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Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to cut engines midflight pleads not guilty

An Alaska Airlines pilot is facing a federal charge after authorities said he tried to shut off a plane’s engines and attempted an emergency exit while the aircraft was midflight on Sunday.

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Authorities on Tuesday charged Joseph David Emerson, 44, with one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants. He also faces dozens of state charges related to the incident, including 83 counts of attempted murder.

Pilot pleads not guilty to charges

Update 5:39 p.m. EDT Oct. 24: Joseph David Emerson, 44, of Pleasant Hill, California, pleaded not guilty to charges in an Oregon court, The Associated Press reported.

Emerson entered a plea of not guilty to 83 counts of attempted murder during his first court appearance after his arrest on Sunday.

-- Bob D’Angelo, Cox Media Group National Content Desk

Original report: Officials with Alaska Airlines said Emerson, an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who lives in Pleasant Hill, California, was traveling in the flight deck jump seat on a plane bound from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco on Sunday when he “unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt the operation of the engines.”

Pilots on Alaska Airlines Flight 2059 told investigators that Emerson made “casual conversation” before he attempted to activate the plane’s emergency fire suppression system by grabbing a red fire handle and trying to pull it. When the system is activated, a valve in the wing closes to shut off fuel to the engine, according to Alaska Airlines.

Investigators said that after a brief struggle, Emerson left the cockpit. Flight attendants then put him in wrist restraints and seated him near the back of the aircraft.

“In this case, the quick reaction of our crew to reset the T-handles ensured engine power was not lost,” airline officials said. “Our crew responded without hesitation to a difficult and highly unusual situation, and we are incredibly proud and grateful for their skillful actions.”

Officials said the incident happened above Oregon, about halfway between Astoria and Portland.

Later, as the flight was landing following a diversion to Portland International Airport, authorities said Emerson tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit.

“A flight attendant stopped him by placing her hands on top of his,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon.

Passengers on the flight told KIRO-TV and KGO-TV that they didn’t realize anything was amiss until a flight attendant announced that the jet would be landing early.

“It was almost as if he had a psychotic breakdown,” Aubrey Gavello, a San Francisco resident who was on the flight with her boyfriend, told KGO. “Then the flight attendant got back on and told us he had a mental breakdown.”

Gavello and her boyfriend, Alex Wood, told the news station that they hoped that the pilot got help.

“With love and respect for people dealing with mental health issues, it’s a scary moment for all of us,” Wood said, according to KGO. “I hope he gets the help he needs. I also don’t think it’s OK for a pilot to do this and just be able to hop on a plane with all that is going on.”

Emerson joined Alaska Air Group as a Horizon first officer in 2001, according to the airline. Horizon Air is a subsidiary of the Alaska Air Group.

In 2012, Emerson left Horizon to join Virgin America as a pilot, airline officials said. Four years later, Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America and Emerson became a first officer for the airline. He became a pilot for Alaska in 2019.

Records from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office show Emerson remained jailed Tuesday.