Flying While Intoxicated

by John Delach

The May edition of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine includes a piece about Lyle Prouse, a Captain with Northwest Airlines who with his two fellow crew members, First Officer Robert Kirchner and Flight Engineer Joseph Balzer, flew their 727 from Fargo to Minneapolis-St. Saint Paul while (pick ‘em) – flying While Impaired / flying while intoxicated or flying while hung over. Captain Proust ended up spending 424 days in Federal Prison.

The night before, they enjoyed a nice drinking session at the Speak Easy Restaurant and Lounge in Moorhead, Minnesota. Prouse drank rum and Coke while his cohorts consumed draft beer. The bar tab revealed that the pilot had 17 rum and Cokes while his mates consumed seven pitchers.

This incident occurred in 1990 when controls were still loose and would have gone unnoticed except that an employee working at the bar that night had the good sense to reveal this to the authorities.

At that time Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit airplane crews from flying with an alcohol level of greater than 0.04 eight hours before the flight.

The FAA was already aware of their escapade when the crew arrived at the airport. An FAA official spoke with Captain Prouse reminding the crew of the agency’s eight-hour rule but, for unknown reasons, he didn’t subject them to a breathalyzer test allowing to make the flight.

The story in the May 2020 edition of Air & Space Magazine  tells what next happened: “Northwest Flight 650, a Boeing-727… with 58 passengers took off as scheduled…When the crew walked off and saw company officials, airport policemen, and several FAA agents waiting at the end of the Jetway, Prouse thought, ‘It’s over.” (Two hours after the flight his blood alcohol was 0.128, three times the legal limit.)

Long story short, Proust repented, reformed and became a motivational speaker. Eventually with the help and kindness of others led by the judge who sentenced him to prison, he was re-employed by Northwest in 1993 and reinstated as a pilot in 1995.

Proust gives credit for much of his successful rehabilitation on AA, other peer groups and HIMS, Human Intervention Motivation Study, a rehabilitation organization for professional pilots with a success rate of 85.4%. This is a remarkable number when compared to other rehab groups rate of 40% or less at other organizations.

We can only wonder how bad it really was in the 1950s and 1960s when sobriety was treated far more casually and loosely.

Bob Newhart actually did a comedy bit about it in his spoof on airline travel: The Grace L Fergurson Airline and Storm Door Company: (The pilot speaking) “…Have you ever had one that hung on for four or five days? I don’t mind the headaches so much, it’s that damn double vision.”

My Godfather was a flight engineer with Pan American during that time. I can remember being at his house when he was on standby. If a crew scheduled that night had to be withdrawn, he would report to Idlewild to make their flight. The rule was no drinking, full stop. Nevertheless, he took pride in his chilled Daiquiris that he made with crushed ice served before their Sunday afternoon dinner, stand-by or not.

My Father, a US Air Force navigator, Flying B-47 jet bombers, charted his next day’s training mission the previous night on a chart spread across his kitchen table. The chart shared the table with a glass or two of Johnny Walker Red. When finished, he’d take a last look before folding up the chart, finish his drink. He’d smile and say: “Well, that’s good enough for government work.”

A different world, indeed.