KIRO NEWSRADIO

FAA concerned about mental health after pilot allegedly tried to shut off engines mid-flight

Apr 1, 2024, 4:38 PM | Updated: 4:45 pm

Image: An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on ...

An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images)

(Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may change some mental health rules for pilots in an effort to ENCOURAGE them to get care.

This comes after investigators said an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot tried to shut down the engines during a Horizon Airlines Flight on October 22, 2023.

The flight was on its way from Everett to San Francisco when Joseph Emerson, who was authorized to ride in the cockpit, allegedly tried to stop the flight.

Past coverage: Off-duty pilot claimed ‘nervous breakdown’ before trying to shutdown plane engines

Pilot says ‘I am not OK’ before allegedly trying to shut off engines

Court documents show that while sitting in the cock-pit jump seat, 44-year-old Emerson said “I am not OK,” before reaching up and grabbing fire handles that are used to shut off fuel to the engines.

After struggling with the pilots, he left the cockpit. Emerson told a flight attendant, “You need to cuff me or it’s going to be bad.”

While cuffed, Emerson tried to open a door in flight, before the plane landed safely in Portland.

He later told officers he thought he was having a nervous breakdown and had struggled with depression.

On December 7, 2023, Emerson was released from jail pending trial, after an Oregon judge approved it. Emerson pled not guilty to reduced charges of reckless endangerment, he previously faced attempted murder charges.

Emerson is banned from boarding any operable aircraft. He is also prohibited from possessing any synthetic intoxicating substances and narcotic drugs.

More background: Ex-pilot accused of trying to cut plane engines released from jail pending trial

FAA, experts discuss why pilots don’t report mental health issues

In December, the FAA convened a panel of experts, including medical professionals, academics, members of the aviation industry and representatives for pilots and air traffic controllers.

The group was tasked with looking at how to “break down barriers that prevent pilots and air traffic controllers from reporting mental health issues,” according to the FAA.

The FAA said it is reviewing the suggestions, which include relaxing rules that require pilots to disclose when they’re undergoing talk therapy sessions and reducing the amount of time pilots are restricted from flying after changing certain medications.

“Studies show that barriers to seeking mental health care can produce additional stressors and anxiety, which can ultimately create aviation safety hazards that would not otherwise exist,” writes the report.

The report said, for example, if someone is going through a divorce, they might not get help because they don’t want to report it to the FAA and risk losing their certification.

The Aviation Rulemaking Committee is hoping the FAA will incentivize people to seek mental health care. The committee also hopes that reporting will be a less intimidating process where people won’t feel like their jobs will be threatened.

Contributing: Julia Dallas, MyNorthwest.

Heather Bosch is an award-winning anchor and reporter on KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of her stories here. Follow Heather on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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FAA concerned about mental health after pilot allegedly tried to shut off engines mid-flight