- Joseph Emerson, 44, almost brought down a passenger jet on October 22
- The pilot says he was suffering hallucinations from magic mushrooms
- The family man detailed the fateful moment he almost killed dozens
The off-duty pilot who almost brought down a passenger jet while tripping on magic mushrooms has broken his silence over the ‘imaginary journey’ that almost ended in tragedy.
Joseph Emerson, 44, said he took the psychedelic drugs two days before the fateful flight on October 22, while on a weekend getaway to remember his late best friend.
For the next 48 hours, the father-of-two says he was in a sleepless stupor, questioning reality while suffering repeat panic attacks.
In an interview with the New York Times from county jail, Emerson offered a disturbing glimpse into the bizarre near-catastrophe where he almost killed 83 people, urinated on himself, stripped naked and tried to flee custody.
He is facing 83 counts of attempted murder, one for everyone on board, and has pleaded not guilty.
Emerson said he had been feeling his grasp on reality was shaky for two days before the flight, and had texted his wife moments before takeoff how desperate he was to simply return home, telling her: ‘I just want to hold you.’
With 83 passengers on board, Emerson was off duty and should have had an easy flight to San Francisco ahead of him sat up in the cockpit.
But the other pilots said he quickly showed signs of erratic behavior, and as the plane reached cruising altitude he threw off his headset and declared: ‘I’m not okay.’
Suddenly, Emerson grabbed the plane’s overhead emergency fire suppression handles, leading to a desperate struggle between himself and the pilots to keep the jet in the air.
The flight was forced to change course and make an emergency diversion to Portland, and once on land Emerson was charged with 83 counts of attempted murder – a charge for all of his near-victims on board.
In his first interview, given from the visitation room from a Portland county jail, where he is being held without bail, he said the terrifying incident was the result of a psychedelic ‘bad trip’ he couldn’t shake off.
He said he and several friends went on a weekend getaway to Washington state’s Methow Valley to honor his best friend Scott Pinney, who died in 2018.
Pinney, the best man at Emerson’s wedding, died while jogging during a work trip in Hawaii, and the pilot said he has worn a necklace containing his friend’s ashes ever since.
After the men took the magic mushrooms together, which he had been assured would not make him fail a drug test and wear off in a matter of hours, Emerson said he was consumed by a terrible feeling.
He said he became paranoid and thought his friends may have been planning to hurt him.
‘I felt fearful of them,’ he said, adding that he also ‘started to have this feeling that this wasn’t real.’
The feeling of dissociation remained for days, where he relived past trauma in his mind and grew baselessly worried for his family.
‘I thought of a lot of traumatic things in that time where I was like, ‘Am I dead? Is this hell,’ he added.
Emerson said he barely slept a wink until he was on board the flight, still wracked with the feeling that he was dreaming, or at least not in touch with reality.
Moving through the airport and on board, the pilot said nothing made sense, including a growing sense that the airline staff seemed to be using the wrong protocols.
After a text message played in his ears through a spoken text-to-audio message, he flew into a frenzy of confusion and panic, and says he believed he yelled for help from the pilots and got no reaction.
When nothing happened, he said he became convinced the only way out of his haze was to wake himself up in any way he could.
In a timeline of what happened next, it is alleged that the pilots grabbed hold of his wrists after he pulled the emergency stop, and shunted them back into place before the engines cut off in a terrifying near-miss.
Emerson then left the cockpit quickly and walked down the plane, where he still thought he was dreaming as nobody on board seemed to be aware of, or have any reaction to, his attempt to bring the plane down.
On the ground, police rushed to the Portland runway after a pilot warned: ‘We’ve got the guy that tried to shut the engines down out of the cockpit.’
He was cuffed and restrained to the jet, but had enough space to move around that he chugged straight from a pot of coffee as he continued to act erratically.
Flight attendants have since said he repeatedly questioned if people on the plane were real or if he was in a nightmare.
Emerson said he was also able to reach his phone and send a text to his friends from the getaway, where he told them: ‘I’m having a mental breakdown and tried to turn off both engines on my flight home.’
In a separate text to his wife, he simply said: ‘I’ve made a big mistake.’
Emerson’s bizarre episode continued when he got on the ground, as he stripped naked, tried to jump out of a window, urinated on himself and attempted to masturbate in crazed efforts to wake himself up.
He again asked officers if the situation he found himself in was real. When he was told what he had done, he responded: ‘If this is real, and all of that was real, then I have done something to me that is unfathomable.’
His wife, Sarah Stretch, added that when he called her from custody, he was so out of his mind he began singing Boyz II Men’s hit song ‘It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.’
Stretch said she was stunned to learn he had dabbled with psychedelics on the trip, because his ‘pilot career was his life’ and he had even avoided second hand marijuana smoke in the past through fear of failing a drug test.
‘This kid, since he was 11-years-old, wanted to be an airline pilot,’ she said.
Those who knew Emerson have reacted with shock at the incident, but none more so than the pilot himself, who says he is now filled with regret and shame at his mindless actions.
‘I am horrified that those actions put myself at risk and others at risk,’ he said. ‘That crew got dealt 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.’
With his dreams of being an airline pilot in tatters, Emerson said he wants to be as transparent as possible over what occurred.
‘I don’t know if I’ll ever fly an airplane again.. I really don’t,’ he concluded.
‘And I had a moment here that kind of became obvious, and I had to grieve that.’