In an alarming incident that unfolded on Sunday, October 22, 2023, aboard Horizon Airlines Flight 2059, we learned that an off-duty pilot by the name of Joseph David Emerson caused quite a commotion on the plane. This incident was no ordinary inflight disturbance, as Emerson attempted to shut down both engines mid-air in an apparent attempt to crash the Embraer E175 carrying 84 passengers and crew.
The recently released probable cause affidavit, filed by Special Agent TaPara Simmons Jr. of the FBI and obtained by NPR, sheds light on the events that transpired. Emerson, who was sitting in the cockpit jump seat, took actions that left the crew and passengers in a state of shock.
As the flight was en route to Portland International Airport, approximately halfway between Astoria, Oregon and Portland, Emerson made his unsettling move. He reached up and grabbed the red fire handles, which, if fully activated, would shut down the aircraft’s engines, essentially turning it into a glider. This audacious action prompted both pilots to intervene. They struggled with Emerson, ultimately preventing him from causing catastrophic consequences.
What’s truly astonishing is that Emerson, who claimed to have been with the airline for ten years, seemed perfectly normal during the early stages of the flight. He engaged in casual conversation with the pilots and even talked about aircraft. However, somewhere along the way, he declared, “I’m not okay” and attempted to shut down the engines.
The flight attendants also had their hands full, with Emerson’s behavior causing further alarm. They received a call from the cockpit and were told that Emerson was “losing it.” Upon leaving the cockpit, Emerson apparently attempted to open the emergency exit – a feat which isn’t possible at cruising altitude. He was eventually secured, handcuffed (which he actually asked for!), and seated at the back of the aircraft. Emerson continued to make concerning statements during the flight, admitting to endangering the lives of 84 people on board, including his own.
Emerson’s post-incident interview with law enforcement revealed that he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown” and had not slept in 40 hours. He mentioned feeling dehydrated and tired. Emerson also revealed that this incident occurred after his experimentation with psychedelic mushrooms, although he denied taking any other medication.
In light of these events, Special Agent TaPara Simmons Jr. submitted an affidavit seeking a criminal complaint and an arrest warrant for Emerson, charging him with “Interference with Flight Crew Members and Attendants” under Title 49 U.S.C. § 46504. This charge carries a potential penalty of a fine, imprisonment for up to 20 years, or both.
The document leaves us with many questions, primarily concerning the potential consequences of drug use in the airline industry and the need for improved mental health support for airline personnel. In the end, while these are important discussions to have, there’s never an excuse to endanger 84 innocent lives. While this is a sad story for all involved, Emerson must still be held accountable for his actions and brought to justice.