Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The Alaska Airlines attack

 I had a request to do another aviation story recently. As luck would have it, one popped up on Monday when an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot decided to try to kill everyone on board his flight. I’m not sure that there was a connection between the request and the incident, but I also can’t be sure that there isn’t. Who knows what awesome powers my readers might be tapped into, but let’s be careful what we ask for.

Let’s start at the beginning. Alaska Airlines Flight 2059 is a regular flight from Everett, Washington (KPAE) to San Francisco (KSFO). This flight was operated by Alaska’s regional codeshare partner, Horizon Air, and was flown with an Embraer 175 regional jet, an airplane that resembles a baby 737 but is typically configured for between 76 and 88 passengers.

Horizon Air Embraer 175 (By Johnnyw3 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74714583)

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In the interest of full disclosure, I fly another Embraer product, the Legacy 500, in my corporate aviation job. The two planes are both manufactured by the Brazilian aerospace company and are both sometimes referred to as “jungle jets,” but they are completely different types and I have never been trained on the 175.

On Sunday, an off-duty pilot was commuting in the cockpit of the airliner when the pilot-turned-passenger, in the words of Alaska’s official statement, “unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt the operation of the engines.”

The crew, the statement continues, “quickly responded, engine power was not lost and the crew secured the aircraft without incident.”

“Following appropriate FAA procedures and guidance from Air Traffic Control, the flight was safely diverted to Portland International Airport,” Alaska says. “The jump seat occupant [the perpetrator] is currently in custody and the event is being investigated by law enforcement authorities, which includes the FBI and the Port of Portland Police Department.”

The FlightAware track for the flight shows a 50-minute flight with a cruise altitude of 35,000 feet. The flight is just south of Portland, Oregon (KPDX) when suddenly the plane begins a descent at a turn back to the north. Based on this depiction, it appears that the attack took place at about 6:26 p.m. Pacific Time.

The first question that many readers will have is why an off-duty pilot was in the cockpit of an airliner in the first place. The simple answer is that he was on the way to work. He was scheduled to fly a 737 trip out of San Francisco later.

Many airline pilots don’t live at their base. Airlines extend free or low-cost travel benefits to their employees provided that the seat is not taken by a paying customer. At the companies I used to work for, this was called “non-revenue space-available” travel. Usually, it was shortened to “non-rev.”

Pilots have an additional privilege called “jump-seating.” Airline cockpits contain a small foldout seat called a jumpseat where an additional occupant can sit inside the cockpit perched behind and between the two pilots. The jumpseat is intended for check airmen to observe the crew on line checks (observations of a routine airline flight to ensure compliance with standard procedure), but the vast majority of the time, it goes unused. If the cabin seats are full, sometimes pilots commuting to or from their base are allowed to sit in the jump seat. If you’ve seen the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” you’ve seen the general way that jumpseating works.

ABC News reports that the suspect was en route to San Francisco to work. The flight may have been full in the back so he had to ride on the jumpseat. For some reason, as yet undisclosed, he tried to pull the airplane’s throttles back and cause a crash.

Reuters adds that the suspect tried to engage the engine fire suppression system. This is a key detail because most fire switches on jet airplanes do several things. The goal of pressing the switch is to stop a fire so it cuts off several items that could add fuel to a burning engine. These include closing shutoff valves for the fuel and hydraulic systems and removing electrical power from the engine. Additionally, engine fire extinguishers are armed, and bleed air valves are closed to prevent fiery hot air from moving to other parts of the plane.

The fire switches are always a guarded switch with a cover that has to be opened before you can press it. Why? Because pressing the switch cuts off a running engine, which is almost always a bad thing in an airborne aircraft. I say “almost” because there are certain times, such as when an engine is on fire, that shutting the engine down is preferable to keeping it running, but these are rare occurrences.

The fact that the suspect flipped up a protective cover to try to press these fire switches and shut off the engines says a lot about his intent. He wanted to crash the airplane and kill everyone on board.

