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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

A Cry For Help!

Is the Flight Deck Safe

Joseph David Emerson was booked on 83 counts of attempted murder. He said that he had tried psychedelic mushrooms days before he climbed into a jumpseat on Horizon and headed to work in San Francisco to fly his Alaska 737. He said he was awake for over 40 hours. He said he was suffering from depression. He is being tried for multiple counts of murder because he tried to pull the fire switches, but there is something missing in all the reports of this story. 

What is missing are a few logistical facts: 

If David Emerson 
Wanted to Kill the Passengers
Everyone Would be Dead! 

This was a cry for help. If he really wanted to shut down the engines, he would have pulled the fuel control switches and could have immediately and instantly killed both engines and everyone on the plane. The fire switches, however, unless there is a fire, are locked and would take two hands to pull one. One to unlock and the other to pull. Therefore, if he was pulling on both the switches, everyone in that flight deck knew he would not be successful due to that locking mechanism, even Emerson would know that. Furthermore, the jumpseat is directly in front of, and blocking, the door. If he did not want to go out of that flightdeck, those pilots would not be able to force him out unless he was incapacitated. 

The part I believe is that he was depressed, and this was a cry for help. Depression is real among pilots. Delta pilot, Brian Wittke, took his life on June 14, 2022, and is one of many Delta pilots who have done the same. 

How safe is the flight deck? 

Robert MacLean has been fighting for barriers on the doors for years, to no avail. But what could block a pilot who is authorized for entering the flightdeck and has a mental health issue? Perhaps honesty and disclosure by the airlines themselves. Did you know the airlines hide their concerns for mental health from the FAA?

Delta had decided to pull me for a mental health concern, asserting I could be like the Germanwings pilot. Yet the day that decision had been made, I was sitting in on an Alaska Airlines jumpseat. How is that possible? Well, because Airlines and the Unions have agreed to it. 

I never lost my medical during the two years I did not fly. However, Delta finally violated the contract and notified the FAA when the Mayo Clinic found me fit, after I was diagnosed as bipolar, and was issued my medical, once again. So when I was found fit, they reported me. When Delta thought I had a problem, they kept it hidden. 

If you don't know this story, watch MAXIMUS or read the Seattle Times. Following is what the courts learned during my trial as to how Delta Air Lines hides their concerns from their pilots with mental health. Trust me when I say, the Judge was not happy with the following testimony. 

Airlines Hide 
Mental Health Concerns

“Does the FAA have to review collective bargaining agreements? Does the FAA have an opportunity to see what's in it?” Ira Rosenstein, Delta's attorney asked.

“No. The FAA does not see them,” Christopher Puckett, Delta's in house Labor Relations attorney testified.

“Do you know whether the FAA is aware of these policies and programs?” Ira asked.

“I'm certain the FAA is aware of ours,” Puckett said.

“How are you so certain?” Ira asked.

“Well, I can tell you that right now the Federal Air Surgeon used to perform the role at Delta that Dr. Faulkner performs,” Puckett said.

“Who is that?” Ira asked.

“That's Michael Berry.”

“So, the company's former flight surgeon is now responsible for the FAA's—” Judge Morris says.

But Puckett cuts him off and says, “He's our former flight surgeon but he performed medical reviews for … on behalf of Delta in the late '90s. And this issue, these issues have come up periodically. I mean, Delta was in, you know, litigation in the '90s over different things. This is … you know, and it's gone on and on. And of course, in this case, the FAA was made aware of what was going on in this case.”

SIDE NOTE... This "litigation" he spoke of was due to a pilot, Captain Wayne O. Wittier, Captain WOW, reporting pension fraud at Delta, and Delta paying a doctor to call him crazy. That doctor they paid was Michael Berry. The judge told Berry he could not work for the Delta ever again. So, what does he do? Of course he becomes the top FAA medical director. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Back to trial:

“If I understood your testimony correctly, you testified that you became aware that, at some point in 2017, Ms. Petitt had obtained her certificate from the FAA,” Ira said.

“Correct,” Puckett said.

“And were you surprised by that in any way, or did you find that to be completely normal?” Ira asked.

“It was a surprise, because again, she had just received a determination from the CME of bipolar disorder,” Puckett said, with deepest concern.

“And wait a minute,” Judge Morris interrupted, “And so what? You've hid it from them… hid it from the FAA so far so what's the difference?”

“Well, because the difference is, for the pilot, a pilot has to disclose that information,” Puckett said.

“So, you're relying on 6153, on the pilot,” Judge Morris countered. “What about 121.383 for the operator?”

“I'm not familiar with that one, Judge,” Puckett said.

“So, you don't believe that the company has any obligation to report when there's a diagnosis, a disqualifying diagnosis—” Judge Morris said.

“According to this contract—” Puckett said cutting him off again.

“I'm talking about the FAA, the regulations,” Judge Morris said.

“That's…yes. Because at that point, it's still… it's still… as part of this process, it's still ongoing and has not been finalized. So, I would 1 say that the company would not, at that point, have an obligation until the process has run its course,” Puckett said.

