Rehab that puts alcoholic pilots back in the cockpit
The words CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF are welcomed by air travelers in a hurry. They’re even more welcomed by airline pilots who once feared they’d never fly again. Our Cover Story is reported by Tony Dokoupil:
Many alcoholics can tell you the exact moment they hit rock bottom. Former airline Captain Lyle Prouse hit his at 30,000 feet.
On March 8, 1990, he was at the controls of Northwest Flight 650, Fargo to Minneapolis, with 58 people aboard, and after a night of heavy drinking on a layover, he was drunk.
“I think on the tab were 14 rum and cokes for me,” Prouse said. “And depending on the testimony you listen to, the figure goes up to 18 or 19. I don’t know.”
His blood-alcohol content that morning was at least 0.13 percent: Too drunk to drive, and more than triple the limit for flying.
Dokoupil asked, “Did you have any doubts about getting on that plane?”
“No. I mean, I wouldn’t fly the airplane if I thought I was gonna die.”
The plane landed safely, but Prouse and his crew were arrested, and became the first commercial airline pilots convicted of flying while intoxicated. Prouse was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison.
“No other pilot in all of American commercial aviation damaged the profession like I did,” he said. “That was a knife in my heart. That hurt.”
Lyle Prouse’s career was a longshot from Day One: Raised by alcoholic parents, he joined the Marines and fought his way from a ground unit into a fighter jet, and a decorated career. Somewhere along the way, though, he became an alcoholic himself.
“Our pilots are just like all people; they have some of the same shortcomings that any of us could have,” said Peggy Gilligan, the former FAA administrator in charge of safety. She says a drinking problem is not necessarily the end of a pilot’s career.
“There are lots of things that initially might disqualify you from being a pilot, but with proper care and treatment, with proper rehabilitation, you can return to the flight deck,” she said.
And in fact, for decades, the FAA has been doing exactly that: quietly sending pilots diagnosed as substance abusers back to work.