Wife of ex-Alaska Airlines pilot says she's in shock after averted Horizon Air disaster

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The wife of a former Alaska Airlines pilot who prosecutors say tried to cut the engines of a Horizon Air flight while riding in the cockpit jump seat said Thursday she knew her husband was struggling with depression but that she was in a state of shock over his arrest.

“This is not my Joe,” Sarah Stretch told reporters after attending her husband Joseph Emerson's first appearance in federal court in Portland, Oregon.

“He never would’ve done that. He never would’ve knowingly done any of that,” she added, her voice quivering. “That is not the man that I married.”

Ethan Levi, a defense attorney for Emerson, said that Emerson was not suicidal or homicidal while on board the Horizon Air flight. “There was no intention to harm himself or other people,” he said.

Levi added that Emerson wanted to thank the flight crew for their “timely and heroic actions.”

State and federal prosecutors accused Emerson of trying to engage an emergency fire suppression system while riding in the cockpit jump seat as an off-duty pilot on Horizon Air flight 2059 from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco on Sunday. After a brief struggle with the pilots, he left the cockpit and was placed in wrist restraints in the back of the plane, according to court documents.

The plane was diverted to Portland, where it landed safely with more than 80 people on board.

Emerson has pleaded not guilty to state charges of attempted murder. Federal prosecutors meanwhile charged Emerson with interfering with a flight crew, which can carry up to 20 years in prison.

In charging documents, police said Emerson told them he'd had a nervous breakdown, had been struggling with depression and hadn't slept for 40 hours.

Emerson was cited in charging documents as saying a friend had recently passed away. His defense attorney Levi clarified Thursday that his friend, who was a best man at his wedding, actually passed away about six years ago.

Emerson also said he had taken psychedelic mushrooms for the first time about 48 hours earlier. The pilots and others who encountered Emerson said he did not appear intoxicated, according to court documents.

The FBI affidavit said Emerson, who as an off-duty pilot was authorized to ride in the cockpit’s jump seat, made casual conversation with the captain and first officer when the plane was between Astoria, Oregon, and Portland, before trying to grab two red handles that would have activated the plane’s fire suppression system and cut off fuel to its engines.

After what the flight crew described as a struggle lasting only about 30 seconds, Emerson left the cockpit, the FBI said.

Flight attendants placed Emerson in wrist restraints and seated him in the rear of the aircraft, but as the plane descended, he tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit, according to the document. A flight attendant stopped him by placing her hands on top of his, it said.

Alaska Airlines said Tuesday that Emerson had been relieved of all duties. He last piloted a flight on Oct. 19, the airline said, three days before the Horizon Air episode.

Emerson joined Horizon as a first officer or co-pilot in 2001. In 2012, he went to work at Virgin America, which was bought by Alaska in 2016. Emerson was promoted to captain in 2019.

The averted disaster has renewed attention on the mental fitness of those allowed in the cockpit.

Alaska Airlines said Emerson met all requirements for medical exams “and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked.”

Emerson was to remain in custody.


Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.