The first pilots to be convicted of flying a jetliner while drunk were sentenced to prison Friday by a judge who reproached them for risking lives and breaking the trust of passengers. "Who can comprehend an entire crew alcohol-impaired?" U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum said. "It is a crime against our sense of security. In that sense, all of us are a victim of this crime."
The judge told the former Northwest Airlines pilots they had jeopardized the lives of their 91 passengers.
Rosenbaum sentenced the pilot, Norman Prouse, a 51-year-old ex-Marine combat veteran from Conyers, Ga., to 16 months in jail. Robert Kirchner, 35, of Highland Ranch, Colo., the second officer, and Joseph Balzer, 34, of Antioch, Tenn., the flight engineer, were each sentenced to a year in jail.
The three were accused of drinking at a bar for eight hours the night before the flight during which Prouse, a recovering alcoholic, downed at least 15 rum and Diet Coke drinks and the other two shared at least six pitchers of beer.
Prouse had the highest blood-alcohol concentration of the three in a test given two hours after the flight landed. The judge told him that his alcoholism was not "a license to
The pilot's lawyers said he had a high tolerance for alcohol and could drink most people under the table but still perform his duties.
All three said they were sorry. They pleaded for leniency. They have 10 days to appeal the sentences. The judge left open the possibility that they could remain free pending their appeals.
They were the first pilots to be convicted under a 1986 law aimed at cracking down on substance abuse in the transportation industry.
Lawyers for the trio had contended their performance was not impaired and said that was proved because the 40-minute flight on March 8 from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis was uneventful.
The three could have been sentenced to as much as 15 years in prison and fined $250,000.
"This behavior was wrong and you knew it and you did it," Rosenbaum said.
"The hand that will punish you is mine but the hand that strikes you is your own. . . . Did you think about your passengers? Your failure to live up to your commitment to the safety of your passengers is a tragedy to your profession."
"Not one of you, not one, from that day until this has actually admitted that your actions that day endangered the lives of the passengers entrusted to your care."
Prouse, the pilot, said "I accept full responsibility for the incident and if anyone bears the brunt of it, I do. It is my hope that never again will three pilots be in this courtroom."
Prouse said he is engaged in counseling programs for other alcoholic pilots.
The three were fired by Northwest after the incident.
Northwest requires its flight crews to abstain from drinking 12 hours before a takeoff. Government regulations place an eight-hour limit on drinking before flying. Prosecutors contend the three were still at the bar fewer than seven hours before the early morning flight took off in a freezing drizzle.
The three were confronted by a Federal Aviation Administration inspection on landing in Minneapolis and arrested.
Investigators alleged Prouse had a blood alcohol level of 0.12 when tested after he landed. Laws in several states, including Florida, set 0.10 as the level at which an automobile driver is considered impaired. Balzer's level was 0.08 while Kirchner's was 0.06, investigators said, also above the limit set by government regulations for commercial pilots.
_ Information from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.