EVERETT — An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot has been arrested for investigation of 83 counts of attempted murder after allegedly trying to shut down the engines on a Horizon Air flight from Everett to San Francisco on Sunday night.
He was identified as Joseph David Emerson, 44.
Emerson was in the cockpit when he tried unsuccessfully to tamper with the engines’ operation on Horizon Air flight 2059, according to a statement from parent company Alaska Airlines.
He was sitting in a jump seat located behind the pilot and co-pilot. The spare seat is reserved for government officials or airline employees, including off-duty pilots traveling from one assignment to another. Jump seat occupants are not involved with the plane’s operation.
Emerson tried to shut down the engines by trying to pull the “Engine Fire Handle,” also known as the fire suppression system, according to Alaska’s statement.
The fire suppression system consists of a T-handle for each engine. If the T-handle is fully deployed, a valve in the wing closes and shuts off fuel to the engine, according to Alaska’s statement.
“In this case, the quick reaction of our crew to reset the T-handles ensured engine power was not lost,” according to Alaska. “Our crew responded without hesitation to a difficult and highly unusual situation, and we are incredibly proud and grateful for their skillful actions.”
The incident was captured in an audio recording.
“We’ve got the guy that tried to shut the engines down out of the cockpit,” the Horizon crew can be heard telling air traffic control. “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.”
The jet, an Embraer 175, was diverted to Portland International Airport, in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration procedures. All passengers on board were able to travel on a later flight, Alaska said.
Emerson was arrested for investigation of 83 counts each of attempted murder and endangering an aircraft, as well as one count of reckless endangerment, for a total of 167 counts.
He was being held at Multnomah County Jail in Portland.
Emerson is a resident of Pleasant Hill, California, a Bay Area community 20 miles northeast of San Francisco. He received his most recent Airport Transport Pilot certificate in July. He is also listed as a certified flight instructor, according to the FAA Pilot registry.
Emerson joined Alaska Air Group as a Horizon Air First Officer in August 2001. In June 2012, Emerson left Horizon to join Virgin America as a pilot. Emerson became an Alaska Airlines First Officer following Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America in 2016. He became an Alaska Airlines Captain in 2019. Throughout his career, Emerson completed his mandated FAA medical certifications in accordance with regulatory requirements, and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked, Alaska said in a statement.
The Horizon Air flight took off from Everett at 5:25 p.m. Sunday and was due to arrive two hours later in San Francisco at 7:30 pm. Instead, the plane landed in Portland at 6:36 pm., according to Alaska flight information.
Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and its subsidiary, regional carrier Horizon Air, are the sole airline tenants serving the recently rebranded Seattle Paine Field International Airport.
“All safety and security protocols were followed in accordance with TSA regulations,” Paine Field spokesperson Kristin Banfield said in an email. “Paine Field Airport remains open and continues to operate safely and efficiently.”
The event was being investigated by law enforcement, including the FBI and the Port of Portland Police Department.
“The FBI is investigating and can assure the traveling public there is no continuing threat related to the incident,” the FBI’s Portland division said in a tweet Monday.
According to Jon Ostrower, editor of The Air Current, the FAA sent this notice to airlines on Monday: “Last night a significant security event occurred on a US Air Carrier involving a validated jump seat passenger attempting to disable aircraft engines while at cruise altitude by deploying the engine fire suppression system. The crew was able to subdue the suspect and was removed from the flight deck. The flight diverted and landed safely. The event remains under investigation by law enforcement, no further details will be provided at this time.”
The FAA was looking into the incident. In a tweet Monday, the federal agency said it “is engaged with Alaska Air and Horizon Air airlines and is supporting law enforcement investigations into Sunday evening’s incident aboard a Horizon Air flight.”