The first commercial pilots to be convicted for flying a jetliner while intoxicated were sentenced to prison Friday by a judge who reproached them for risking lives and breaking the trust of passengers.
"Who can comprehend an entire crew alcohol-impaired?" U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum said. "It is a crime against our sense of security. In that sense, all of us are a victim of this crime."Rosenbaum indicated he reluctantly followed federal sentencing guidelines in ordering yearlong prison terms for Robert Kirchner, 36, of Highland Ranch, Colo., who was flying the plane, and flight engineer Joseph Balzer, 35, of Antioch, Tenn. The flight captain, Norman Lyle Prouse, 51, of Conyers, Ga., was sentenced to 16 months.
"I have grave doubts that the guidelines fit the crime," said Rosenbaum, who considered stiffer sentences.
Kirchner and Balzer were freed pending their appeals. Prouse didn't ask to be freed pending an appeal, but the judge gave him five days to file a request.
The sentences also bar them from flying planes with passengers for the three years of their subsequent probation.
It was the first federal prosecution under a 1986 law making it a crime to operate a commercial airplane under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The law presumes an operator is under the influence of alcohol at .10 percent blood-alcohol level.
The law also applies to commercial boats, trains and passenger buses. The maximum penalty is 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The judge said the three men put job security ahead of their passengers' lives March 8 when they flew a Boeing 727 from Fargo, N.D., to the Twin Cities after a night of heavy drinking at a bar. The plane, carrying 91 people, flew smoothly and landed safely at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where the pilots were arrested.
"What difference does it make that you landed the flight safely?" Rosenbaum said. "The danger was there."