Off-Duty Pilot Charged With 83 Counts of Attempted Murder Mid-Flight

By: Carissa | Last updated: Nov 03, 2023

Pilots are responsible for flying and operating an aircraft and it’s their job to ensure that all passengers arrive safely at their destination.

While most pilots are able to successfully navigate through the air without error, one off-duty pilot recently exhibited erratic behavior mid-flight and attempted to shut down his plane’s engine. His actions caused everyone on board to fear for their lives and he has since been charged with 83 counts of attempted murder.

The Flight Took a Near-Fatal Turn

The Alaska Airlines flight was scheduled to depart from Everett, Washington and go to San Francisco, California before encountering a “credible security threat related to an authorized occupant in the flight deck jump seat.”

An Alaska Airlines plane flying at 25,000 feet

Source: George Rose/Getty Images

According to reports, 44-year-old Joseph David Emerson began exhibiting unstable behavior before he attempted to pull the fire extinguisher handles on the engines while the aircraft was flying more than 30,000 feet in the air.


Flight Crew Stabilized the Off-Duty Pilot

Emerson was eventually restrained by the flight crew while the captain diverted the plane to Portland International Airport for an emergency landing.

Former Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson smiling

Source: LinkedIn

The airline staff handcuffed the off-duty pilot to a seat to avoid any further altercations. Upon landing, Emerson was immediately apprehended and taken into police custody. His unpredictable behavior landed him 83 homicide charges according to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. On top of that, Emerson is also facing 83 counts of reckless endangerment and a felony count of endangering an aircraft.

There Were Warning Signs Moments Before the Incident

As Emerson was sitting in the jump seat of the 737 airplane, he reportedly uttered, “I’m not right.”

Pilot Joseph Emerson smiles inside the cockpit of an airplane

Source: Joe Emerson/Facebook

Alaska Airlines reported that the captain and first officer “acted quickly” to subdue Emerson. The passengers aboard the frightening flight were struck with horror as they tried to comprehend the gravity of what was happening. Alex Wood, who was a passenger on board, said that the pilot didn’t offer many details of what had occurred at the front of the plane and simply stated that “there was a disturbance in the cockpit.”

Passengers Detailed the Chilling Experience

Passenger Aubrey Gavello recounted her experience on the flight.

Alaska Airlines check-in area at the airport

Source: David McNew/Getty Images

She said, “After we did land and the gentleman was escorted off, the flight attendant got back on the speaker and said ‘He had a mental breakdown. We needed to get him off the plane immediately’. Gavello revealed that passengers were given various excuses about their need for an emergency landing, saying that there was a “security threat” and “a medical emergency.”

Authorities Were Confident That it Was an Isolated Incident

Emerson was located by the authorities once the plane landed and they escorted him off the aircraft in handcuffs.

A close look at an Alaska Airlines plane at the airport

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Federal Aviation Administration released a statement to clarify that Emerson’s actions were not the result of a terrorist attack. The statement said what occurred is The Federal Aviation Administration was “not connected in any way shape or form to current world events.” To ease the nerves of future travelers, the FBI added that “there is no continuing threat related to this incident.”


Friends Say Emerson Was Not Acting Like Himself

Those who know Emerson personally were shocked and in disbelief that he could be capable of such dangerous behavior.

Joseph Emerson stares into the camera

Source: Joe Emerson/Facebook

Members of Emerson’s community had nothing but positive things to say about him in light of his recent charges. Karen Yee, who lived next door to Emerson and his family said, “He is a fantastic father. He plays with the kids all the time. He’s very friendly. He’s just a great guy.” She also added, “It’s just really shocking news.”


Emerson Did the Unthinkable

Yee couldn’t seem to understand Emerson’s actions.

Pilot Joseph Emerson and his wife smiling during a flight

Source: Joe Emerson/Facebook

‘It’s very hard for us to believe that he would do anything intentionally like that,” she said before adding, “’I can’t fathom him doing anything that would hurt anyone.” Lou Rossi, who also lives in Emerson’s neighborhood, agreed that he was always nice and respectful toward him. “All I could tell you is he is a really nice man, and his wife Sarah is a really nice lady,” he said. “They never, ever even remotely made me think anything negative about them.”


His Mental Health Had Been Declining Before the Incident

Reports have suggested that Emerson had been dealing with depression for six months before the in-flight incident, adding that he was likely experiencing a ‘nervous breakdown.’

Pilot Joseph Emerson with his wife and two young children

Source: Joe Emerson/Facebook

It’s also been claimed that Emerson had not slept in 40 hours before his failed attempt to crash the plane with 83 people onboard. Emerson is facing significant jail time if convicted of the numerous attempted murder charges. His misconduct and erratic actions could result in him serving 20 years or more in prison.


Emerson Had Taken Hallucinogenic Drugs Before the Flight

In a shocking revelation, Emerson admitted to being on ‘magic mushrooms’ during the flight that nearly killed him and everyone else on board.

Psychedelic mushrooms growing in a container

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Emerson reportedly told authorities that it was his first time taking the hallucinogenic drug before confessing, “I pulled both emergency shut-off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.” The off-duty pilot seemed to be in good spirits before his mood drastically shifted. He even warned his co-workers of his transformation, telling them, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.”


His Wife Is in Denial

When Emerson’s wife finally broke her silence, she stood in support of her husband. Sarah Stretch refuses to believe that Emerson would ever intentionally harm anyone. “That’s not my Joe,” she insisted.

Pilot Joseph Emerson happily poses with his wife Sarah Stretch

Source: Joe Emerson/Facebook

“He never would have done that. He never would’ve knowingly done any of that.” She confirmed that her husband had been suffering from depression while standing by him during this difficult time. During an interview with CNN, she said, “That is not the man that I married. That’s not the man that all of these people in this world are coming together to support him, love him.”


He Entered a ‘Not Guilty’ Plea

One of the flight attendants reported that Emerson said things such as “I messed everything up” and that he “tried to kill everybody.”

Inside the cockpit of a 767 airplane

Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to court documents, Emerson initially took accountability for his extreme actions. “I’m admitting to what I did. I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me,” he told authorities. However, he pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the string of charges at his arraignment.