Pilot Who Tried To Crash Alaska Airlines Plane Dishes On Mushroom-Fueled Episode

An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot tried to crash a plane while riding in the cockpit jump seat of a flight from Seattle Paine Field to San Francisco last month.

Joseph David Emerson tried to activate the fire suppression system to cut off fuel to the plane’s engines. The flight’s pilots wrestled him away. He was cuffed at the back of the aircraft and the plane diverted to Portland. The pilot was arrested and he told the police he thought he was dreaming and that he’d taken mushrooms.

Now the man is telling his side of the story. He’s been depressed but never sought help. His best friend died. He was traveling non-stop, not just flying a new plane (moving from Airbus to Boeing narrowbodies) but also acting as a pilot safety representative out of San Francisco.

He’d gotten together with friends to celebrate his friend who had died, and he mixed mushrooms and alcohol – and days later thought he was dreaming and couldn’t wake up. All he was trying to do was wake up and that’s why he tried to kill the engines, and also tried to open the plane’s emergency exit once taken to the back. He even says that the grabbed a coffee pot from the galley and drank it straight to wake himself up.

While being held by police at the airport he took off all of his clothes, he urinated on himself, and he tried cuffing the carrot… all to ‘wake up.’ When he was given a phone to call an attorney, he instead rang his wife and sang It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday by Boyz II Men.

My takeaways: the story is probably true, it’s also a pretty good temporary insanity defense? And it seems pitch perfect for the current conversation on pilot mental health.

It is a real challenge that many medical conditions a pilot may have aren’t going to be obvious in a medical exam, and that you want pilots with problems to be able to speak up. That’s doubly so when they’re mental problems or problems with alcohol and drugs. But speaking up and seeking help creates the risk of being sidelined, despite programs designed to encourage them to do so.

Put another way, you want pilots to be able to feel safe coming forward with their problems. But once they tell you they’re hallucinating and having thoughts about bringing down an aircraft, can you let them back in the cockpit? And keeping them from doing so communicates that they can’t safely come forward in the first place. All the programs designed to address this in the world still face this fundamental conundrum, and attempt to dial somewhat more towards pilot safety. But this isn’t an easy issue.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. RE; can you let a pilot who has disclosed mental health issues back in the cockpit? Probably not right away. But there are thousands of opportunities where a pilot can put their skills to work while on the ground and in recovery. Maybe after a set period of time has elapsed, say 3-5 years? a pilot could return to the skies.

  2. One advantage of mushrooms over LSD is that the trip is over in 2-4 hours. So there was more or something else going on here.

  3. Definitely a good tale pieced together by several paid-in-advance lawyers for the insanity defense or just unfit to stand trial.

    What is cuffing the carrot? A bad pun for choking the chicken? Not 5th graders here.

    Life is a bell curve. In any population you are going to have outliers, e.g. people that do “insane” or “criminal” things. Why would a population of pilots, doctors or accountants be any different. Good luck “screening” for that. Police have tried that for years and you see the effects now…

  4. thew title says it all. CNN Gary…. Disgusting to spread this stuff until its true.. you said prbobaly true….

    Also..did he “try” to crash the plane …was that his intent?

  5. Insanity? Sounds like a bad reaction to the mushrooms–but that’s no more a defense than being blackout drunk is. Drugs are only a defense if you consumed them unknowingly. (This typically shows up with non-drinking teenagers at a party and unaware that the punch bowl is spiked. Somebody who doesn’t drink very well might not recognize it.)

  6. The man should never fly again for any commercial operation. But I’ll bet his rights will override the rights of paying passengers not to be murdered by their pilot, and he will be back in the air.

  7. Anyone who has taken mushroom before knows this story is BS.

    “and he mixed mushrooms and alcohol – and days later thought he was dreaming and couldn’t wake up.”


    That is not at all how mushrooms work. If we are talking within 4-12 hours of flying ok, maybe. I get it. But you lost all credibility when you went with DAYS LATER.

    (At least that is what a “friend” told me)

  8. In my not so humble opinion, this lighlights the problem with getting rid of in-patient psychiatric hospitals in the 80s. Under the guise of “more humane treatment”, we have let an army of people with psychiatric disorders out onto the streets to survive as they will (usually not willing to take their medications), and being unsupervised until they explode by killing themselves or others.

    Had there been available care, the pilot could have checked himself in until competent care givers certified him as being fit for duty again.

    If you are a danger to yourself or to others, you need in-patient care.

    But, just sayin’….

  9. I’ve ‘shroomed a few times in my youth. They were incredible experiences for me, but some do have bad trips. Paranoid hallucinations a few days after doesn’t seem right though. But then again, there’s wide spectrum of reactions.

  10. This loser should have never been let near an airplane to begin with. Pillots are licensed professionals and as such have no business taking illicit drugs. As for PTSD, every clown is claiming thay nowadays because they are millenial losers who cannot cope. Newsflash: Unless you have done a ground combat tour in Iraq, you do not have PTSD.

    This guy’s entire story is a lie and not worthy of someone who gets paid big money to be responsible for the traveling public. He is a disgrace to his chosen profession.

  11. I feel so bad for this man, he must really feel like he’s in a horrible dream he can’t wake up from now.

    Hopefully he’ll have some jurors that have experience with psychedelics and understand their potential for both harm and healing.

    The rest of you giving your opinions are fools. Straight up fools

  12. Preliminary speculation: 83 counts of attempted murder will fail because intent will be difficult to prove. 83 counts of reckless endangerment will be proven.

    Is there a federal law for reckless endangerment? Washington state law has a maximum penalty of 364 days in prison and $5000 fine. If so, maximum 82.5 years in prison and $400k fine.

    Murderers often get 35 years in prison.

    Maybe 1/3 of sentence or about 20 years in prison and $400k fine but fine reduced if he engages in 4000 hours of community service, where production of videos discouraging drug use counts toward 4000 hours. Credit also given if in patient psychiatric stay, if medically needed.

  13. @Chris and @TLU: As the off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot on the flight deck appeared to have a “mental hernia,” I think using the term “joystick” in this article would be a more appropriate euphemism for a penis. As VFTW has a global audience, as part of the DEI initiatives at many colleges and universities, I have included the following synonyms from the Collins dictionary for clarity in my response.

    dick (taboo, slang)
    prick (taboo, slang)
    tool (taboo, slang)
    cock (taboo, slang)
    wang (US, slang)
    knob (British, taboo, slang)
    chopper (British, slang)
    plonker (slang)
    dong (slang)
    winkle (British, slang)
    joystick (slang)
    pecker (US, Canadian, taboo, slang)
    John Thomas (taboo, slang)
    weenie (US, slang)
    whang (US, slang)
    tadger (British, slang)
    schlong (US, slang)
    pizzle (archaic, dialect)
    willie or willy (British, informal)
    tockley (Australian, slang)

  14. 1: He intentionally took hallucinogens knowing full well it is against the law. 2: He intentionally boarded the aircraft while under the influence and (also against the law) occupied the cockpit jumpseat. 3: With the combination of both, he intentionally tried to bring down an airplane by initiating the fire suppression system by which there is NO turning back. So, he’s still considered “innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The FAA can initiate an emergency suspension of his pilot certificate and his medical. Once the judicial process is completed, if found guilty…LOCK HIS BUTT UP! Give him treatment while he’s in the hoosegow. His pilot certificate will be revoked.

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