I’ll add that if the engines were shut down, they could be restarted, but under the circumstances, it is likely that there would have been a disaster. Restarting the engines is a complex procedure. That’s especially true if both engines are shut down, which would require the crew to maintain control of an airplane that is quickly losing energy. In this scenario, with a suicidal passenger in the cockpit trying to make you lose control, the odds would not have been good for success.

The suspect in custody is Joseph David Emerson, 44. Numerous outlets report that Emerson was (I assume that it’s past tense by now) a pilot with Alaska Airlines. No motive has been named, but there are several obvious possibilities.

The new Hamas war has brought rumors of terrorist strikes in the US and there have been “homegrown” terrorist attacks by self-radicalized American terrorists in the past. There is so far no evidence that Emerson was a radical Muslim, and the FAA said that the incident does not appear connected to world events.

Far more likely is that Emerson was homicidal/suicidal for personal reasons. Back in 2015, I wrote an article about pilot suicides for the now-defunct Examiner.com which is still available on my blog. A number of airline pilots have chosen to end their lives by taking their passengers and fellow crewmembers with them. Notable examples of crashes that are known or suspected to be the result of suicidal pilots include Germanwings Flight 9525 in 2015, EgyptAir 990 in 1999, Japan Air Lines 350 in 1982, Malaysia 370 in 2014, and China Eastern Airlines 5735 in 2022.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that a suicidal employee has targeted Horizon Air. In 2018, a disgruntled mechanic stole a De Havilland Q400 turboprop airliner and performed an impromptu airshow before crashing it into an island in Puget Sound. Only the hijacker was killed in that incident.

There has also been at least one case of a cockpit jumpseater attacking the crew in the flight. Back in 1994, a jumpseater on a FedEx freighter attacked the crew with hammers, a knife, and a spear gun that he had carried on board in a guitar case. The crew fought back and ultimately subdued the suicidal hijacker, a FedEx flight engineer, with the help of aerial maneuvers that made it difficult for him to stay upright.

Through the years, I have also seen rumors that at least some of the September 11 hijackers were in the jumpseat, but I have never seen this confirmed. Nevertheless, the entire industry response to hijackings changed after those attacks. Those changes included strengthened cockpit doors and more stringent security measures for jumpseaters.

New measures also included the Federal Flight Deck Officer and Federal Air Marshal programs. FFDOs were pilots deputized to carry guns to protect their airplanes. The fact that Joseph David Emerson, 44, is still alive to see 45 is evidence that no FFDO or Air Marshal was on board Alaska 2059.

As to why Emerson would try to kill himself and a planeload of passengers, I can only speculate. Previous motives for pilot suicides have included mental illness, job pressures, and family and financial problems. Airline flying can be stressful and the current work environment is one that can include a lot of time away from home and exhausting schedules. Airline jobs are notoriously rough on marriages and can lead to what is sometimes termed as AIDS, “Aviation-Induced Divorce Syndrome.” This, in turn, can lead to financial problems.

Back in August, a United Airlines pilot was arrested after assaulting a parking lot gate with an ax at Denver International Airport. CBS News reported that the pilot told sheriff’s deputies that he “just hit his breaking point.”

The Daily Mail reports that Emerson was the married father of two boys who seemed to be the perfect father and husband. Still, personal strife can be difficult to diagnose from next door. The Mail also reports that Emerson lives with his family in Pleasant Hill, California, a San Francisco suburb, so it wasn’t clear why he was flying to San Francisco from Everett, but the answer to that question might provide a motive.

The incident seems to have been handled discretely at the time. It isn’t clear if any passengers or law enforcement officers traveling on the flight helped to subdue and restrain Emerson, but there have been some indications that it may have been a momentary lapse on Emerson’s part rather than a determined attack. Passengers told ABC News that they were told that there was a “disturbance in the cockpit” and that Emerson had suffered a “mental breakdown.”

"It was very professional, handled very calmly, and we didn't really know what was going on until we landed," passenger Alex Wood said.

Emerson now faces 83 counts of attempted murder and a host of other charges. It may be fortunate that he snapped when he did rather than later as a crewmember at the controls.

From the Racket News

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