Neural Science

Alaska pilot says he took ‘magic mushrooms’ 2 days before allegedly try to stop plane mid-flight

An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot told investigators he took what’s known as “magic mushrooms” about 48 hours before a flight during which he allegedly attempted to shut down the plane’s engine.

The man, Joseph David Emerson, 44, is being charged with 83 accounts of attempted murder, NBC News reported.

Alaska Airlines pilot charged with attempted murder

Sunday’s Alaska Airlines flight, which departed from Everett, Washington, and was scheduled to arrive in San Francisco, was diverted to Portland, Oregon, when Emerson allegedly got up from the cockpit’s jump seat and attempted to interfere with the engine, according to a federal complaint.

The complaint alleges that Emerson attempted to grab two red handles, which cut power to the aircraft, but he was not able to pull them all the way down because the two on-duty pilots intervened. The complaint also alleges that the pilots said they had to “wrestle with” Emerson for several seconds before he stopped.

The federal filing alleges that flights attendants were alerted to the incident and brought Emerson to the back of the plane, and that he was observed “peacefully walking to the back of the aircraft.” Emerson allegedly told a flight attendant, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” according to the flight attendants’ account in the federal filing. In the back of the aircraft, he allegedly tried to grab an emergency exit handle, but a flight attendant stopped him, according to the federal complaint.

The FBI is now investigating if he was under the influence during these events, officials told NBC News.

In addition to the attempted murder charges, Emerson is charged with 83 counts of reckless endangerment, and one count of endangering an aircraft, according to local booking records.

On Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, an attorney for Emerson entered a plea of not guilty on all counts, according to NBC News.

According to federal and state complaints obtained by NBC News, Emerson allegedly told investigators he’d been experiencing depression prior to the incident, which may have been exacerbated by the recent death of a friend. He also allegedly said he hadn’t slept for 40 hours before the flight, believed he was having a “nervous breakdown” and requested medical attention.

“I didn’t feel OK. It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on,” Emerson told authorities, per the documents. “It didn’t seem right. I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

Emerson also allegedly told the pilot and copilot “I’m not OK,” before the incident.

According to the complaints, Emerson told investigators he hadn’t taken any medications before getting on the flight, but he said he had taken “magic mushrooms” about 48 hours before the flight and that it was his first experience with the psychedelic mushrooms.

What are psychedelic mushrooms, aka “magic mushrooms”?

Psychedelic mushrooms, also called “magic mushrooms” and “shrooms,” contain psilocybin, a compound that can temporarily alter the senses, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency factsheet. People who take psilocybin may experience nausea, vomiting, visual hallucinations, an altered sense of time and “an inability to discern fantasy from reality.”

At high doses, “panic reactions and a psychotic-like episode also may occur,” the DEA says. While reactions and experiences can vary from person to person, the average length of a psychedelic mushroom “trip” is between four and seven hours, according to Erowid, a nonprofit website that provides information about psychoactive drugs. The DEA adds that high doses can create “longer, more intense ‘trip’ episodes.”

Early research on “magic mushrooms” shows that they may have positive effects on conditions like depression and alcohol use disorder.

Was the pilot on “magic mushrooms” when he allegedly attempted to shut down the plane?

It’s unclear whether or not Emerson was actively under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms while on the flight.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma told the TODAY show in a segment aired Oct. 25 that the combination of sleep deprivation, mental health issues and psychoactive drugs can fuel feelings of detachment from reality.

“When you add sleep deprivation for a long period of time with substance abuse, we are really going to see chances of (a) break with reality, delusions, hallucinations — all of that potentially going up,” Varma says, “and potentially self-harm or harm to others.”

While most experiences with psychedelic mushrooms last only several hours, it’s possible for them to last days under certain conditions, psychedelic drug researcher, Dr. Charles Grob, the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor–UCLA Medical Center, told NBC News.

“I wouldn’t doubt that psilocybin mushrooms could have had residual effects even 48 hours after ingestion, especially if he took a large dose and was without any effective supervision, preparation, oversight or follow-up integration,” Grob said.

Emerson is expected to make his first appearance in federal court later this week, NBC News reported.

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