Pilots sound alarm on mental health after pilot 'magic mushroom' scare

American pilots sound the alarm on mental health after off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson tries to shut down plane’s engines ‘while high on magic mushrooms’

  • The incident has brought to the fore issues around mental health and the stigma of reporting problems
  • Pilots struggle with fear that if they report issues, they will ‘lose their wings’ 
  • Staffing issues exacerbate problems with longer hours and more stressful shifts

Pilots have raised the alarm on mental health amid dozens of ‘near misses’ and erratic incidents as a captain stands charged with attempted murder for trying to shut down a plane’s engines while high on ‘magic mushrooms’.

Staffing shortages, a lack of support and fear of dismissal for reporting mental health issues are all contributing to incidents and ‘near misses’. 

The problem was brought to the fore on Sunday when an off-duty pilot, Joseph Emerson, 44, told colleagues he was ‘not okay’ before trying to shut off the engine’s fuel supply mid-flight. 

The pilot and co-pilot on the Horizon Air plane from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco managed to wrestle him away from the controls before disaster struck, but questions have been raised about how it got to that point. 

Emerson was travelling on an Alaska Airlines plane when he had a’ ‘breakdown’

Emerson was arrested on landing and charged with 83 counts of attempted murder.

In a recorded interview with cops, he said had been struggling with depression for six months and believed he was having a ‘nervous breakdown’ and had not slept in 40 hours, the affidavit states. 

It comes after a summer which saw dozens of close calls – including 46 in July alone – with planes almost colliding at major US airports and a mid-air near miss between two planes traveling in excess of 500mph.  

The data prompted calls for a review of the sector, which experts claimed is ‘understaffed’.

Laurie Garrow, a professor of civil engineering at Georgia Tech, told USA Today: ‘During COVID, there were many air traffic controllers and pilots who retired. 

‘Part of the reason we may be seeing more near-misses is because as an industry we now have a much younger workforce that does not have the benefit of having decades worth of experience.’

As of May, only three of the 313 air traffic facilities nationwide had enough controllers to meet targets set by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to The Times.

In January, a pilot narrowly avoided smashing into another plane which had taken a wrong turn at JFK in New York, each carrying hundreds of people. 

A near-miss incident at JFK on January 13 occurred when a Delta aircraft which was about to take off had to perform an emergency stop after an American Airlines plane crossed onto the runway

The staffing shortages mean some employees have to work overtime in a highly stressful environment. The demands of the job have left some burned out.

Air traffic controllers told the FAA that the shortage of staff is ‘plain dangerous’.

In a safety reported filed last year, one said: ‘Controllers are making mistakes left and right. Fatigue is extreme. The margin for safety has eroded tenfold. Morale is rock bottom. I catch myself taking risks and shortcuts I normally would never take.’

Staffing shortages also exacerbate pilots’ mental health issues – and looming over any problem is a fear that if they report their concerns, they could ‘lose their wings’. 

A 2016 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that around 13 per cent of pilots met the criteria for depression, and 4 per cent reported suicidal thoughts. 

It added: ‘Underreporting of mental health symptoms and diagnoses is probable among airline pilots due to the public stigma of mental illness and fear among pilots of being ‘grounded’ or not fit for duty.’

Research by physician and assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota, William R. Hoffman, found that of 3,500 US pilots, 56 per cent avoid health care because they fear ‘losing their wings’. 

Writing in the Scientific American last year, Emerson said: ‘Airline pilots are required to meet certain medical standards in order to maintain an active flying status, and disclosing a new symptom or condition to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) puts them at risk of losing, usually temporarily, their ability to work and fly. 

‘This is particularly true for mental health symptoms.’

He added that even receiving long term talking therapy could lead to a temporary ban. 

Jones was caught on camera marching purposefully towards the gate at Denver International Airport with the ax swinging from his right hand

The way the FAA handles mental health changed after the 2015 German Wings incident which saw a co-pilot – who had previously been treated for suicidal tendencies – deliberately crash a passenger jet into a mountain.

Since then, the FAA say they are trying to encourage ‘pilots to seek help if they have a mental health condition since most, if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying.’ 

But many pilots cannot afford to take time off work for treatment – or cannot bear the potential additional costs of re-training. 

Ross Aimer, a retired United Airlines pilot who is now CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, told the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘Mental health is a taboo subject with pilots.

‘The moment you say something, you stop flying and your career could be over. People do anything to hide it.’

In recent years, there have been frequent reports of pilots snapping or taking drastic action. 

In August, a senior United airlines pilot, just years short of retiring, was caught on camera attacking a parking barrier with an ax. He later said he had ‘just hit his breaking point’. 

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