Off-duty pilot accused of trying to cut plane engines indicted on 84 charges

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An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot accused of attempting to shut down plane engines mid-flight was indicted on 84 charges on Tuesday. 

According to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, Joseph Emerson, 44, was indicted by a grand jury on one count of endangering aircraft and 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person. 

On October 22, Emerson was an off-duty pilot riding in the flight’s deck jumpseat when a pilot saw him “throw his headset across the cockpit and announce, ‘I am not okay’ before allegedly trying to shut down the plane. 

The pilot told investigators he wrestled with Emerson to stop him, adding that if he had been successful, “it would have shut down the hydraulics and the fuel to the engines – turning the aircraft into a glider within seconds.”

Flight attendants said Emerson also attempted to open an emergency exit door while in handcuffs. 

After the incident, the plane was diverted to Portland International Airport where Emerson was taken into custody. 

Police said Emerson stated he was having a nervous breakdown and he hadn’t slept for 40 hours. 

According to officials, the pilot said he became depressed six months ago and had used psychedelic mushrooms for the first time 48 hours before the flight. 

Originally, Emerson was facing 167 charges related to the incident, including 83 counts of aggravated attempted murder. 

Emerson pleaded not guilty to those charges. 

In a press release following the indictment, Emerson’s lawyers stated, “(The) Multnomah County grand jury decided that Captain Joseph Emerson did not attempt to injure anyone, and therefore declined to charge him with the 83 counts of attempted murder originally sought by the state. The attempted murder charges were never appropriate in this case because Captain Emerson never intended to hurt another person or put anyone at risk – he just wanted to return home to his wife and children. Simply put: Captain Emerson thought he was in a dream; his actions were taken in a single-minded effort to wake up from that dream and return home to his family.”

“While we are pleased that the grand jury correctly determined that the attempted murder counts were inappropriate in this case, we were disappointed to learn that the grand jury did indict Captain Emerson for a single count of endangering an aircraft and 83 misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person. The grand jury only has to find ‘probable cause’ that a crime was committed – not the significantly higher ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard required for a criminal conviction,” Emerson’s lawyers continued.

Emerson is lodged at Multnomah County Detention Center and is slated to be arraigned on Dec. 7.


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.