'Flying Drunk' Shares Pilots' Struggle to Overcome Alcohol

Photo: Flying Drunk: Pilots and Alcoholism

Deep in his heart, Joseph Balzer knew it was wrong.

But the night before he and two other pilots were scheduled to transport 91 passengers from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis, Minn., Balzer spent the evening with his colleagues swigging beer at a local bar.

The next morning, with blood-alcohol levels above the legal limit for pilots, the three men strapped down in the cockpit and took off. But when they landed, they faced, arguably, the most devastating day of their lives.

After tests that morning in March 1990 revealed that their blood-alcohol levels were above the 0.04 percent limit for pilots, the men, who worked for Northwest Airlines, were arrested for intoxication. Later, all three were convicted, sent to federal prison and stripped of their pilot's licenses.

"It was horrible," Balzer, now 53, said. "I didn't want to live anymore. I was so humiliated, embarrassed [and] ashamed. It boils down to compromising my own personal value system. I didn't want to do anything to harm those passengers."

Balzer and Others Get Second Chance

At the time, he thought he would never fly again. Now, however, nearly two decades later, Balzer has been restored to the cockpit as a pilot for American Airlines.

He said he has not touched alcohol since the night in Fargo. But the road to redemption, he emphasized, has been long and strewn with setbacks.

In his memoir, "Flying Drunk," published earlier this month by Savas Beatie LLC, Balzer recounts his fight to beat back the bottle and the particular toll his addiction has taken on his career.

Although it only tells the story of one aviator, it speaks to an experience shared by thousands of other pilots who have been forced out of the cockpit because of alcohol and struggled to score a second chance.

Thanks to the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS), a recovery program for pilots supported by major airlines and pilot unions, more than 4,000 pilots have undergone treatment for alcohol abuse or dependency since 1974 and have been returned to the cockpit in the process, thwarting a potential public safety threat.

High Stakes Lead to High Recovery Rates

Balzer said that he and the other pilots were tested that day because of a call to the FAA hotline reporting that they had been out at a bar the night before.

Although a safety inspector called into investigate failed to intervene in Fargo, he called Minneapolis to report the incident.

Looking for an out and a "savior," Balzer said he asked the inspector to check his blood-alcohol level in Fargo.

"I was looking for someone to save me," he said. "I was looking for someone to take the lead role in the flight not leaving fargo. Today's Joe Balzer would take that role upon himself."

He hopes his book, along with the HIMS program, will encourage others to make the journey he has made.

Dana Archibald, chairman of the HIMS program for the Airline Pilots Association, said the program, which is open to pilots of corporate jets and helicopters in addition to commercial airline pilots, has an 88 to 90 percent success rate.

Most pilots enter the program after they have self-disclosed, although a small percentage come in after a violation. There were 13 alcohol violations in the 2008 fiscal year and four, so far, in fiscal year 2009, which ends Sept. 30, according to the FAA.

Violations can be issued after a pilot fails a random test or if airport personnel detect the presence of alcohol.

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