A qualified pilot has been charged with multiple counts of attempted murder after allegedly attempting to down the Alaska Airlines flight he was flying aboard on Sunday.
Inside the cockpit
Flight 2059 operated by Horizon Air (a regional branch of Alaska Airlines) departed Paine Field Airport, Washington on Sunday, heading for San Francisco, with 83 people on board. A 44-year-old man, named by authorities as Joseph D. Emerson was flying within the cockpit in a so-called “jump seat”, which sometimes occurs when pilots must travel for official duties or relay to a different airport.
Emerson is a certified Airline Transport Pilot rated to fly several different passenger aircraft, including the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, according to FAA records. He was not however qualified to fly the aircraft involved in the incident, an ERJ 175. With a career spanning over twenty years, he has flown for Alaska and Virgin and been an Alaska Airlines Captain since 2019, they said in a statement.
Emerson pulled the plane’s T-handle fire extinguishers, the statement explained. These contain a valve that will “shut off fuel to the engine.” This would have caused fuel starvation and engine failure, with the plane at cruising altitude.
If a plane’s engines fail mid-air, thrust is lost and an emergency descent could occur, complicated by potential problems with electrics, hydraulics, flight control, and pressure.
The engines did not fail however, thanks to the quick reaction of the captain and first officer to “reset the handles” and “some residual fuel remains in the line,” according to the airline.
The plane reported a “credible security threat related to an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who was traveling in the flight deck jump seat,” the airline’s statement said. In an audio posted on LiveATC.net, one of the pilots is heard reporting to air traffic controllers that Emerson “tried to shut the engines down.”
“I think he’s subdued,” the pilot adds in the audio. “Other than that, we want law enforcement as soon as we get on the ground and are parked.”
Diverted from San Francisco, the plane made a forced landing at Portland International Airport, where Port of Portland authorities took Emerson into custody. He has been charged, according to online records, with 83 felony counts of attempted murder, 83 counts of reckless endangerment and one count of endangering an aircraft.
State of mind
Questions will be asked about the accused’s state of mind. Alaska Airlines have made a point of revealing that as a pilot for them, Emerson had completed “mandated FAA medical certifications in accordance with regulatory requirements, and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked.”
Authorities meanwhile have been quick to dissociate the incident with any terrorist affiliations or links to the current Hamas-Israel conflict.
The Horizon Air flight’s other passengers, some of whom reportedly slept through the entire incident, were able to continue their journeys by transferring to a later flight, Alaska Airlines has confirmed.