Defense to Emphasize Smooth Flight In Drunken Flying Trial
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ The defense for three former Northwest Airlines pilots accused of flying while drunk will argue that, in spite of blood test results, alcohol had no effect on their performance, lawyers say.
″You can’t fake a perfect flight and a perfect landing,″ said William Mauzy, the lawyer for former 1st Officer Robert Kirchner. ″The routine nature of the flight is the best evidence that Mr. Kirchner was not impaired.″
The trial of Kirchner, of Highland Ranch, Colo.; Capt. Norman Prouse of Conyers, Ga.; and flight engineer Joseph Balzer of Antioch, Tenn., is scheduled to begin Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth de la Vega said it’s the first time the federal government has charged a pilot of a commercial flight with flying while under the influence of alcohol, a felony. The maximum penalty: 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Kirchner piloted the Boeing 727 from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis on March 8. The plane, carrying 91 passengers, left as scheduled at 6:25 a.m., less than seven hours after Kirchner, Prouse and Balzer were seen drinking at a bar in Moorhead, Minn., adjacent to Fargo.
A bar patron tipped the Federal Aviation Administration and Northwest that the crew was ″quite intoxicated″ and might be piloting an early morning flight, according to records.
An FAA investigator has testified the crew members smelled of alcohol at the airport. While he was phoning for instructions, the plane departed. Another FAA official made a citizen’s arrest when they arrived at Minneapolis- St . Paul International Airport.
Peter Wold, Prouse’s lawyer, said blood-alcohol tests won’t be enough to convict the pilots.
Tests conducted shortly after the pilots’ arrest showed they had blood- alcohol levels ranging from 0.06 percent to 0.12 percent, officials said. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says a forensic toxicologist estimated that they were flying with blood-alcohol concentrations of 0.14 to 0.15 for Prouse, 0.08 to 0.10 for Kirchner, and 0.10 to 0.11 for Balzer.
A level of 0.10 percent is cited in the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, prohibiting operation of a common carrier while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as evidence that a person is presumed to be under the influence. It’s also the legal limit for driving a vehicle in most states.
Prouse had the highest readings in tests by the FAA and Northwest: 0.12 percent and 0.10 percent.
″There is a presumption that one is under the influence at 0.10, but the issue here is impairment,″ Wold said. ″The charge is whether they were under the influence, not whether their blood-alcohol was over 0.10.″
De la Vega would not comment on her strategy, but Wold and Mauzy said she is likely to emphasize the blood-alcohol tests and testimony from people in the bar who observed Prouse drink 19 mixed drinks - rum and Diet Cokes - and Kirchner and Balzer share seven pitchers of beer.
Bar patrons said Prouse fell out of his chair and got lost on the way back to his hotel, investigators said.
″The jury may have the inclination to convict based on the antecedent behaviors,″ Mauzy said. ″We have to make them focus not on what could have been, but what was - and that was a perfectly executed flight.″
″We need to make the jury concentrate on the real issue: these guys’ ability to fly,″ Wold said.
Minnesota-based Northwest fired all three for violating a company rule by drinking within 12 hours of a scheduled flight. The FAA revoked their licenses for drinking within eight hours of a scheduled flight and for having blood- alcohol levels exceeding 0.04 percent.
The pilots have said they will appeal the revocations.
The case prompted a few pilots to seek treatment for alcohol abuse, a union official says, and made some air travelers skeptical of pilot drinking habits. On April 19, a Northwest flight from Detroit to Atlanta was delayed four hours after a passenger asked if a substitute pilot had been ″partying.″
″There is no doubt that this has hurt the public’s image of the airline pilot,″ said John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association in Washington, D.C.
Duane Worth, ALPA president at Northwest, said ″maybe a handful″ of Northwest’s 5,600 pilots sought treatment for alcoholism following the arrests.
In North Dakota, the three face state misdemeanor charges punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in prison. Trial is set for Aug. 27.