MINNEAPOLIS -- The three former Northwest Airlines pilots, convicted of flying a loaded passenger jet while intoxicated, were sentenced to federal prison Friday.
Capt. Norman Prouse of Conyers, Ga., was given 16 months. Co-pilot Robert Kirchner of Highland Ranch, Colo., and flight engineer Joseph Balzer of Antioch, Tenn., each received a 12-month sentence.
U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum chastised the men as he sentenced them, charging them with 'a breach of faith with the passengers.'
The judge order three years supervised probation for the three pilots, who were fired by Northwest and had their licenses lifted for being under the influence during a March 8 flight from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis. They cannot fly in the first year and in the next two years they cannot pilot a plane with passengers.
They received no fines.
Rosenbaum said that if there had been an emergency the crew members might not have been able to handle it.
'Not one of you, not one, from that day, has said that your actions jeopardized the lives of those passengers,' the judge said.
The judge called the pilots behavior last March a 'gross and potentially lethal impairment of your judgment.'
'It was a breach of faith with the passengers,' Rosenbaum said, adding that he had strongly considereed exceeding the recommended sentencing guidelines of 12 to 18 months. He urged the sentencing commission to review what would be appropriate in the future.
Federal prosecutors and probation officers have recommended that Rosenbaum not deviate from guidelines when he sentences the crew members. They were convicted Aug. 20 on one count each of operating a jet while under the influence of alcohol.
The three pilots could have been sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in prison and fined up to $250,000 each. But federal sentencing guidelines call for 12-18 months incarceration for first-time offenders.
Attorneys for Prouse, 51, Kirchner, 36, and Balzer, 35, had contended that the fact that the flight was without incident proved they were not under the influence. But the jury of nine women and three men deliberated for 10 hours and agreed with prosecution agruments that even small amounts of alcohol rendered the crew unfit to fly.
The felony convictions -- the first under a 1986 law -- followed a three-week trial, during which defense attorneys argued that although the pilots split up to seven pitchers of beer and 15 mixed drinks at a Moorhead bar the night of March 7, they were not impaired by the time they departed the Fargo, N.D., airport early on March 8. The Northwest flight to Minneapolis with 91 people aboard landed safely.
The three men were arrested in Minneapolis after a patron at a bar in Moorhead notified the Federal Aviation Administration that the crew had been drinking for several hours the night before the flight. Northwest subsequently fired the pilots and the FAA revoked their pilot licenses.
Blood tests conducted about two hours after the flight landed indicated Prouse's blood contained 0.12 percent alcohol, while Balzer's blood test showed about 0.08 percent, and Kirchner's, 0.06 percent. Most state's drunken driving laws presume a person is intoxicated at 0.10 percent.
The pilots were the first tried under a 1986 law making it a felony to operate a common transportation carrier under the influence of alcohol. The law contains no set provisions for determining impairment.
The pilots also pleaded guilty in August to misdemeanor charges in North Dakota stemming from the March 8 flight.