Image c/o AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File
By Edith Cuevas
Pleasant Hill pilot Joseph Emerson has been charged with 83 counts of attempted murder after attempting to shut-off a plane’s engines mid-flight. As an off-duty pilot, Emmerson was able to fly with the pilots in the cockpit jump seat. Takeoff was smooth, according to the New York Times. It was when cruising altitudes were reached that Emmerson began to show signs of agitation.
“I’m not ok,” he told the pilots. This is when Emerson reached over and attempted to pull the fire-suppression handles, which were designed to cut the fuel supply and shut down both engines. “I thought it would stop both engines, the plane would start to head towards a crash, and I would wake up.” Emerson continued to tell the New York Times.
In the weeks leading up to the incident, Emerson had ingested psychedelic mushrooms. According to ABC 7, the ingestion of psychedelics can have a lasting effect on a person but can also trigger an underlying mental health illness.
According to Emerson’s wife, Sarah Stretch, he had become depressed in 2018 following the sudden death of his best man, Scott Pinney. “The loss of Scott was devastating to us, and for Joe especially. I feel like he has never come to terms with his death.” This weekend getaway was meant to commemorate the death of Pinney. This is what plunged him into the hallucinogenic state that Emerson was in such desperation to wake up from.
There are restrictions imposed by the FAA that prevent pilots with depression from flying, and it also prevents the use of prescriptions for any mental health treatment. According to the FAA, this is to prevent any potential issues in the cockpit including mental breakdowns or suicide attempts. Pilots had to undergo routine medical assessments, disclosing various medical diagnoses, such as depression or anxiety, along with details of consultations with health professionals.
Many pilots avoid seeking medical treatment fearing permanent grounding. In a significant shift in 2010, the FAA approved specific antidepressants for pilots dealing with mild or moderate depression. However, the pilots that opted to take the medications were still grounded for a month for a monitoring period. The entire process of gaining approval to resume active flying could extend even longer, with no guarantee of ultimate approval. The potential impact on careers, as noted by aviation doctors, industry lawyers, and pilots, prompted many aviators to either falsify information about their treatment or altogether sidestep seeking help. Instead opting for the risk of a $250,000 fine and five years in prison
Emerson told The New York Times, “I started to have this feeling that this wasn’t real. I thought of a lot of traumatic things that in that time where I was like, ‘Am I dead? Is this hell?’ I am reliving that trauma.”
According to Emerson, he was briefly brought back to reality, he then left the cockpit on his own and immediately asked one of the flight attendants for help. As he walked down the aisle, he looked at the passengers, all seemingly unaware of what had just happened. That is when Emerson began questioning the reality of what was going on. “You need to handcuff me right now, or it’s going to be bad,” is what Emerson told the flight attendant according to the police officer who interviewed the flight crew.
“I am horrified that those actions put myself and others at risk,” Emerson said. “That crew got dealt with a situation there’s no manual, checklist or procedure that’s been written for. And they did an exemplary job keeping me and the rest of the people on that plane safe.”
The FAA announced that they will be creating a committee to provide recommendations on breaking down barriers that prevent pilots from reporting mental health issues. “A mental health diagnosis is not a career ender. We have completed clinical research and amended policy to make it much easier for pilots on a widening number of antidepressants to continue with their careers,” said the FAA’s Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Susan Northrop.
Madison Sciba '24,