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Northwest Pilots Sentenced to Prison for Drunk Flying

October 27, 1990| From Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Three former Northwest Airlines pilots convicted of flying a passenger plane while intoxicated were sentenced to prison Friday, two of them for a year and the other for 16 months.

U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum also imposed three years of probation on each, telling them: "Gentlemen, you are good men who have done a bad thing."

The judge said that the pilots' actions amounted to a breach of faith between the traveling public and the pilots.

"It is a crime against our sense of security. In that sense, all of us are a victim of this crime," Rosenbaum said.

The sentences were within federal guidelines, which recommended 12 to 18 months; the maximum would have been 15 years. Rosenbaum left open the possibility that they could remain free pending their appeals.

The defendants--Capt. Norman Lyle Prouse, 51, of Conyers, Ga.; 1st Officer Robert Kirchner, 36, of Highland Ranch, Colo., and flight engineer Joseph Balzer, 35, of Antioch, Tenn.--were convicted of flying while intoxicated on a flight from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis on the morning of March 8.

At the sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Elizabeth de la Vega asked for a "substantial" sentence, while the pilots' lawyers argued for lenient treatment.

As he announced his decision, Rosenbaum said he was particularly disturbed that all three pilots had been under the influence. "Who can comprehend an entire crew alcohol-impaired?" he asked.

Prouse, who had the highest blood-alcohol concentration in a test given two hours after the flight landed, received the 16-month sentence. The judge told him that his acknowledged alcoholism was not "a license to kill."

In the tests after the flight was completed, Prouse had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.13%, Kirchner's was 0.06% and Balzer's was 0.08%.

At the trial, the pilots argued that the fact that the 40-minute flight, which had 91 passengers, was uneventful showed that they were not rendered incapable of flying by the alcohol they had drunk the night before.

They were the first pilots to be convicted under a 1986 law aimed at cracking down on substance abuse in the transportation industry.

Prouse admitted to having drunk more than 15 rum and colas at a lounge the night before the flight. A waitress testified that Prouse fell as he left the bar at about 11:30 p.m. and returned to get directions to his hotel, which was about three blocks away.

Balzer and Kirchner shared at least six pitchers of beer and left the bar about an hour before Prouse, according to testimony.

After the incident, Northwest fired the pilots for drinking within 12 hours of a scheduled flight, and the Federal Aviation Administration revoked their pilots' licenses.

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