Drunk Pilots

Few things irk me more than people’s consistent wisecracks about inebriated pilots. The remarks always come of that semi-nervous giggle, joke-but-not-really-a-joke style: Hey, how about those two pilots they caught in Miami? I mean, I know you guys aren’t half-cocked up there, but… well, are you?

As one of those guys, I’m known for a liberal sense of humor and a demonstrated tolerance — hell, even an open invitation — for the most gruesome of myths, rumors, and misconceptions, but this one has proven tough to dispel. Over the years, a handful of news reports of booze-breathed crewmembers nabbed at the metal detectors has kept alive a certain lingering stereotype of the airline pilot: a renegade divorcee, crows feet flanking the eyes and a whiskey-tempered southern drawl, a flask tucked into his flight case.

Most infamous of all, in March 1990, an entire Northwest Airlines flight crew — three airmen in total — were arrested in Minneapolis after bringing in their 727 from Fargo, North Dakota, with 58 passengers on board. All three, who had spent the previous evening at Fargo’s Speak Easy lounge downing as many as 19 rum and Cokes, were found to have blood alcohol levels beyond the legal limit.

Mind you, that legal limit — set at .04 by the Federal Aviation Administration — is substantially more restrictive for flying airplanes than for driving a car, and most carriers have in-house rules above and beyond FAA mandate. In most cases, crewmembers are banned from imbibing any alcoholic beverage within twelve hours of reporting for work. The cost of violating these rules is, in most cases, personal disgrace, the instantaneous termination of one’s airline career, and even jail time. To keep workers away from these harsh punitives — and out of the limelight — most larger carriers offer extensive counseling and support programs for those who might need them.

I could mention that a pilot who blows a .04 on a breathalyzer is hardly drunk, and perhaps no more incapacitated than most people with the mildest of hangovers. I’ll lay that out there to demonstrate the toughness of the rules, though I’ll ask you not to confuse it with justification. More to the point, that the known breaches of said rules can be counted on one hand should provide some insight into their rarity. And if you want something personal and empirical, try this: as an airline pilot for about ten years, I can confidently attest that I have never once encountered a colleague who I knew to be under the influence of alcohol or, for that matter, any other mind-altering intoxicant.

I’ve done a few interviews since release of my book and, to my great discouragement, the alcohol issue is consistently one of the first controversy grenades rolled at me. Here I am ready to wax passionate about the excitement of 21st century air travel, and suddenly I’m hit with: “What about all those drunk pilots we keep hearing about?” You’d think some systemic plague was at hand; pilots stumbling down concourses across America, spilling shot glasses over their throttles.

I’ll give you the same sound bite summary that I gave the nice woman from USA Today: Granted, every last person who steps onto an airliner and fastens his or her seatbelt is, if only for a moment, contemplating the possibility of death and catastrophe. To spend that moment wondering if the pilots are impaired by alcohol is, if nothing else, a waste of time.

Epilogue:

Among the most inspirational stories out there is that of Northwest Airlines captain Lyle Prouse, one of the trio arrested that morning in Minneapolis in 1990. Prouse, an alcoholic whose parents had died of the disease, became a poster pilot of punishment and redemption. He was given 16 months in federal prison for flying drunk, and then, in a remarkable and improbable sequence of events, was able to return to the cockpit on his 60th birthday and retire as a 747 captain. Once out of jail, Prouse was forced to requalify for every one of his FAA licenses and ratings. Broke, he relied on a friend to lend him stick time in a single-engine trainer. Northwest’s then-CEO John Dasburg, who himself had grown up in an alcoholic family, took personal interest in Prouse’s struggle and lobbied publicly for his return.

You’ll see Prouse in TV interviews time to time, and inevitably you’re struck by how forthrightly he takes responsibility, without resorting to the sobby self-flagellation of most public apologies. Always one is left, unexpectedly, to conclude this convicted felon deserved, and got, a second chance. I’d never have believed it myself until watching a network special about Prouse a few years ago.

In 2001 Lyle Prouse was among those granted Presidential pardons by Bill Clinton.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.