The Alaska Airlines pilot who allegedly took psychedelic mushrooms and tried to stop the plane's engines while riding off-duty in the cockpit talked to the press for the first time since the incident, explaining that he thought he was trapped dreaming.
In a jailhouse interview with NY Times reporter Mike Baker, the pilot, Joseph Emerson, shared the haunting details of the flight: Reality blurred, and he had to take drastic action to get out of the dream state.
He was reportedly grappling with the grief of losing his closest friend, Scott Pinney, and had ingested psychedelic mushrooms during a memorial getaway in Washington's Methow Valley. His return flight a few days later from Everett, Washington to San Francisco was full, so as is customary of off-duty pilots, he got a seat in the cockpit with the on-duty pilots.
When the plane reached cruising altitude, Emerson reportedly became agitated and removed his headset, expressing distress before suddenly pulling the plane's fire-suppression handles, designed to cut fuel supply and shut down both engines. The other pilots intervened, wrestling his hands away to prevent a potential disaster, as we reported at the time. They radioed for an emergency diversion to Portland, where Emerson was taken into custody.
He’s now facing charges of 83 counts of attempted murder, each corresponding to a passenger and crew member, in addition to separate charges by federal prosecutors for interfering with a flight crew.
But he’s pleading not guilty, claiming he had no intention of causing harm on the day in question. Instead, he told the reporter that he was desperately trying to end a hallucinogenic state induced by psychedelic mushrooms, during which he realized he was experiencing some long-standing mental health issues.
He said in the interview that the unexpected death of his best friend, who was the best man at his wedding, in 2018, deeply affected him. He reportedly began seeing a therapist, who identified that he had symptoms of depression and suggested possibly taking antidepressants. But then, he discovered that taking medication could likely result in a prolonged grounding from flying, a significant concern for him, as being a pilot was his dream job. (The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has always had stringent policies that ground pilots dealing with depression or mental diagnoses, meaning pilots seeking psychiatric help or a prescription for standard antidepressant medication can lead to a suspension of flight eligibility.)
After taking the mushrooms, Emerson said that he felt like he was having a “panic attack” and texted his wife after the incident, “I’ve made a big mistake.”
“I am horrified that those actions put myself at risk and others at risk,” he told NYT, and understands that what happens next is out of his hands. At the same time, the FAA announced this week it was establishing a committee focused on pilot mental health, to address and eliminate obstacles preventing pilots from reporting mental health concerns to the agency.
Image via Unsplash/Miguel Ángel Sanz.