TAMPA — A lone cargo pilot en route to Tampa International Airport lost touch with air traffic controllers for an hour. When the Cessna 210 started sinking over Charleston, S.C., authorities scrambled fighter jets.
The Flight Express plane landed safely in Tampa but the pilot was still flying: His blood alcohol registered 0.27 percent, according to federal court records filed Wednesday.
And that was after 2 1/2 hours of talking to investigators.
Phillip Yves Lavoie, 28, was charged Tuesday with operating a common carrier under the influence of alcohol, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Federal law presumes impairment at 0.10 percent. The Federal Aviation Administration imposes an even stricter standard: 0.04 percent.
The charging document does not address whether Lavoie drank aboard the aircraft during either leg of the Dec. 8 round trip flight from Tampa to Greensboro, N.C.
His attorney, Summer Goldman of St. Petersburg, said he drank before leaving Tampa, landed in Greensboro, dropped off the cargo, refueled and returned to the air — completing two takeoffs, two landings.
"He truly has an alcohol problem, had one, and he's taking the steps to correct that," Goldman said, noting that he entered a residential treatment program.
A plea agreement filed Wednesday, signed by Lavoie, provides this account:
Lavoie was near Charleston when FAA tower officials tried to make contact to hand him off to the next controller area. They got no radio response. They noticed he had descended, without approval, to 5,000 feet and had deviated slightly from his projected path.
Savannah, Ga., tower controllers couldn't reach him, either. By then, he had descended to 4,000 feet. Savannah notified Jacksonville controllers, and the FAA alerted Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, which dispatched two fighter jets.
Before the jets reached Lavoie, he was back on the radio, talking to the Jacksonville controllers, who tried unsuccessfully to get him to explain what had happened.
An FAA flight inspector, Paul Kahler, met the plane when it landed at the Flight Express hangar in Tampa, asked for Lavoie's flight credentials and detected the smell of alcohol. The two joined a pilot at the Tampa Police Department's adjacent hangar.
Then airport police got involved.
Airport police Officer Terence Cottman reported that Lavoie "had bloodshot and watery eyes."
"Lavoie was crying and had the distinct odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his person," the incident report states.
Officers searched the aircraft for open beverage containers and found none.
Lavoie voluntarily submitted to field sobriety and blood alcohol tests, the report states, but he would not allow officers to look inside his backpack. Instead, he turned it over to the chief pilot for Flight Express.
Lavoie rode to Hillsborough County Central Breath Testing with Cottman, the airport officer.
On the way there, he said his career was over, the report states.
But he said he "wasn't going to fall for the short guy that was going to get a search warrant," the report states.
He surrendered his airman certificates on April 30 in response to an FAA enforcement action.
Attorney Goldman said Lavoie had been flying since age 15.
On the ground, his driving record shows he was cited for having an open container in Sarasota County in 2005 and with careless driving in 2003. In both cases, adjudication was withheld, the records show.
He has no regular DUI arrests and no criminal record at all in Florida.
"Just get a misdemeanor DUI," his attorney groused, "not a second-degree felony punishable by 15 years."
At the time of the incident, Lavoie lived near Maximo Point in St. Petersburg. He has since moved back home with family in Sarasota, she said.
He is scheduled to appear before a magistrate judge on June 13 to enter a guilty plea.
If the magistrate judge accepts the plea, sentencing before a U.S. district judge would follow later.
It's not the first time a pilot has been accused of flying while drunk. It happens even on passenger airplanes.
Aaron Jason Cope of Norfolk, W.Va., was sentenced to six months in federal prison after a Dec. 8, 2009, United Express flight from Boston to Denver. His reported blood alcohol level was 0.08 percent.
Still, a federal case is a relatively unusual occurrence.
"It's not a commonly used charge," said Amy Filjones, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.