“But that same rationale does not apply to the pilot?” Morris asked.

“I think the pilot has to disclose on that form that they have that diagnosis and give the FAA the opportunity to explore that,” Ira said.

“And what makes you think that… what gives you a basis to believe that they didn't disclose and the FAA decided to issue it anyhow?” Judge Morris asked.

“That was the point, Judge. Nobody knew the answer to that question. So, that's why Dr. Faulkner felt like he was in a difficult position and needed to find out what was going on,” Puckett explained.

“Do you understand the optics that I'm seeing here is that it's okay when it's beneficial for the company not to disclose information to the FAA, but when it's not beneficial to the company, it is being disclosed to the FAA,” Judge Morris said.

“Well, I think the difference is, is that the pilot was under no obligation to go get a medical at that point. There is nothing to say, ‘Yeah. I have to go renew my medical because’—"

“Where does it say that?” Judge Morris asked.

“Well, it doesn't say it anywhere but she’s not able to operate an airplane for Delta,” Puckett said again.

“With a first class medical, can't you operate as a GA pilot?” Judge Morris asked.

“I would assume you can,” Puckett said.

“Okay,” Judge Morris said. “You need to have a medical. You need to have at least a basic medical. And if there's something disqualifying, you have to have a special issuance. So, explain to me this inconsistency.”

Puckett said, “By consistency, I mean, what's on the forms for the FAA when the pilot goes in and gets a medical, they are voluntarily going and doing that. They're saying, ‘I'm here and I'm going to go do this, and I'm going to be honest and upfront on all of these forms.’ And that's fine. If all of that is disclosed, the FAA gets to look at it and makes its decision. The company, on the other hand is… has no… I don't think, an obligation until we went all the way through this process. We were trying to follow the process and get to the end of it. And if we could have gotten to the end of it, then, at that point, then we have an obligation. That's when our obligation is triggered. Now that's the best that I can explain it where I believe that… where our requirements are under that.”

“And you understand the consequences to a pilot if they lie on their medical application. Don't you?” Judge Morris asked.

“I do,” Puckett said.

“What are they?”

“Well, you can permanently lose your license and you can lose your liberty,” Puckett said.

“Well, that's not quite true,” Judge Morris said.

“It's criminal. It's a criminal law,” Puckett said, his face now a shade redder that when this argument began.

“It’s a one-year revocation. There's a couple of exceptions for life-time revocation which this wouldn't apply but go ahead,” Judge Morris said.

Who is Responsible to Tell the FAA?

NOTE: Dr. Michael Berry retired within days of my winning this case against Delta. Yet, this process has not been changed at Delta. I am unaware if other airlines have the same provisions.

Dr. Karlene Petitt
A350, B777, A330, B747-400, B747-200, B767, B757, B737, B727


  1. Thank you for keeping my son, Brian's story alive. He was one of the good ones and should still be here.

  2. He should still be here. Hopefully we can keep others from the safe fate.

  3. Your logic is flawed because the fire handles and fuel system that you describe are not applicable to the E175. Different airplanes can have similar systems that operate differently. Were you there? How do you know what really happened and why? Perhaps the truth will come out, but to draw a conclusion on the basis of how a system works on a different airplane is dubious at best.

    1. You're correct. That is one airplane that I do not know. But, he could have pulled the fuel control switches for an immediate effect. He could have waited for his flight. He could have remained seated in front of the exit and not left. He did not try to kill anyone. He had a mental health breakdown without larceny in his heart. People have a tendency to think that if a pilot is depressed they want to kill others. Depression and breakdown is different from psychotic and murderous. Regardless of how the fire handles work, he could have brought down that plane had he wanted to. He did not. He simply needs help. And airlines and the FAA need to enable pilots to get help without taking their license and livelihood.

  4. An embraer operator would have to confirm, but it sounds like the alaska pilot didn’t know the system. Embraer saved the plane. Im thinking the logic for the fadec is to have the throttle at idle in order to shut down. The order in a shutdown procedure should start with placing the thrust lever to idle then pull the fire handle. At that point the fuel, hydraulic, and bleed air valves to close which isolates the engine. When the fire handle(s) were pulled the thrust levers were probably above idle prevent the jumpseating pilot from turning the plane into a glider. The only fuel switches are the pump switches, left in auto mode. I believe if they shut off you’d still have suction feed from the engine pump, so a plan of turning off fuel switches wouldn’t be a good one. The fire handles on the embraer do not have an unlock mechanism like a Boeing 73. Just pull out and down. Once again, an embraer pilot could further elaborate.
    Using shrooms was a clear violation and he knowingly did it as a licensed professional. If that’s a cry for help, that should only be acceptable for people not flying at 500 mph at 30 thousand feet. Maybe an accountant or librarian would be better suited for that.
    Thank goodness for those horizon pilots and the embraer. Could have been a disaster

    1. Yes... this could have been a disaster. Then imagine if that pilot was sitting by the emergency exit when a door blew open. Good thing two different planes and events that did not cross paths.


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