Three former Northwest Airlines pilots were found guilty today of flying while intoxicated, the first convictions under a new federal law cracking down on drinking and drug use in commercial transportation.
A federal jury convicted former pilots Norman Lyle Prouse, 51, of Conyers, Ga.; Robert Kirchner, 36, of Highland Ranch, Colo., and Joseph Balzer, 35, of Antioch, Tenn.
The felony charge carries a maximum 15 years in prison and $250,000 fine. Sentencing will not be decided until authorities complete a pre-sentencing investigation.
“I came into this expecting the worst. In that sense I had no surprise,” said Prouse after the verdicts were announced. In his defense, he had argued that he was an alcoholic and thus had a higher tolerance for alcohol than most people. His lawyer said he will appeal.
The three were arrested March 8 after flying a Boeing 727 from Fargo, N.D., to the Twin Cities. The plane, carrying 91 passengers, landed safely.
Witnesses said they had consumed numerous drinks at a bar several hours before the early morning flight.
In tests about two hours after the plane arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Kirchner showed a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.06%, Balzer showed 0.08% and Prouse 0.13%.
Prouse was the captain on the flight, Kirchner the first officer and Balzer the flight engineer.
The pilots had been drinking the night before at a lounge in Moorhead and a customer reported them to the Federal Aviation Administration.
According to bills from the bar introduced as evidence, Prouse ordered 15 rum and colas while Kirchner and Balzer shared seven pitchers of beer over about six hours.
An FAA official came to the airport, but the plane left while he was telephoning a supervisor to ask what to do. Another FAA official made a citizen’s arrest when the plane landed at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Defense lawyers argued that the apparently smooth operation of the 40-minute flight showed that the pilots were not impaired by alcohol.
But Assistant U.S. Atty. Elizabeth de la Vega questioned whether the pilots could have handled an emergency if one had developed.