A pilot on trial in Minneapolis for flying an airliner while drunk has pleaded alcoholism as a defense, claiming a high tolerance for booze.

The case has triggered too many unamusing jokes about drunken pilots.There is absolutely nothing funny about a drunk flying a Boeing 727 carrying passengers.

With a straight face, lawyer Peter Wold told the court that his client, fired Northwest Airlines pilot Norman Prouse, doesn't get drunk easily because he is an alcoholic with a high tolerance for booze.

Prouse and two other members of his flight crew are fighting federal charges that they flew drunk on a March 8 trip from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis.

The three lost their FAA licenses and were fired by the airline for violating a policy against drinking within the 12 hours before a takeoff.

Wold acknowledged to the court that the amount of alcohol his client can consume "would leave us asleep on the floor."

But the attorney insisted the skipper and his crew flew flawlessly the morning after a drinking bout.

Witnesses testified they downed at least 15 mixed drinks and a half dozen pitchers of beer during eight hours at a bar called The Speakeasy.

A cocktail waitress testified Prouse and another bar patron argued and she feared they would fight. She said that after leaving The Speakeasy the captain returned and said he could not find his motel.

Blood-alcohol tests taken after the flight disclosed that Prouse had a 0.12 percent concentration of alcohol in his blood. A motorist with a 0.10 percent alcohol level is guilty of drunken driving in most states.

"The real issue," Wold told the court, is "these guys' ability to fly."

Wold is wrong about that. The issue the court should address is whether the defendants' boozing risked the lives of their 91 passengers and fellow crew members. Clearly, it did.

C.J. Kirk, a clinical social worker at Washington's Alcohol Training Institute, put it this way:

"Sure, a pilot who's intoxicated can fly an airplane if he has a high tolerance for alcohol, but the problem comes if there's an emergency."

Kirk said studies disclose that intoxication dangerously slows reaction regardless of a person's tolerance for alcohol.

A Federal Aviation Administration inspector who interviewed the flight crew before the plane left the Fargo airport testified they had bloodshot eyes and that he could detect on them the "stale smell of alcohol."

Inspector Verle Addison said he told Capt. Prouse he had received an anonymous telepone tip about the crew's alleged drinking.

Addison acknowledged, however, that he took no steps to stop the crew from flying to Minneapolis.

Passengers should have a low tolerance for the harebrained notion that alcoholism is a defense for drunken flying.