Bay Area pilot charged with attempting to murder 83 people on plane

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Prosecutors filed criminal charges against a Bay Area pilot who allegedly tried to shut down a plane, risking the lives of 83 people onboard the flight. 

Joseph David Emerson, 44, of Pleasant Hill, was off-duty and sitting in the cockpit Sunday evening when he suddenly tried to cut off the jet’s engines, according to on-duty pilots who flew Horizon Air Flight AS 2059.

According to court documents, the pilots said they wrestled with Emerson for control of the aircraft. Emerson allegedly pulled on emergency controls to cut the engines’ fuel and the jet was  “seconds away” from becoming a glider. 

The captain, co-pilot, and flight crew were able to throw Emerson out of the cockpit, handcuff him, and make an emergency landing at a Portland airport. 

On Tuesday, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office filed 84 charges against Emerson, including 83 counts of felony second-degree attempted murder, and one count of endangering an aircraft.

The former Alaska Airlines pilot made his first court appearance while his attorney, Noah Horst, entered not-guilty pleas on his behalf.

The Port of Portland Police Department officers interrogated Emerson after taking him into custody. 

Interrogation reveals Emerson admitted to pulling the jet’s emergency shut-off handles and the motive behind why he did it. 

The off-duty pilot told police that he thought he was dreaming and not in reality.

“Emerson indicated he was in a mental crisis and had not slept in over 40 hours. Emerson admitted to (POPPD Officer) Thommen that he pulled both emergency shut-off handles because Emerson believed he was dreaming and wanted to wake up,” Dundon wrote.

When the officer asked Emerson if he was trying to kill himself during the incident, he did not answer the question. Instead, he replied that he was trying to “wake up” and did not feel like “this was real,” court documents show.

Emerson said he struggled with depression for six years and that his best friend had recently passed away. He also admitted to trying “magic mushrooms” for the first time 48 hours before the flight. 

Emerson told officers during the interrogation, “I don’t understand why you’re showing me so much kindness. I’m obviously f****d up.”

After he was evaluated and cleared by medical personnel, Emerson told another officer that he put “’84 lives at risk’ that night including his own,” Dundon wrote.

Port of Portland police officers said Emerson did not appear to be under the influence of any intoxicants when they interviewed him.

Pilots Alan Koziol and Emil Riemer told police that Emerson was normal during the first part of the flight while he rode the jump seat, a cockpit’s extra seat for off-duty pilots. 

All of a sudden, he threw off his headset and said, “I’m not OK,” and tried to take control of the plane. 

Flight attendants Terree Fiala and Correnna Schlosser told police that one of the pilots communicated from the cockpit that “Emerson was losing it.” Once Emerson emerged from the cockpit he was “peaceful” and asked “when would this nightmare end,” court documents state.

Fiala said she was talking to the off-duty pilot in the plane when he turned to an emergency exit door and tried to grab the handle. “She stopped him by putting her hands on his to block him,” prosecutors wrote. Emerson then allegedly told the flight attendants, “you need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.”

The flight attendants said Emerson admitted he “tried to kill everybody.”

Emerson was booked into jail Monday on suspicion of 167 charges. Multnomah County prosecutors lowered the counts to 84 charges Tuesday. Federal prosecutors charged Emerson with interfering with a flight crew. If convicted of a single federal charge, the pilot could face up to 20 years in prison.


Charlene is a Bay Area journalist who hails from the small community of Fresno. Drawing from her experience writing for her college paper, Charlene continues to advocate for free press and local journalism. She also volunteers in all the beach cleanups she can because she loves the water.