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A pilot's route to redemption

He did time for being drunk on the job. But eventually, he re-earned

October 04, 2009|Jon Hilkevitch

OSHKOSH, WIS. — Pilot Joseph Balzer has been on a tumultuous journey for most of his 53 years, fighting his way back into the cockpit after losing his wings because of alcoholism.

His problems started as a boy, with a drunken father.

Balzer's own battle with the bottle exploded in 1990 on a flight from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis. He was the flight engineer aboard the Northwest Airlines Boeing 727, carrying 91 passengers.

He was drunk, and so were the captain and first officer.

"You would think that sleeping in my clothes and throwing up the night before would have been a huge warning sign to me," Balzer wrote in a book chronicling his battle for redemption, "Flying Drunk." The book, published by Savas Beatie of New York, was released recently during AirVenture, the annual air show and aviation convention in Oshkosh produced by the Experimental Aircraft Assn.

The Northwest jetliner landed safely in Minneapolis. But Federal Aviation Administration officials were waiting at the gate. They had received a tip from a restaurant customer who saw Balzer and his crew mates drinking heavily in Fargo the night before.

Balzer said he had pleaded with an FAA inspector in Fargo to test his blood-alcohol level, but the inspector declined. Instead, he talked to the three pilots and allowed the flight to take off, court records say.

The FAA tested the crew in Minneapolis -- some 14 hours after the drinking binge. All three were still over the blood-alcohol limit for pilots: 0.04%.

Northwest fired them all.

They were charged in federal court with operating a commercial airliner while intoxicated.

"At the time, I was again that 14-year-old boy who got in a boat when his dad was loaded," Balzer said during an interview. " . . . We were out of control, and it was a train wreck waiting to happen."

Balzer lost everything but his devoted wife, Deborah, who is a flight attendant. The FAA revoked his pilot certifications, and Balzer spent the couple's savings on attorneys.

He was convicted and sent to prison. He was supposed to serve his one-year term at the minimum-security prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. But when the warden found out he was a pilot, he rejected him out of concern that he might steal a military jet and escape, Balzer said.

Balzer served his time at the local jail in Montgomery and at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he was attacked by other inmates angered that Balzer received a lot of mail.

"Once they accused me of being a child molester, until I found a pencil and drew a flight engineer panel on the wall," he recalled.

After his release, Balzer spent the next five years working odd jobs at minimum wage, including cutting the grass at a small airport.

"I couldn't get a job at Circuit City selling TV sets."

But he eventually clawed his way back into aviation, re-qualifying for his pilot ratings and working for small-time air freight operations, among other jobs.

It took nine years.

In 1999, with 7,800 hours of flight time, eight years of sobriety and an inspirational story of recovery to tell, Balzer was hired by American Airlines.

Today, he is a first officer with more than 10 years of service there. He holds a special medical certification from the FAA that requires him to abstain from alcohol for life.

Balzer said he wouldn't have it any other way.

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jhilkevitch@tribune.com

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