I am not OK: Horizon Air flight 2059

27 Oct 23 6 Comments

On Sunday, the 22nd of October, Horizon Air flight 2059 was on a scheduled passenger flight from Everett in Washington to San Francisco, California. The aircraft was a four-year-old Embraer ERJ-175. The flight was full, with eighty passengers, two flight crew and two cabin crew on board. One of the passengers was an off-duty pilot travelling from Everett to San Francisco. The flight was full, so the deadheading passenger, a captain with Alaska Airlines, was seated in the jump seat on the flight deck. Jump seats are spare foldable seats; the one in the cockpit is often used by flight crew observing a flight (instructors or trainee pilots) or authorised airline staff. Alaska Airlines own Horizon Air so the off-duty pilot was fully cleared to travel in the jump seat on the flight deck.

An Alaska Airlines (operated by Horizon) Embraer 175 photographed by Ganbaruby (not the incident aircraft)

The off-duty pilot held his Airline transport pilot licence (ATPL), the highest level of pilot certificate. He had been worked as a commercial pilot for over twenty years, initially as a first officer for Horizon Air. He left for Virgin America, which was acquired by Alaska Airlines in 2016. Three years later, Alaska Airlines promoted him to captain. He had received his most recent medical clearance a month before the flight.

The sequence of events that follows uses the Criminal Complaint filed in the District of Oregon as a primary source.

Neither of the pilots flying the aircraft had met the off-duty pilot before. Cruising at flight level 310 (31,000 feet), they were chatting to him about the weather and different types of aircraft, described as a casual conversation. There was, they said, zero indication of anything wrong. The flight passed Portland and continued south.

Suddenly, the off-duty pilot threw his headset off and exclaimed, “I am not OK!” The Pilot Monitoring turned around to see him grab the red fire handles of the emergency fire suppression system. These are two red T-handles located near the jump seat, one for each engine. When a handle is pulled down, a valve cuts off the fuel to that engine. The Pilot Flying grabbed the off-duty pilot. The Pilot Monitoring declared an emergency and disconnected the autopilot to turn around, setting a new course to Portland. You can hear the audio on this LiveATC clip starting at 09:30. VASAviation has done a map overlay of the communications as the aircraft turned back towards Portland.

The off-duty pilot fought back for about 25-30 seconds, then he calmed down and agreed to leave the cockpit. The pilots locked the cockpit door behind him and called the cabin to warn the two cabin crew members.

The flight crew had reacted quickly enough that the fire handles were not pulled down all the way down: an Embraer 175 pilot tells me that there is a detent at the 80% mark which takes quite a bit of effort to get past. In an interview afterwards, the Pilot Monitoring said if they had been, it would not just shut down the fuel flow but also close the flow of hydraulic fluid, turning the aircraft into a glider. As it was, there was enough fuel in the lines that the engines continued and the pilots were able to reset the fire handles and restore fuel flow before the lack of fuel stopped the engines.

One thing I’d like to highlight here is how quickly the flight crew reacted and split duties without there being any chance to discuss. One subdued the attacker while the other focused on getting the aircraft to safety.

The cabin crew, having been notified that the off-duty pilot had been locked out of the cockpit, found him calmly walking down the centre aisle towards the rear of the aircraft. “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” he said, offering no resistance. They took him to a cabin crew seat at the rear of the aircraft, where he held his hands in front of him while one crew member placed flex handcuffs around his wrists and secured his seatbelt. The other informed the passengers over the PA system that they were going to have to land immediately because of a medical emergency on board.

As the aircraft descended towards Portland International Airport, the off-duty pilot attempted to grab the emergency exit door handle, as if to open it. As he was in cuffs with his seatbelt on, the cabin crew member was able to restrain him simply by putting her hands on top of his. She spoke to him in hopes of distracting him from reaching for the emergency exit handle again. The other crew member heard him tell her that he had messed everything up and that he’d tried to kill everybody.

Then he pulled out his phone and appeared to be texting. According to the complaint, he also said that he had just put 84 people’s lives at risk, including his own, but it isn’t clear to whom he was speaking.

The aircraft landed safely at Portland airport and was met by the Port of Portland police. The police escorted the off-duty pilot off the aircraft and placed him under arrest. In the cabin, a passenger reported that one of the cabin crew members had announced on the PA that the person escorted off the plane had had a mental breakdown.

