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An off-duty pilot allegedly attempted to disable an aircraft's engine midflight

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We are learning more about the off-duty pilot who allegedly attempted to disable an aircraft's engines in midflight on Sunday night. Here is how the active pilot described the situation to air traffic controllers as heard on liveatc.net.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: OK. I'll just give you a heads up. We've got the guy that tried to shut the engines down out of the cockpit, and he doesn't sound like he's causing any issue in the back right now. I think he's subdued.

SUMMERS: The off-duty pilot is now facing more than 80 counts of attempted murder, and the incident has renewed concerns around mental health care for pilots. NPR's Joel Rose has been following this story. So, Joel, what can you tell us about what happened here?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: So this was an Alaska Airlines flight that was scheduled to fly from Everett, Wash., to San Francisco. An off-duty Alaska pilot was catching a ride in the cockpit in the jump seat behind the pilots. That's normal across the industry, but what happened next is not routine at all. Federal investigators say the off-duty pilot suddenly tried to disable the engines. Fortunately, the pilots were able to physically stop him and send him back to the cabin of the plane, which landed safely in Portland, Ore. The off-duty pilot was arrested, booked into jail on 83 counts of attempted murder. And today we learned he's facing a federal count of interfering with the flight crew as well.

SUMMERS: Obviously a really scary situation. But do we know anything about this off-duty pilot, what might have triggered this incident?

ROSE: His name is Joseph Emerson, and there are some wild new allegations in federal court papers that were filed today. According to the FBI, the crew said Emerson was chatting casually with the pilots, gave zero indication of anything wrong during the beginning of the flight. But at some point, as the jet moved over Oregon, the first officer saw Emerson throw off his headset and say, quote, "I am not OK." The crew says that's when Emerson tried to grab the fire suppression system for the engines. The FBI says the pilot then grabbed Emerson's wrist and "physically engaged with him," quote-unquote, for about half a minute. The pilot asked Emerson to leave the cockpit, which Emerson did. And Emerson then allegedly told a flight attendant, you need to cuff me right now, or it's going to be bad.

SUMMERS: Wow. So once this plane landed, did investigators then talk to Emerson?

ROSE: The FBI says they did and that Emerson told agents that he had a, quote, "nervous breakdown," had not slept in 40 hours. He allegedly told the agent that he pulled the emergency shut-off handles on the engines because, quote, "I thought I was dreaming, and I just want to wake up." The agent said Emerson denied taking any medication, though the FBI also says Emerson did talk about psychedelic mushrooms and said, quote, "it was his first time taking mushrooms," unquote. What is not clear, though, is if he was actually under the influence of mushrooms during the flight. Emerson did allegedly tell the FBI agent that, six months ago, he had become depressed. And I should note, you know, that even before these latest details came out, the incident was reviving concerns across the industry about the mental health of pilots, whether they are getting the treatment they need.

SUMMERS: And, Joel, what would prevent pilots from getting that sort of treatment?

ROSE: It's complicated. There's a stigma around seeking mental health treatment. Pilots are concerned that they will be grounded if they seek treatment, and the use of antidepressants by pilots is tightly regulated. Dennis Tajer is a veteran pilot and a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines.

DENNIS TAJER: What's at stake is you think that your job is at stake. The income for your family is at stake. I'm going to be grounded, lose my job, lose my home. And these are all awfulizing thoughts that pilots go through that stop them from getting the care that they need if they need it.

ROSE: Federal regulators are aware of this issue and say pilots should come forward and get treatment if they need it. Clearly, many pilots, though, are still wary.

SUMMERS: NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.