Off-duty pilot accused of trying to shut off engines midflight isn’t first time something like this has happened

Another incident 30 years ago involved cargo plane

Cockpit (Pixabay)

ORLANDO, Fla.An off-duty pilot on Sunday around 5 p.m. on Flight 2059 (an Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air flight between Everett, Washington, and San Francisco) unexplainably tried to cut fuel to the engines of the plane in midflight.

According to CBS News, about 30 minutes after takeoff, 44-year-old Joseph D. Emerson -- an Alaska Airlines captain who was riding in the cockpit in a jump-seat (a seat in the cockpit reserved usually for commercial pilots who are traveling instead of working) -- tried to deploy the fire suppression system of the plane’s engines. When activated, the system cuts off the flow of fuel in an attempt to reduce/eliminate an accelerant if there is an engine fire.

After Emerson deployed the system, the pilots of Flight 2059 quickly restored fuel to the engines.

Emerson was removed from the cockpit, handcuffed by the flight crew, and held in the back of the plane. The pilots declared an emergency, and Flight 2059 made a safe landing in Portland, Oregon, at about 6:30 p.m. Emerson was arrested and charged with 83 counts of attempted murder.

The Alaska Airlines story is somewhat unbelievable (like something out of a movie), but this is hardly the first time an airline pilot has caused a serious if not fatal problem during a flight:

  • In February 1982, the captain of a Japan Air Lines DC-8 intentionally crashed the plane into shallow water in Tokyo Bay (24 passengers died).
  • In December 1997, another captain (of a SilkAir 737-300) intentionally crashed that plane into the Musi River in Indonesia, killing all on board.
  • And in March 2015, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz crashed a Germanwings Airbus A320 into a mountain in the French Alps (there were also no survivors).

One of the most chilling stories of a pilot run amuck, however, didn’t involve a commercial aircraft, but rather a cargo plane. It happened almost 30 years ago, and it was right here in the U.S. What made the incident so extraordinary is how it unfolded, why it happened, and the piece of technology that told the true story.

On April 7, 1994, the flight crew of a Federal Express (now FedEx) DC-10-30 cargo jet (N306FE- Flight 705 en route from company headquarters in Memphis to San Jose, California) was attacked mid-flight by another Federal Express pilot, who was later said to be suffering from mental problems.

Off-duty flight engineer Auburn Calloway was aboard Flight 705 as a non-revenue passenger, riding in a jump-seat. Calloway, who suffered from mental illness and financial problems, planned to kill the three crewmembers (Capt. David Sanders, First Officer Jim Tucker, and Flight Engineer Andy Peterson) and then crash the plane into the company headquarters. He had lied to FedEx management about his previous flight experience with the Navy and was likely about to be fired.

By making the crash look like an accident he would punish the company (who was about to ruin his career) by destroying their operations hub (at the time almost all FedEx packages went through the Memphis Super Hub) and he would leave his family with life insurance money.

Calloway boarded the plane with a guitar case that concealed two sledgehammers, two claw hammers, a knife, and a spear gun. He planned on killing the pilots with these weapons, weapons that would mimic wounds caused by an air crash because he didn’t want anyone to suspect the real cause of the crash.

Fifteen minutes into the flight (about 40 miles from the airport), the attack began. Upon entering the cockpit, Calloway fractured the skull of flight engineer Peterson (severing his temporal artery), fractured the skull and partially paralyzed co-pilot Tucker (Tucker’s left eye was also damaged), and partially injured Sanders (Sanders was also hit in the head but managed to deflect some of Calloway’s blows). All three pilots, although seriously injured, did not lose consciousness and tried to fight back.

As Calloway went for the spear gun to finish off the crew, both Sanders and Peterson left their positions to fend off the attacker.

Tucker, half blind and barely conscious, continued to fly the aircraft, while the other three men struggled in the cockpit and forward cabin area. Upon the realization that Calloway, being fully coherent and much stronger than the other two crewmembers, would eventually break free and kill them all, Tucker leveled the playing field by putting the freighter into a wild pitch, roll and descent. The DC-10 almost turned completely upside down and achieved temporary weightlessness in the cabin. The violent movements threw the three struggling men toward the rear of the plane and bought Tucker enough time to declare an emergency and turn Flight 705 back toward Memphis.

As Sanders and Peterson held Calloway down, Tucker put the aircraft on autopilot and went back to assist in subduing the attacker. For several minutes, all four men were engaged in a struggle as no one was flying the aircraft. Sanders finally went back to the cockpit in an attempt to land, however the aircraft was too high for the first choice of runway (9R) AND lined up incorrectly to the runway of his choice (36L).

Flight 705 was also coming in too fast and at the wrong angle. Tucker banked the plane heavily, landed on the runway and brought the massive DC-10-30 (overloaded with fuel) to a skidding halt.

When emergency crews boarded the aircraft, they found four injured men and blood all over the cockpit (including a spear lodged in the cockpit control panel). All three pilots were rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery; Calloway claimed the men had tried to kill him.

Calloway was charged with air piracy and interference of flight operations but continued to stick to his story that he acted in self-defense after an argument broke out in the cockpit. During his trial, the prosecution played the recording from the CVR (cockpit voice recorder) that left no doubt of who initiated the attack. Calloway was clearly heard over the cockpit microphone saying, “Sit down! This is a real gun, and I’ll kill you.”

Calloway was eventually convicted on both counts and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by Judge Julia Smith Gibbons. He is currently incarcerated at USP McCreary in Pine Knot, Kentucky (Bureau of Prisons #14601-076). N306FE was retired by FedEx at the end of 2022 and last flew on Feb. 22, 2023, (from Memphis to Victorville, California). None of the crew from Flight 705 would fly again as commercial pilots.

Author David Hirschman wrote a book about the experience: “Hijacked: The True Story of the Heroes of Flight 705.” Hirschman is a pilot and a reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. In September 2005, FedEx ended the jump-seat perks for most of its employees because of security concerns. Only employees traveling on company business and pilots from other airlines would now be allowed to ride in the jump-seat.

Here are some links for more on the story (some links contain very graphic images):


FBI Case File:

Memphis Commercial Appeal:

Transcript of CVR:

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About the Author:

Donovan is WKMG-TV's executive producer of digital enterprise