MINNEAPOLIS -- Former Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Kirchner testified in federal court Tuesday he 'absolutely did not' fly under the influence of alcohol during a March 8 flight from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis.
He also said he did not violate a Federal Aviation Administration rule prohibiting pilots from consuming alcohol within eight hours of a flight, although Kirchner admitted he did break Northwest's '12-hour rule' while drinking in a bar the night before the flight.
Despite drinking, Kirchner said he flew a high quality flight. 'I felt fine about what I did, about how I flew,' he said during cross-examination.
Kirchner, 36, a co-pilot from Highland Ranch, Colo., was at the controls of the 727 jetliner carrying 91 passengers during the flight. Kirchner, and the other two crew members, flight captain Norman Prouse, 51, Conyers, Ga., and flight engineer Joseph Balzer, 34, Antioch, Tenn., are charged with flying while intoxicated.
Balzer also testified briefly Tuesday and Prouse testified last week.
The defense maintains that although the men did drink at the Speakeasy Bar in Moorhead, Minn., the night before the flight, they were not impaired during the 40-minute trip early the next morning.
Kirchner described his early career as a corporate pilot for the Amoco petroleum company and how he pursued his lifelong 'dream to fly' by working menial jobs to pay for flight school in Oakland, Calif., and in Chicago. He joined Republic Airlines in 1985 and began flying for Northwest when the two airlines merged in 1986.
He said the merger led to occasional tensions between Northwest pilots and the former Republic crews when they began flying together this year and indirectly led to the three defendants deciding to meet 'and talk things over' at the Speakeasy bar during a day-long lay-over in Fargo this spring.
The Fargo-to-Minneapolis flight began the fourth day of a five-day trip by the crew during which they transversed the country several times. Kirchner said he and Prouse alternated flights and that he actually flew the March 8 leg to Minneapolis.
Kirchner said he and Prouse, a longtime Northwest pilot, and Balzer, a recent Northwest hire still on probation, arrived at the bar about 3:30 p.m. While there, Kirchner said he and Balzer split six pitchers of beer. Prouse allegedly drank 15 to 20 rum-and-diet colas drinks.
About 6 p.m., Kirchner said he paid his bar tab for four pitchers of beer and several of Prouse's drinks. Kirchner said he was prepared to leave at that time, but decided to stay a while longer.
Asked by his attorney, Bill Mauzy, if he thought staying was an error in judgment, Kirchner quietly answered, 'Yes.'
He and Balzer left the bar about 10:30 p.m. after a brief dispute with another Speakeasy patron who made a disparaging comment about Balzer's wife. Prouse stayed at the bar, Kirchner said, 'to smooth things over' with the other patrons.
Kirchner said he woke up about 4:30 a.m., 'feeling fine' with no after effects of the beer he consumed the previous night.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth de la Vega launched a tough counter-attack on defense witnesses who said the pilots' blood tests were not accurate measures of whether they were impaired during the flight.
Thomas Burr, a former forensics investigator for several Minnesota law enforcement agencies and now a private defense consultant, testified during cross-examination that blood-alcohol test generally are a reliable indicator to determine if a person is intoxicated.
Burr's statements to de la Vega belied comments he and another defense witness, University of Colorado behavioral scientist James Wilson, made Monday. Then, they said the pilots' performance during the flight, rather than test results, prove they were not impaired.
Flight 650 with 91 passengers aboard landed safely. After the flight landed, Prouse had a blood-alcohol content of .12 percent while Kirchner tested at .06, and Balzer, .04. They were later fired by Northwest and their pilots' licenses revoked.
The pilots are the first to be charged under a 1986 federal law making it a crime to operate a plane with a blood-alcohol level higher than .10. But pilots can be charged with flying under the influence at lower blood-alcohol levels if impairment is proven.
The prosecution contends that all three of the crew members' blood-alcohol levels were several percentage points higher during the actual flight, making them severely impaired.