Book Review: Flying Drunk

 - February 22, 2010, 7:18 AM

“Remember those airline pilots who got caught flying drunk?”

“They went to jail, didn’t they?”

“What a bunch of losers.”

If you bring up the story of three Northwest Airlines pilots who were caught flying while intoxicated on March 8, 1990, that’s invariably the reaction you’ll hear: the pilots were stupid, threw away their careers, risked passengers’ lives and so on. But the incident also raises that most human trait: curiosity. And you may wonder, whatever happened to those guys? Are they still flying? Did the FAA crack down on them? How much time did they serve in jail? And where are they today?

One of the pilots, Joseph Balzer, decided to put his story on the record and last year published Flying Drunk: The True Story of a Northwest Airlines Flight, Three Drunk Pilots, and One Man’s Fight for Redemption.

Balzer decided to write his story after giving talks about what happened and realizing that he could help other alcoholics– especially airline pilots who are keeping their condition secret and who need encouragement–address their problems.

Balzer acknowledges that he was an alcoholic from a young age, suffering so badly from the disease that he frequently experienced black-out episodes. For airline pilots who suffer from alcoholism, it used to be that there was no alternative to losing one’s pilot certificates if one was caught or even admitted to the disease. In 1972 the FAA and pilot unions and airlines started the Human Intervention Motivation Study (Hims) program, and since then pilots have been able to return to the cockpit after successful treatment for alcohol and drug dependency.

Unfortunately, Balzer didn’t avail himself of the Hims program before the 1990 flight, and he ended up spending a year in jail and many more years out of the cockpit before re-establishing his airline career.

Balzer’s first major airline job was with Eastern Airlines. He wrote that in the 10-year period between age 22 and his second year as an Eastern pilot in 1987, “I did not drink to excess or have any blackouts.”

But then he added, “It wasn’t until I had quit drinking for several years and then reflected back on some of my layovers as an Eastern pilot that I came to the realization that there had been several times when I drank to ‘blackout’ on a layover the night before a trip.”

After a humiliating blackout resulting from a heavy bout of drinking at a party, after which Balzer’s friends refused to tell him how badly he had behaved, he gave up drinking for a brief period. Worried about financial instability at Eastern, Balzer joined Northwest Airlines in 1989.

Good Intentions

The flight that ended Balzer’s career with Northwest was part of a five-day trip in a Boeing 727 with a captain who had a reputation as an abusive cockpit tyrant who couldn’t stomach any feedback from his first officer or flight engineer. Balzer, occupying the flight engineer position, was still on probationary status with Northwest, and he didn’t feel able to question the captain’s authority or request reassignment to another flight. “As far as I was concerned, I was trapped,” he wrote.

This captain appeared to be drinking during the flight, Balzer recalled. “During the trip, the captain left the cockpit in flight on what seemed like every leg. What was he doing? Knowing what I do now, I have a hunch he was drinking in the lavatory, but I can’t be sure.”

After some tense moments in the cockpit when Balzer and the first officer tried to help the captain after he made some errors, it was clear that their working relationship was strained. In an attempt to reduce the tension, during the last layover in Fargo, N.D., the first officer suggested to Balzer that they invite the captain to dinner. The dinner turned out to be a bad idea. “However, we had barely taken our seats at the table when the captain blurted out to the server, ‘We are going to run a tab a mile long!’

“At the time, I didn’t think he was serious. But those ten words still ring in my ears today. No, I was no longer following my earlier, strict-avoidance regime; I had slid back into some imbibing. But I did not really enjoy drinking, and would have preferred not to drink now. It just goes to show the strong grip of the disease of alcoholism, and the insanity of the accompanying denial, that I thought good intentions in this case would be enough to keep things under control.” Later he wrote, “As soon as a pitcher [of beer] was two-thirds empty, the waitress arrived with a fresh one.”

After the captain loudly berated a fellow patron who simply wanted to ask some questions about the captain’s time in Vietnam then made embarrassing statements about Balzer’s wife to other patrons, Balzer and the first officer retired to their rooms. The captain left with some of the restaurant patrons and went to another bar. When he tried to leave the bar, the captain couldn’t find his hotel (the sign was visible from the bar). One of the captain’s fellow drinkers, who had a relative booked on the captain’s flight the next day, called the FAA and “reported that pilots were drinking into the early morning hours.”

Stopped at the gate the next morning by an FAA inspector, Balzer urged the inspector to have the entire crew submit to a blood-alcohol test.

For some unexplained reason, the inspector decided not to have the test done and later reported seeing no signs of inebriation or intoxication among the crewmembers.

They flew the 727 from Fargo to Minneapolis without incident, and there an FAA inspector and law enforcement officials finally forced the pilots to have their blood tested. All three pilots tested positive, above the legal limit.

While the captain was charged with a criminal felony, Balzer and the first officer were offered misdemeanor pleas. Balzer regrets that he didn’t take the plea and tried to fight the resulting felony charge. He lost and ended up serving one year in jail.

A Second Chance

While most of the first half of Balzer’s book covers his early career and what led to his arrest and conviction, the rest of the book focuses on his redemption and eventual resumption of his airline career. Balzer hit bottom in every possible way, financially, emotionally, spending a year in a penitentiary (because the prison he was originally assigned to was on an Air Force base and officials thought he could somehow steal an airplane and escape), losing all his pilot certificates and finally learning how to deal with the disease of alcoholism.

Balzer, who was signing copies of his book at last year’s EAA AirVenture, is irrepressibly optimistic and grateful for all the help he has received. A kindly flight examiner–Nashville’s Rock Merryweather–didn’t charge him for retesting to re-obtain his pilot certificates. Cecil Ewell, American Airlines’ chief pilot at the time, decided that it was worth taking a chance on Balzer and pushed upper management to give him a chance. In 1998 Balzer resumed his airline career.

Flying Drunk answers many questions about the famous Northwest Airlines incident and how one pilot has battled alcoholism and kept the disease at bay, thanks to a 12-step recovery program. “I owe a lot to people who came before me,” Balzer said at his Oshkosh book-signing event.