The Road Back From Perdition

Joseph Balzer has loved flying since his very first time in a plane, at age 7. He still recalls vividly the sound of the old Ford-built prop plane and the feeling that came over him as soon as it left the ground.

He can also recall what he thought was going to be his last flight 12 years ago. By then Balzer had turned his boyhood passion for the skies into a promising career as a pilot with Northwest Airlines. It was the career he says he'd always dreamed of--one that took years to build but just a few hours to destroy.

In a case that grabbed headlines and sent shockwaves through the airline industry, Balzer and two other pilots were arrested in March 1990 and later convicted on charges that they piloted an early-morning flight while drunk.

Now, more than a decade since Balzer was released from prison for his role in the country's first drunken-pilot scandal, a summer's worth of headlines warning travelers about alcohol in the cockpit is a story that won't go away. Three separate incidents involving at least four pilots in two months may have been grist for late-night comedians, but to Balzer the issue of drunken pilots is no laughing matter. "I was destroyed and ashamed," Balzer says.

Unlike this summer's stories of tipsy fliers, Balzer and his crew weren't caught by officials until after they had actually taken to the skies. By the time the trio was tested for flying drunk, the plane had landed safely, but Balzer still had enough alcohol in his system to register a blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent. It was all prosecutors needed to prove that his blood alcohol concentration was over the state's .10 percent threshold for drunkenness when he stepped into the cockpit hours earlier. Witnesses also confirmed the three pilots' late-night binge and told of watching Balzer and another airman share at least seven pitchers of beer while the crew's captain admittedly downed 15 rum and colas just hours before taking 91 passengers from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis. The three were fired by Northwest Airlines and in August 1990 they became the first pilots convicted of flying a commercial jet while intoxicated.

Though they all faced 15 years behind bars, Balzer and copilot Robert Kirchner served one year in prison while the crew's captain, Norman Prouse, spent 16 months in jail. When he first heard in July that two America West pilots were pulled from the cockpit and flunked breathalyzer tests in Miami, Balzer admits his thoughts turned to the struggle still waiting for the pair as they go to trial next month. "I thought about how tough it's going to get for them," Balzer said.

But it's been a tough summer for others as well. A few weeks after the America West incident, an Atlantic Southeast pilot resigned after he showed up for work drunk, and again, in August, Mesa Airlines fired an intoxicated pilot who was preparing to fly 28 passengers from Little Rock to Charlotte, N.C.

Not counting these two most recent incidents, which are still under investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded nine pilots this year for alcohol infractions. And though that figure will likely rise by the end of the year, it should only marginally eclipse last year's total of nine pilots who failed tests. Airline officials say there weren't more drunk pilots this summer, simply more stories about drunken pilots--a phenomenon akin to last summer's shark-attack hysteria. The FAA agrees, saying the headlines of drunkards in cockpits this summer belies what the numbers say: pilots are a safe and sober bunch. Two years ago the airlines conducted 10,257 random alcohol tests and uncovered only five alcohol violations. That same year 15 tests were administered for "reasonable suspicion"--cases in which alcohol use was suspected--and four drinking violations were found.

While the popular image of the reckless cowboy aviator may still abound, Gary Trechter, a lawyer who specializes in helping pilots with alcohol problems, says there's nothing that predisposes pilots to alcohol abuse. "If anything these guys are safer today than ever before," said Trechter, who is also a licensed pilot and flight instructor. "The wild pilots with the partying military background have been replaced by a professional group with a lot to lose by drinking."

That notwithstanding, alcohol remains, as one licensed pilot and recovering alcoholic put it, "an equal opportunity destroyer." For years, "Roger" led a Michigan chapter of a support group for alcoholic pilots called "Birds of a Feather," a group that helps remind aviators that alcoholism doesn't always mean an end to flying.

Dr. Jon Jordan, the FAA's air surgeon and the doctor in charge of the medical certification process for airline pilots, estimates that roughly 1,000 pilots who were suspended for alcohol abuse have returned to the sky. One of those pilots is Balzer who struggled for years to earn back the pilot's license he had been stripped of. "I had to start from scratch, he says. "It was as if I had never been in a plane before, I had to log all my hours and take all the tests all over again." But more than that, Jordan says pilots like Balzer must also enter rehab and remain alcohol-free under close airline and FAA supervision for several years once they are given a second chance. "People ask 'aren't you worried about a recovering alcoholic flying a plane?' " Roger says. "I always tell them, it beats the hell out of a pilot who's not recovering."

Balzer says he found odd jobs to pay the rent and eventually a major airline gave him another shot in the cockpit. One of his biggest allies was the industry itself and the network of support groups offered by the airlines, the pilots' union and the FAA itself. According to Jordan, the FAA began to dramatically rethink its policies toward alcohol use by pilots in the 1970s when they noticed problem pilots slipping through conventional medical exams. Jordan said the industry failed years ago by forcing pilots to fiercely hide drinking problems. "People were afraid to inform on their friends because they thought they'd lose their jobs. The drinking problems were forced underground," he said. These days the FAA encourages self disclosure by providing counseling, but the agency also requires random alcohol tests that end up grounding a handful of pilots each year, and officials monitor pilots with drunk-driving charges--requirements that, despite the headlines, Trechter and Jordan say work well.

As for Balzer, these days he routinely speaks at FAA seminars, counseling pilots. But that is of course when he isn't flying--a point he's never been prouder to make, and one that seemed impossible a decade ago.