SEATTLE — An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot taking a ride Sunday on a flight out of Everett attempted to shut down the engines in-flight and had to be subdued, according to audio captured of the incident and statements from the airline and authorities.
Horizon Air flight 2059, an Embraer E175 regional jet from Everett to San Francisco, diverted to Portland, where it landed safely. The Alaska Airlines pilot, who was riding in a jump seat on the flight deck, was arrested and jailed on suspicion of attempted murder and other crimes.
Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office records show Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson, 44, was arrested by Port of Portland police and was booked into jail just after 4 a.m. Monday. Emerson is expected to be arraigned Tuesday in Portland.
Emerson, a California resident with ties to Seattle, has been a commercial airline pilot since 2001 and has flown with Alaska since 2016.
While law enforcement authorities have yet to say what they believe occurred aboard the flight, radio communications between the Horizon flight crew and air traffic control provided some insight.
In an audio recording of the exchange, one crew member briefed an air traffic controller on the situation after the immediate threat was dealt with.
“I’ll just give you a heads-up. We’ve got the guy that tried to shut the engines down out of the cockpit,” the crew member told Portland air traffic control in a calm voice. “It doesn’t seem like he’s causing any issue at the back. I think he’s subdued.”
“We want law enforcement as soon as we get on the ground and parked,” he added.
A Federal Aviation Administration notice distributed to all U.S. airlines on an alert network Monday morning gave further detail in what the FAA called a “significant security event.”
The “jump seat passenger” attempted “to disable aircraft engines while at cruise altitude by deploying the engine fire suppression system,” the notice states. “The crew was able to subdue the suspect and (he) was removed from the flight deck.”
In a statement, Alaska Air Group — the SeaTac-based parent company of Alaska Airlines and its regional subsidiary, Horizon Air — said, “The Horizon Captain and First Officer quickly responded, engine power was not lost, and the crew secured the aircraft without incident.”
“He’s out of the cockpit now”
The Embraer E-175 regional jet had taken off from Everett’s Paine Field airport at 5:23 p.m. Sunday. The flight was full, with 80 passengers on board, including lap infants, with two pilots flying and two flight attendants on duty in the passenger cabin.
It’s routine for airline employees, if seats are available, to hitch free rides back to their home bases after their work shifts end.
A pilot commuting in this way will often choose the jump seat to chat with the pilots flying. In this case, the flight deck jump seat was the only one free on the plane.
The scheduled two-hour flight diverted and landed in Portland at 6:26 p.m. after about an hour in the air.
After the plane was vectored in for final approach to the Portland runway, the air traffic controller asked the crew for verification of the threat level.
The pilot relayed the official airline threat designation as “Level 4,” the highest level that indicates a “breach of the flight crew compartment.”
“It escalated to a 4, but he’s out of the cockpit now,” the pilot flying said, according to the recording.
“The threat is now in the back of the airplane, so we’re reduced the threat level,” he added. “We’re going to check in with the flight attendants to make sure everything is running smoothly, but it seems he settled down. … After one moment of going a little bit overboard, we put him in the back.”
After checking with the flight attendants, the crew then told the air traffic controller that the person who had tried to kill the engines was now “handcuffed and he’s in the aft back jump seat for when law enforcement arrives and right now he’s staying calm.”
That’s a fold-down seat at the back of the passenger cabin where flight attendants typically sit for landing.
Seated in first class, passenger Paul Stephen said he could see Portland from the plane when he noticed a tall bald man leaving the cockpit by himself, walking past Stephen’s row and down the aisle.
A flight attendant, who Stephen said looked uncomfortable, told passengers the plane would make an emergency landing in Portland. Then, the plane took a steep dive, he said.
Stephen described the time between the flight attendant saying they would do an emergency landing and arriving in Portland as “20 minutes of pure hell.”
“There was a fear,” he said. “I had it in my body.”
When the plane landed, Stephen looked on as police escorted off the plane the man who had walked down the aisle unattended.
Pulling the fire handles
The FAA notice indicates Emerson attempted to activate a fire suppression system that would’ve cut fuel to the regional jet’s twin engines.
On the E175 jet, that system is activated by two handles, one for each engine, in the center of the instrument panel on the cockpit ceiling. To activate it, pilots must reach up, pull the handle down and turn it to lock it in place.
Pulling the handle cuts electrical and hydraulic power to the engine and closes the fuel line. Turning the handle then releases a pressurized bottle of fire-suppressing halon gas.
Alaska Air spokesperson Alexa Rudin said via email that “fortunately some residual fuel remains in the line, and the quick reaction of our crew to reset the handles restored fuel flow.”
A former Horizon Air E175 pilot now flying for Alaska, speaking anonymously because he did so without official authorization, explained that the off-duty pilot in the jump seat — which is located in between and behind the pilots — would have been positioned to potentially pull both handles at once.
Under a program called the Federal Flight Deck Officer, the Transportation Security Administration deputizes qualified volunteer pilots as law enforcement officers “to defend the flight deck of aircraft against acts of criminal violence or air piracy.”
At this point it’s not known if either of the pilots flying the plane were so trained. Somehow, though Emerson is described by police as 6 feet 1 inches tall and 210 pounds, they did stop him.
According to Alaska Airlines, Emerson was hired by Horizon Air in 2001 and then moved to work for San Francisco-based Virgin America. He joined Alaska Airlines when the carrier acquired Virgin America in 2016.
With San Francisco as his crew base for Alaska, Emerson lives in Pleasant Hill, California, located about 30 miles northeast of the city, according to public records. Previously, when he was flying for Horizon, he lived in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood between 2003 and 2008, property records show. He does not appear to have a criminal record.
In a statement, the FBI said it “is investigating and can assure the traveling public there is no continuing threat related to this incident.”
Port of Portland Police referred Emerson’s case to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, which had not filed charges as of Monday afternoon. The FAA said it “is supporting law enforcement investigations.”
In its statement Monday, Alaska Air said “a credible security threat related to an authorized occupant in the flight deck jump seat” had occurred on the flight.
“We are grateful for the professional handling of the situation by the Horizon flight crew and appreciate our guests’ calm and patience throughout this event,” the airline stated.
Passengers received travel vouchers for use on future travel.
Another Alaska Airlines pilot, a veteran captain who asked not to be named because he spoke without authorization and with no direct knowledge of the incident, said he was “so, so sad” to hear of it.
“We have a great group of people flying for us,” the captain said. “To have one of our own do this is really sad.”
The Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing Alaska Airlines pilots, in a statement said it is cooperating with the investigating authorities. Intentional crashes of airplanes by pilots are very rare.
“It is important to remember that the airline pilot profession in North America is one of the most highly vetted and scrutinized careers,” ALPA said. “U.S. pilots are continuously evaluated throughout their careers through training, medical exams, crew resource management … as well as by the airline and during random flight checks by the Federal Aviation Administration.”
The plane sat for about two hours after landing in Portland before it took off again. The flight that was supposed to arrive in San Francisco at 7:20 p.m. landed there three hours late, passenger Stephen said.
Stephen said Alaska offered $300 in flight credit, which he described as far too low, based on the scary experience.
“To only offer $300 for what happened, especially when they let this guy run down (the aisle), it’s unacceptable,” he said.
Emerson’s arraignment is scheduled to take place at the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland. Prosecutors and Emerson’s attorney will make arguments to the judge, who will then decide whether Emerson will remain jailed.