Pilot On Mushrooms Asked Fellow Pilots ‘Am I Dead? Is This Hell?’

Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 prepares for takeoff at Los Angeles International Airport on October 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 prepares for takeoff at Los Angeles International Airport on October 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 prepares for takeoff at Los Angeles International Airport on October 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

An off-duty Alaskan Airlines pilot attempted to crash a flight last month following an experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms which he says caused a psychotic break. That pilot told his story to the New York Times, and it’s a harrowing and heart-breaking a tale as you can imagine.

Joseph Emerson was seated in the jump seat on a flight from Everett, Washington to San Francisco when he suddenly reached up and attempted to cut the plane’s fuel supply. The pilots aboard had to wrestle him away from two fire-suppression handles meant to cut fuel to the airplane’s engines. After an emergency landing in Portland, Emerson was arrested and charged 83 counts of attempted murder.

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“A lot of us aren’t as forthcoming as we otherwise would be,” Mr. Emerson said.

Intentional or not, Emerson’s personal choices nearly led to hurting a lot of people. Though there is a tragic side to his story as well. Emerson made it clear to the Times that he was afraid to seek out traditional treatment because he feared losing his livelihood and ability to fly — a common concern among pilots. After the sudden death of a friend left him reeling, Emerson tried to use alcohol to manage his depression symptoms. It was at a memorial for his late friend that Emerson first tried hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Now, Emerson took the mushrooms two days prior to the flight, but anyone who has ever tangled with a hallucinogen knows that folks in fragile emotional states should probably steer clear of the substances. While the affects normally clear up in a few hours, less solidly grounded individuals might feel the after affects for days afterwards. Emerson, unfortunately, was just such san individual. And it sounds like it was a terrifying ordeal for the pilots who had to manage Emerson’s freakout:

As the plane took off, he said, he struggled to understand the pilots’ response to a report of mild turbulence ahead. Were these really pilots? Was he still dreaming? He texted the friend who had dropped him off at the airport, reporting that he was “having a panic attack.” The friend asked if he needed anything.“Send love,” Mr. Emerson replied. “I need to be home.”The friend’s reply came through a spoken text-to-audio message he heard through an earbud under his cockpit headset. “Do your breathing exercises,” the friend advised. It was a comment that made no sense to him. He threw off the headset and yelled at the pilots for help. When nothing happened, Mr. Emerson said, he panicked, convinced he was indeed imagining the whole thing. He needed to wake himself up.He grabbed the engine shut-off handles, located just above the jump seat where he was sitting.The pilots sprang into action, grabbing his wrists. They pushed the emergency handles back into place, acting before the engines were starved of fuel.Temporarily jarred back to reality, Mr. Emerson recalls leaving the cockpit, closing the door, asking a flight attendant for help and walking to the back of the plane. As he moved past the passengers, he said, he saw a mother and children looking at their tablets, and it reminded him of all the times he had traveled with his own family. Nobody seemed alarmed, he said. Did they not know what had happened in the cockpit? Or was he still dreaming?

The pilots turned toward Portland, looking for a place to make a swift landing, and called for the aid of law enforcement. “We’ve got the guy that tried to shut the engines down out of the cockpit,” a pilot told air traffic controllers.

At the back of the plane, Mr. Emerson asked a flight attendant to restrain him. “You need to cuff me right now, or it’s going to be bad,” he said, according to a police officer who interviewed the flight crew.

It’s a terrible position to be in, but remember; while mental health is not your fault, it is your responsibility. As for the FAA, it announced Thursday it was going to take a serious look at changing mental health regulations within its ranks of pilots. So there’s hope for future pilots, though Emerson is pretty sure his career, which he suffered so much to protect, is thoroughly over.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever fly an airplane again,” he said. “I really don’t. And I had a moment where that kind of became obvious. And I had to grieve that.”

Read the entire story here.

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