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New Details Emerge About Rogue Alaska Pilot

Much has come to light about pilot who attempted to shut down a jet mid-flight.

A Horizon Air Embraer E175 at Seattle’s Paine Field. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

The U.S. woke up on Monday to learn that a jumpseat passenger on a Horizon Air flight operating from Everett, Wash. to San Francisco attempted to shut down both of the aircraft’s engines in-flight.

Much has been revealed since AirlineGeeks published the story earlier, including details on the off-duty pilot.

What Happened?

Initial reports stated that an authorized jumpseat passenger onboard the Horizon Embraer jet had attempted to shut down the airplane’s engines mid-flight. The passenger was then reportedly subdued by the aircraft’s pilots, somehow removed from a cockpit, and restrained in the cabin, where he remained until the aircraft safely landed in Portland.

We now know that the jumpseat passenger, an Alaska Airlines 737 captain, had attempted to pull two handles (one for each engine) that would have closed their respective engine’s shutoff valve, thus preventing fuel from reaching the power plants.

These levers are used when there is a fire in an engine and fuel must be prevented from reaching it so as to prevent the fire from spreading further.

“The fire suppression system consists of a T-handle for each engine. If the T-handle is fully deployed, a valve in the wing closes to shut off fuel to the engine,” Alaska Airlines wrote in a statement following the incident.

“In this case, the quick reaction of our crew to reset the T-handles ensured engine power was not lost. Our crew responded without hesitation to a difficult and highly unusual situation, and we are incredibly proud and grateful for their skillful actions,” the airline’s statement continued.

As a pilot himself, this jumpseater would have been familiar with the layout of aircraft cockpits. Though the 737 and Embraer E175 have differences, the jumpseater could probably identify the fire suppression handles not only from his time in cockpits in general but also because, as an Alaska employee, he likely spent significant time in Embraer cockpits while traveling.

Who is the Perpetrator?

The jumpseat pilot has been identified as Alaska Airlines 737 captain Joseph Emerson, who was commuting to San Francisco to operate a flight. Alaska reports that Emerson flew for Horizon Air from 2001 to 2012, at which time he left Horizon to fly for Virgin America.

Emerson returned to Alaska when it merged with Virgin America in 2016 and eventually upgraded to the role of Captain at Alaska in 2019.

Significant discourse around Emerson’s mental health has been circulating since the incident. AirlineGeeks has not confirmed any information regarding Emerson’s medical status.

Alaska’s official statement says that Emerson completed the required FAA medical certifications throughout his career and never had a medical certificate denied, suspended, or revoked.

”Nothing abnormal about him, very caring…,” a neighbor of Emerson’s told CBS Bay Area. The 44-year-old was reportedly also a flight instructor at a local flying club.

What Happens Next?

The original flight safely diverted to Portland International Airport. Alaska reports that all passengers continued their trip to San Francisco with a new crew and aircraft, and the airline adds it will follow up with each passenger on their own well-being.

Emerson has been charged with 83 counts of attempted murder, one for each person onboard the aircraft, which is a Class A felony in the state of Oregon. He has also been charged with 83 counts of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, and one count of endangering an aircraft, a Class C felony.

Nothing has been publicly confirmed regarding Emerson’s employment status with Alaska or what action will be taken against his pilot certificate.

Emerson will appear in court on Tuesday, October 22, and more information may be available about his case at that time.

Will Aviation be Impacted?

Again, nothing is as of yet confirmed about Emerson’s mental state at the time of the incident. Nevertheless, this incident is likely to cause further discussions on how mental health is dealt with in aviation.

The FAA’s practices regarding seeking mental health treatment are often criticized by pilots and other aviation professionals, who argue that crewmembers are expected to choose between seeking treatment and maintaining the medical certificates required to fly professionally.

The FAA has made some minor changes to how they handle medical applicants with some mental disorders, and certain treatments are approved for pilots who hold valid medical certificates.

Also in question is whether there will be a change in the FAA’s rules regarding pilots riding in jets’ jumpseats. At the time of writing, the FAA has not announced any information about such a rule change.

John McDermott

Author

  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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