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Arrest of Pilots Put Focus on Abuse

July 07, 2002|ERIC MALNIC and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The arrest of two America West pilots last week on suspicion of trying to fly while drunk illustrates a continuing problem that requires a new crackdown by the Federal Aviation Administration, a noted researcher on alcohol-related transportation accidents says.

"What happened in Miami is a wake-up call," said Barry Sweedler, president of the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety and former chief of safety recommendations for the National Transportation Safety Board.

"The FAA did take action in the early 1990s," Sweedler said. "But they need to reinforce the steps taken, because if we don't, we'll end up with tragedy."

Government statistics indicate that very few professional pilots seem to have problems with alcohol. Only nine tested positive in random checks last year by the Federal Aviation Administration. But if drinking problems are rare, so are many other safety issues involving commercial aviation. Indeed, improving safety is a process of continually focusing on rare events to make them even less likely.

The FAA defended its drug and alcohol screening program, and spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency is ready to consider suggestions on how to make it better.

"We're always looking at ways to improve safety," she said.

Experts, among them Sweedler, cannot recall an airliner crash ever being blamed on a drunken pilot, but alcohol abuse is a recurrent factor in a limited number of crashes of small private planes.

The most recent involved a La Grange, Ill., physician, Edward Marcoski, who pleaded guilty last year to operating an aircraft while intoxicated. Federal officials said Marcoski's single-engine plane crashed into a cornfield after he forgot to switch fuel tanks and ran out of gas. Both he and his passenger escaped with a few scratches.

DeKalb County prosecutor Ron Matekaitis said Marcoski's blood-alcohol level after the crash was 0.08%, twice the level permitted under federal aviation regulations. "Apparently, he had been drinking before he took off," Matekaitis told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Federal records don't list a single commercial airliner crash that has been linked directly to drinking, but that doesn't mean professional pilots haven't been caught flying, or attempting to fly, when drunk.

Last Monday, officials in Miami said they smelled alcohol on the breaths of two America West pilots, Capt. Thomas Cloyd, 44, and First Officer Christopher Hughes, 40, as they were carrying cups of coffee through an airport security checkpoint.

The America West plane left the gate before authorities could intervene, but air traffic controllers ordered the aircraft back to the gate before it could take off on a scheduled flight to Phoenix.

The two pilots were arrested after tests showed Cloyd's blood-alcohol level was 0.091% and Hughes' was 0.084%. Both men were later released on bond and are scheduled for arraignment within a month.

The airline, saying it has a "zero-level tolerance" of pilot substance abuse, suspended Cloyd and Hughes with pay.

Police records in Arizona show Cloyd had been arrested twice previously in alcohol-related incidents, one involving a dispute with his wife and the other after an argument with a neighbor. The airline said it was unaware of the incidents before Cloyd's arrest in Miami.

In 1990, Northwest Airlines Capt. Norman Lyle Prouse, his copilot, Robert Kirchner, and their flight engineer, Joseph Balzer, were all convicted and sentenced to prison for flying a Boeing 727 from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis/St. Paul after drinking heavily at a bar the night before.

Prouse admitted downing more than 15 rum-and-colas, and the other two men shared at least six pitchers of beer. Prouse fell as he staggered out of the bar about 11:30 p.m.

Their plane took off at 6:30 the next morning. That was about seven hours after they quit drinking, an hour less than the minimum interval that the FAA allows between drinking and flying a plane.

A man with whom they had argued at the bar notified authorities, and all three were arrested after their plane landed safely.

Two hours after they landed, Prouse's blood-alcohol level was still 0.13%, Balzer's was 0.08% and Kirchner's was 0.06%. After the Northwest Airlines incident, the FAA instituted random flight crew tests for alcohol and drugs, checking about 10% of the country's 265,000 professional aviators every year. In addition, the agency began checking pilots' driving records, looking for arrests for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Of the pilots subjected to the random checks, nine tested positive in 2000, nine more in 2001 and nine so far this year. Most, if not all, lost their licenses to fly.

Arrests for driving while under the influence led to the revocation or suspension of the pilot licenses of 230 professional aviators in 2000 and 220 in 2001. This year's figures are not yet available.

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