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FAA Allowed Jet To Take Off Despite Tip Crew Had Been Drinking

March 12, 1990

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ A Federal Aviation Administration inspector allowed a Northwest Airlines jet to take off despite allegations that the cockpit crew had been drinking, an FAA official said.

Three crew members on the flight from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis were arrested upon landing when blood tests showed excessive alcohol levels. Their licenses were revoked.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., head of a U.S. House aviation subcommittee, said he would make an inquiry today to determine why the FAA didn’t detain the crew members in Fargo before takeoff Thursday.

″It is a shocking situation for the crew, under those conditions, to have flown an aircraft with passengers. It is shocking that it happened, and it was permitted to happen. The question is why,″ Oberstar said.

Mort Edelstein, a public affairs officer with the FAA’s Chicago office, said, ″The FAA did everything that was right, right down the line.″

The FAA said Sunday that it received an anonymous tip at least three hours before the Boeing 727 with 91 passengers left Fargo. The person making the call said the cockpit crew had been drinking.

Edelstein said the anonymous tip did not constitute evidence, and that the inspector also did not have authority under North Dakota law to stop the plane, although inspectors have such authority in Minnesota.

Oberstar said he was told that the crew was in a bar from ″roughly 5:30 p.m. to midnight.″ He said, ″The amount of the bar bill was known and it was considerable″

Flight 650 took off from Hector International Airport in Fargo at 6:25 a.m. after an unexplained 25-minute delay that Northwest said is part of the company’s investigation.

It arrived in Minneapolis at 7:30 a.m., and the crew was placed under citizen’s arrest by an FAA inspector at the airport, detained by the airport police and given a blood-alcohol test.

FAA Administrator James Busey announced Friday that the test showed all three had a blood alcohol level above .04 percent, exceeding the federal limit; their pilot’s licenses were revoked.

The three have the right to appeal their emergency license revocations within 10 days to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Minneapolis city attorney’s office said charges might be brought this week under state law. Flying while intoxicated is a misdemeanor, carrying up to 90 days jail and a $700 fine.

Oberstar said that if FAA personnel knew what he knows now, the crew should not have been allowed to fly the plane. But he said the ″question is how far do you go, acting on an informant’s call, and how much information was passed on to the FAA. Until I nail that down, I have to be a little reserved in judgment.″

Airport police identified the crew members as Capt. Norman Prouse, 51, of Conyers, Ga.; first officer Robert J. Kirchner, 35, of Highland Ranch, Colo., and second officer Joseph W. Balzer, 34, of Antioch, Tenn.

Attempts to reach Prouse have been unsuccessful, Kirchner has not returned phone calls and Balzer referred questions to attorneys for the Air Line Pilots Association.

Update hourly