FBI: ‘I am not okay,’ off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot said before trying to turn off jet engines

an airplane
An Alaska Airlines plane, like this one operated by Horizon Air, had to divert to Portland, Ore. on Sunday after an off-duty pilot tried to turn off the engines in flight. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot now faces federal charges for interfering with the crew of a flight that had divert Sunday to Portland, Ore. after he allegedly attempted to switch off the plane’s engines in mid-air.

The flight, operated by Horizon Airlines, had taken off from Everett, Wash. around 5 p.m. Sunday evening and was headed to San Francisco. The Embraer 175 jet had more than 80 passengers and crew on board.

The off-duty pilot, Joseph David Emerson, was traveling in the flight deck jump seat sitting behind the pilot and first officer. According to a federal affidavit, the crew said Emerson gave “zero indication of anything wrong” during the initial stages of the flight.

They said he was chatting about the weather and various types of airplanes. At some point as the jet moved south over Oregon, the first officer observed Emerson throw his headset across the cockpit and exclaim, “I am not okay.”

That’s when the pilots say Emerson grabbed the two red engine shutoff handles. The affidavit says the pilot grabbed Emerson’s wrist and they “physically engaged” for an estimated 25 to 30 seconds and then Emerson “quickly settled down.”

The pilot asked Emerson to leave the cockpit and he then walked to the back of the airplane. Emerson reportedly told a flight attendant, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.” The attendant cuffed his wrists and during the descent into Portland, he “turned towards an emergency exit door and tried to grab the handle.”

In an interview with an FBI agent, another flight attendant said she heard Emerson say “I messed everything up” and that “he tried to kill everybody.”

During an interrogation, Emerson told the FBI that he had a “nervous breakdown” and had not slept in 40 hours. He said he’d felt dehydrated and tired. He told the agent that he pulled both emergency shut off handles because “I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

The agent said Emerson denied taking any medication, but stated that approximately six months ago he became depressed. Emerson has been flying for Alaska Airlines for 10 years and has been a pilot since 2001.

In addition to the federal charge, Emerson also faces 83 state counts of attempted murder, among other charges, including reckless endangerment and endangering an aircraft.

Read the federal charging documents against Emerson below:

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