PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – News of an off-duty pilot accused of attempting to down a plane with more than 80 people on board has raised questions about mental health inside the cockpit.
Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson told police he was having a nervous breakdown after allegedly taking magic mushrooms, not sleeping for nearly 40 hours, and battling with depression for months, according to court documents.
Aviation expert Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University, told KOIN 6 News the current mental health policies are not doing enough to keep passengers safe because they often prevent pilots from speaking out to get the help they need.
“The pilot was very open that he had severe mental health challenges,” Schwieterman said. “Nothing was done by airlines, the FAA. That’s really a red flag.”
The emergency landing in Portland Sunday night came after Emerson had been battling with depression and the recent loss of a friend, court documents stated.
Emerson allegedly told investigators, “I pulled both emergency shut-off handles, because I thought I was dreaming, and I just wanna wake up.” He denied taking medication, but allegedly told the officer that “six months ago, he became depressed” and later admitted “it was his first-time taking mushrooms.”
On Tuesday, Emerson was ordered to be held without bail after pleading not guilty to 84 charges, including 83 counts of attempted murder.
Schwieterman said there have long been blind spots in pilots self-reporting mental health issues due to the stigma and a fear of being pulled from the workforce.
“The industry is really grappling with mental health in the cockpit,” he said. “We do have some basic screening on depression in particular, but it’s such a sliding scale, and so much open to the honesty of the person delivering information as to whether they’re allowed to stay in the cockpit.”
Although Emerson had been riding in the flight deck jumpseat – not piloting the plane – Schwieterman said that current policies that allow privileged access to the cockpit are not keeping pace with the nation’s evolving mental health crisis.
Stay with KOIN 6 as this story develops.