emerson say, "I'm not OK," while a second saw him reach up and grab red fire handles, which would activate the aircraft's fire-suppression system and shut off the fuel supply to the engines, documents say.

The first pilot grabbed Emerson's wrist, but he initially resisted, and they fought for about 25 to 30 seconds before Emerson settled down, investigators say. The second pilot then declared an in-flight emergency, turned the plane's autopilot off and headed for Portland.

Emerson denied taking any medicine but told investigators he became depressed about six months prior, that he took psychedelic mushrooms for the first time in his life just two days before the flight and that he hadn't slept in more than 40 hours.

Emerson told investigators it was his first time taking psychedelic mushrooms. | Source: Mike Rosati

“I didn’t feel OK. It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on. They didn’t. ... It didn’t seem right,” Emerson told investigators. "Yah ... I pulled both emergency shut-off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just want to wake up."

After diverting to Portland, the Alaska Airlines-owned Horizon Air flight was met by law enforcement officers. The flight took off from Everett, Washington, at 5:23 p.m. and landed in Portland an hour later.

Pilots told investigators they had never met Emerson before and had a casual conversation about weather conditions and aircraft during the first part of the flight.

The pilots told investigators that if Emerson had managed to overcome the pilot wrestling with him and fully pull the handles down, "it would have shut down the hydraulics and the fuel to the engines, turning the aircraft into a glider within seconds."

Investigators said flight attendants aboard the plane later said Emerson told them, “You need to cuff me right now, or it’s going to be bad.”

Moments later, during the plane's descent into Portland, a handcuffed Emerson turned toward an emergency exit door and tried grabbing a handle, but an alert attendant placed her hands on his and tried to distract him with conversation.

During this episode, another attendant told authorities that Emerson said, “I messed everything up” and that “he tried to kill everybody" before taking out his phone and trying to text someone.

After arriving at the airport, responding police officers found Emerson sitting in the back of the plane, secured with a harness and flex handcuffs.

Emerson told police he worked for Alaska Airlines and had been a pilot since 2001 before telling them he had a “nervous breakdown," had not slept in 40 hours and felt dehydrated and tired.

After arriving at port police headquarters, Emerson spoke to investigators, asking to waive his right to an attorney while in custody. “I’m admitting to what I did," he said. "I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys.”

"We are grateful for the professional handling of the situation by the Horizon flight crew and appreciate our guests’ calm and patience throughout this event," an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said, confirming Emerson works as a pilot for the airline.

George Kelly can be reached at