In the patrol vehicle, he told the police that he believed he was having a nervous breakdown and that he had not slept in 40 hours. He was dehydrated, he said, and tired.

He told them that he had been in the cockpit. “I didn’t feel OK,” he told them. “It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on. They didn’t…it didn’t seem right.” He confirmed that he’d pulled the red fire handles. “Yeah, I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

He told the officers that he was not taking any medication but had been suffering from depression for approximately six months.

He also told the arresting officers that he’d taken magic mushrooms for the first time.

Excerpt from the New York Times stating that the pilot had consumed mushrooms about 48 hours before boarding

Initial reports claimed that he’d taken the mushrooms forty or forty-eight hours before the flight; however, this isn’t mentioned in the complaint. There is also no reference to a drug test being administered. Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, is very fast acting. According to Peter Stafford’s Psychedelics Encyclopedia, concentrations of psiiocybin in tissue are highest about half an hour after ingestion and decrease rapidly over the next three to four hours. In humans, 80-85% of psilocybin and its metabolites are excreted within 8 hours. Thus, it seems unlikely that the mushrooms could have caused a psychedelic effect during the flight unless the mushrooms had been ingested on the day of the flight.

Forty hours without sleep is more likely to have caused confusion and would explain that feeling of just wanting to wake up. Severe Sleep Deprivation Causes Hallucinations and a Gradual Progression Toward Psychosis With Increasing Time Awake in the National Library of Medicine states that symptoms including “perceptual distortions, anxiety, irritability, depersonalization, and temporal disorientation” start within 24-48 hours of sleep loss.

At the Port of Portland police department, the off-duty pilot asked if he could waive his right to an attorney. “I’m admitting to what I did. I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys.”

The complaint ends with a charge of Title 49, United States Code, Section 46504, which is a federal charge of interference with flight crew members and attendants and carries a max penalty of 20 years in prison.

But that’s not the worst of his troubles. The Booking Information originally showed 83 counts of Attempted Murder II (ORS 163.115 Murder in the second degree, one for each soul on board not counting his) and 83 counts of reckless endangerment. A lawyer friend of mine, speaking generally on the case, explained to me that a criminal defendant doesn’t get a bonus for being bad at criming, so an attempted murder charge usually carries the same penalty of a completed murder. Murder in the second degree requires life imprisonment as a minimum term, with a chance of parole if there is the possibility that the prisoner may be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time.

The mushrooms, if taken before the flight, combined with severe lack of sleep might open the door for a defence that his thinking was not clear enough to plan and execute a purposeful attack. On the other hand, the San Francisco Chronicle points out that being under the influence isn’t necessarily a defence to causing (or attempting to cause) harm and says the prosecution could argue that the defendant took the mushrooms in order to “steel up his nerve” to commit the act.

The state will need to prove that the defendant intended to kill, in that he knew that pushing down the red fire handles would cause an emergency that was likely to cause the deaths of everyone aboard. Unfortunately for his defence, he effectively confessed this when in the back of the aircraft with the cabin crew. It isn’t clear whether extreme emotional disturbance would make for a defence against the 83 counts of Murder 2 under the circumstances.

Screenshot from the booking, showing 83 counts of ATT MURDER II followed by ENDANG AIRCRAFT and then a string of ATT MURDER I

My friend also noticed hat the booking changed at some point yesterday evening (Thursday) and now includes an additional 83 counts of murder in the first degree. It looks like they are able to escalate it to Murder 1 as a mass murder, based on the fact that there was more than one victim. It may be that the booking is still in the process of updating and that these new charges will supercede the Murder 2 charges originally listed.

I can think of two previous cases where an aircraft full of passengers was threatened by airline staff members. The most similar case was also an airline pilot using the jump seat, travelling on Federal Express flight 705 in 1994. The pilot was facing dismissal and attempted to overcome the flight crew and crash an aircraft as if it were an accident, allowing his family to collect his life insurance. The three flight crew were seriously injured but were able to overcome their attacker. The flight crew survived but were medically unable to fly commercially after the injuries that he caused. The attacker was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole for attempted air piracy and interference with flight crew. The book Hijacked by Dave Hirschman gives a full account of the case.

