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A Flight to Recovery

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When we think about alcohol and vehicles, we typically think of drunk driving and the dangers that it poses. We rarely think of flying. That’s probably because flying while drunk is a much less common problem. Professional pilots also have a very strong program to help them address alcohol addiction. But in 1990, the nation’s first drunken pilot scandal involved a flight from North Dakota.

Captain Lyle Prouse, first officer Robert Kirchner, and engineer Joseph Balzer were scheduled to fly out of Fargo at 6:30am. They decided to spend the evening before at the Speak Easy Restaurant and Lounge in Moorhead and they had a little too much fun late into the night. Federal Aviation Administration policy says no drinks 8 hours before a flight, and someone from the bar called in a tip.

When the trio arrived at the airport at 5:30 in the morning they weren’t stopped, but an FAA agent reminded them of the 8 hour rule. They went on to fly 58 passengers from Fargo to Minneapolis. They landed safely, but Northwest Airlines officials, airport policemen, and several FAA agents were waiting. Prouse thought, “It’s over.” After testing for blood alcohol levels, the three men were arrested on this date. They would be found guilty of flying while intoxicated, served prison sentences, and lost their pilots' licenses.

But all three made it back into the airline industry, and two of them, Prouse and Balzer, have made a point of helping other pilots, Balzer speaking at FAA seminars for recovering pilots, and Prouse dedicating most of his retirement to helping pilots in 12 step programs.

They, too, had been helped -- receiving support and encouragement from within the industry to pursue their jobs again. And a group of pilots went so far as to help Prouse with house payments. A lot of this can be attributed to the FAA union-backed alcohol program that started in the '70s. The FAA encourages people to self disclose by providing counseling. They also do random tests, with the allowable breath and blood alcohol levels half that of what is for drivers; and pilots are monitored if they have previously been charged with drunk driving. Some airlines have also increased the no-drinking rule to 12 hours before a flight.

Dakota Datebook by Lucid Thomas







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