Alcoholic Former Alaska Airlines Pilot Appears In Court

I’d certainly like to think that it’s rare for pilots to be under the influence while flying. I’d also like to think that in those instances where pilots are caught being over the limit while flying, that it’s a one off, rather than a consistent behavior and that they’re just finally getting caught. That’s why the story of an Orange County man who is a former Alaska Airlines pilot is quite unsettling.

A 62 year old man pled guilty in court to being under the influence of alcohol while piloting an Alaska Airlines flight back in 2014, according to federal prosecutors. Yesterday the man entered into a plea to a single felony count.

This involved flights he piloted on June 20, 2014, from San Diego to Portland to Orange County. Upon landing in Orange County the pilot was pulled aside for a breathalyzer test. His co-pilot told investigators that when the captain saw the drug tester approaching, he said “I bet it’s for me.” The legal blood alcohol limit for pilots is 0.04 (which seems high — that’s half the driving limit), while over two tests he had blood alcohol levels of 0.134 and 0.142. That means he was more than three times over the legal limit.

The worst thing is that he was more than three times over the legal limit at the end of his trip. So was he drinking during the flight (in which case one has to wonder how no one else noticed), or did he have an even higher blood alcohol level earlier in the day (in which case one still has to wonder how no one else noticed)?

According to the investigation, they believe the former Alaska pilot suffered from alcoholism and piloted flights under the influence for “at least a substantial portion” of his 20 year career at the airline.

Alaska removed the pilot from duty after the breathalyzer test, and he retired after that, and had his license revoked from the FAA. The terms of the plea agreement are for a sentence of one year in prison and three years of supervised release, which is much less than the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Obviously this guy had a real problem. It’s unfortunate and concerning that it took so long for him to be removed from his position, given the belief that he had been flying under the influence for a substantial portion of his career. Thank goodness nothing ever happened on one of his flights.

Comments

  1. There was a Northwest Airlines 727 crew that operated drunk in the early 1990s (all three pilots). They were arrested. The Captain eventually went to jail, but was able to get his license back and return to work at Northwest. He retired as a 747 captain. There is a book about it.

  2. FYI- Missing a word “That’s why the story of an Orange County who is a former Alaska Airlines pilot is quite unsettling.”

  3. Ben,

    Humans and animals develop tolerance when their brain functions adapt to compensate for the disruption caused by alcohol in both their behavior and their bodily functions. This adaptation is called functional tolerance (2). Chronic heavy drinkers display functional tolerance when they show few obvious signs of intoxication even at high blood alcohol concentrations (BAC’s), which in others would be incapacitating or even fatal (3). Because the drinker does not experience significant behavioral impairment as a result of drinking, tolerance may facilitate the consumption of increasing amounts of alcohol. This can result in physical dependence and alcohol-related organ damage.

    While above the legal limit, for a longtime chronic alcoholic he could be functional with a BAC that would have you on the floor.

  4. Just to give some color on this story; I offer these observations as a current airline pilot. While this behavior is rare, it is indicative that pilots are human as well. Like Doctors and Lawyers and other professionals, there are alcoholics amongst us. However, the scrutiny and assessment of our professional performance is constant and more direct then any other profession. So while there are alcoholics amongst us, rarely does that extend to periods when we are on flight duty. But this has happened before. An earlier reply mentioned a NorthWest crew. The Captain was Lyle Prouse, and his experience was captured in his book “Final Approach” (it’s a great read)!

    Captain Prouse was terminated by NWA, and the FAA revoked all of his flying certificates (private, commercial, instrument, multi-engine, instructor all the way up to his ATP and jet type-ratings). He also was sentenced to prison for 18 months. The book captures his personal humiliation and long-road back to recovery including earning all his certificates back, meeting with the CEO of NWA, being re-hired and ending his career as a 747 Captain. The personal humiliation was largely due to denigrating his profession and in particular, letting down his peers at NorthWest.

    An earlier reply mentioned a one year prison term was harsh. In this airline pilot’s view, it is not! We need to held to high standards, and trust is an essential component in our relationship with our passengers and crew. We are already the most evaluated and observed profession, and for a good reason! I have no empathy for a pilot who violates alcohol rules. I say this in a context where we have very successful and effective alcohol and other dependency programs that available to pilots. This is well known in our profession, and allows any pilot to participate, and in so doing, being able to save their career (and most of the interventions in the program are successful). Those who are unable to abide by these rules and standards threaten our trust with the public, and have ignored the treatment options available to them. These cases are rare, but the violation of this trust should result in punitive consequences.

  5. I am tired of hearing about people who “suffer” from alcoholism. Very often it is those around them who suffer. And heaven knows how much suffering is/would be be inflicted by a plane crash caused by a drinking pilot.
    Let’s try:
    he was an actively drinking alcoholic, a consistently drinking alcoholic,
    an erratically drinking alcoholic
    a non-sober alcoholic,
    a chronic alcohol abuser,
    an alcoholic who regularly deceived his co-workers and supervisors.
    Alcoholism may be a disease, but it is a treatable disease.
    In the state in which I live, drinking and driving is a horrendous problem. I have consulted in the prison system and dealt with actively drinking alcoholics f i n a l l y incarcerated after five or six DUI’s. What a rotten way to handle the problem! Tolerant/lenient sentences or any sentences without treatment are not effective.
    If the United States had decent national healthcare these folks could receive mandated treatment after one failed breathalyzer test. Steven, it is “mastered” only until you kill 128 people or your best friend’s child or run into a school bus.
    It ain’t funny any more than sexual molestation is.

  6. I am shocked to learn that a pilot may fly with a BAC limit of 0.04 given the limit in Australia for fully licensed vehicle drivers is 0.05 and 0.00 for learner and probationary drivers.

  7. @JB, that was perfectly written and explained from an insider standpoint. I really appreciated reading that.

  8. Tone down the hysterics. It took him so long to get caught because he didn’t make any mistakes. Sounds like a pretty good pilot to me.

  9. @Carrie
    “the limit in Australia for fully licensed vehicle drivers is 0.05”

    Do you guys dine out in Australia?

  10. @Grrizzly – we do all the time – we just don’t drive home (well, most of us don’t). A cab is heaps cheaper than a fine and leaves a cleaner conscience than hurting/killing someone while driving under the influence. Makes me sound like a wowser (look it up) but it isn’t a hardship.

  11. Well Ben, it’s a lot of righteous indignation, but I’d like you to consider two things:
    1. The legal Bac and science (when you are actually impaired) took leave of each other years ago.
    2. Please cite ONE aircraft incident that invoked fatalities, no, even injuries, in the last 30 years.

  12. Dear Richard Bost,

    You may want to clarify what you mean when you ask about aircraft incidents that involve fatalities. I’m sure everyone remembers MH370 less than 3 years ago, a much smaller number than your asked for 30 years.

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