Somewhat similar is the case in 1987, when a man employed by the airline for fourteen years was fired for petty theft and his appeal for leniency (and his job back) had been denied. He had kept his employee ID and boarded the aircraft with a handgun, attacking the cabin crew and the flight crew and successfully crashing the plane, killing all on board. I wrote about that one in I am the problem: PSA flight 1771.


  • Psilocybine can cause flashbacks.

    I think the “steeling up his nerves” theory has to surmount the obstacle that he took the mushrooms 2 days before the flight. It doesn’t feel realistic.

    For murder 1, I believe the prosecution needs to prove intent and premeditation. That’s going to be difficult. Him shouting “I’m not ok” effectively foiled his own plan, if he’d pulled the handles silently, he probably would have succeeded. He also asked to be handcuffed in order for the cabin crew to be able to restrain him.

    “The other crew member heard him tell her that he had messed everything up and that he’d tried to kill everybody.” — I’m taking this as s self-assessment of what he had found himself doing, not a statement of intent. It makes it easier for the prosecutor to say, “he knew that pulling the handles could kill everyone on board”, but the guy being a pilot on the type makes this obvious anyway.

    There’s always the investigation, and often additional evidence that changes things (as in the case of the MH-370 pilot), but based on what Sylvia relates above, I’d expect this to be a bona fide psychotic episode. The scary thing is that this might have happened with him in command of an aircraft. Maybe he was intentionally trying to create a situation where he would be prevented from ever flying an aircraft again.

    I did the maths: what do you guys make of the fact that apparently he’d been flying as a first officer for over 16 years before making captain in 2019?

  • The only real options he has are a plea bargain or an insanity defense. The latter became much more difficult in federal cases when Congress changed the legal standard after US v. Hinckley, so a lot depends on his expert witnesses. Essentially the defense must present clear and convincing evidence that the defendant had severe mental illness at the time of the alleged offense, and that this prevented him from knowing what he was doing and/or understanding that it was wrong. If they decide to try this, they will play up his reported depression and insomnia, as well as his statement that he thought he was dreaming and wanted to wake up. They may suggest the psilocybin as a trigger. The most recent research indicates such adverse effects are extremely rare and do not persist after the drug is metabolized, but the idea that psychedelics make people crazy has become part of folklore now.

    Incidents like this are thankfully very rare. What practical measurements could prevent them? Require more frequent mental health screenings for flight crew? How often would these need to be given in order to be reasonably effective? Pilots’ FAA medical exam is supposed to screen for mental health issues, but I understand those are every 6 months to 5 years, and rely heavily on self-reporting.

  • The grand jury has declined to bring murder charges: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/05/us/alaska-airlines-pilot-charges.html. They may have been influenced by https://www.faa.gov/newsroom/faa-appoint-rulemaking-committee-examine-pilot-mental-health; some of the first stories about this event noted that pilots may be unwilling to seek psychiatric help because they’re afraid they will be grounded on suspicion. Airline passengers expect (reasonably) that their pilots be sound in mind and body — but psychiatric diagnosis is still so uncertain that such fear isn’t entirely unreasonable. Diagnosis is improving — we’re at least past the stage where a pilot could have been downchecked for homosexuality, which was in the DSM until 1973 — but it’s not nearly as rigorous as it needs to be.

    Sylvia cites research that psilocybin and its metabolites are excreted quickly, but it’s not clear how much this pilot took or how long the remaining 15-20% hangs around — or how much is needed for effect, or whether there are effects after the traceable drug+metabolites have been excreted; given US drug laws (and their enforcement), this is not something researchers in the US are inclined to investigate. (I wonder who did the cited research and how many hoops they had to jump through.) As someone who grew up in the 1960’s (and lived for a year just across a village from Timothy Leary’s hangout) I’m conscious of lurid stories about “flashbacks” from LSD — and that there’s little research on how real these were; I suspect there’s been even less research on other psychoactives such as psilocybin. OTOH — as Sylvia points out, just being awake for 40 hours would not help the state of mind of someone not used to pulling long hours.

    I wonder whether this will lead the FAA to consider standards for deadheads in the cockpit — and how hard it will be to enforce any such standards.

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