Mr. Emerson, who has pleaded not guilty, said he had no intention of hurting anyone that day. Instead, he said, he was desperate to awaken from a hallucinogenic state that had consumed him since taking psychedelic mushrooms two days earlier, during a weekend getaway with friends to commemorate the death of his best friend. It was a loss that had plunged him into deep grief and triggered a search for help with what he realized were longstanding mental health issues.
For decades, the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded pilots dealing with depression or other mental diagnoses, with policies so strict that the decision to seek psychiatric help or a prescription for standard antidepressant medication is enough to trigger a suspension of their flight eligibility. It is a system that has left many pilots, including Mr. Emerson, to struggle largely alone.
“A lot of us aren’t as forthcoming as we otherwise would be,” Mr. Emerson said.
‘I can’t diagnose you’
As a child, Mr. Emerson had such a deep fascination with airplanes that his friend’s father helped organize an introductory flight for him in fifth grade. The instructor flew over Mr. Emerson’s house, and by the time they were back on the ground, the boy knew what his future would be.
Over the next few years, Mr. Emerson said, he saved up money for flying lessons, placing ads in the local newspaper in Cheney, Wash., to drum up lawn-mowing jobs. He began flight training just before he turned 15 and got his license at 17.
After college, Mr. Emerson began working as a commercial pilot, moving through jobs at Alaska’s partner carrier, Horizon Air, then Virgin America, which Alaska later acquired. He developed a reputation among colleagues as a calm, levelheaded presence in the cockpit. To passengers, he often had this message: “Be excellent to each other.”