For Pilots Struggling With Alcoholism, It Doesn’t Have to Be a Career-Ender

Lyle Prouse was trained to maintain control in the air, but he had to learn to do it in life.

The Boeing 727 had a long, proud history. The one that a drunken flight crew flew from Fargo, North Dakota on March 8, 1990, landed safely in Minneapolis. The impact of that flight is still felt in professional aviation. (InsectWorld / Shutterstock)
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Lyle Prouse has told the story many times, several hundred probably. It’s a good story. And he’s a good storyteller—always has been, says his wife, Barbara. He begins each retelling with the same line, and with a grumbling delivery that seems to indicate he is sharing the tale under duress.

“I was the first pilot to be arrested, tried, and convicted for flying drunk. I went to federal prison, and my inmate number was 04478-041.”

Northwest Airlines Flight 650 and its drunk cockpit crew made headlines 30 years ago. It fueled the acts of late-night comedians like Jay Leno: “If you’re flying Northwest and you can’t find the beverage cart, check the cockpit.”

Prouse was the captain of that infamous flight, which began early the morning of March 8, 1990, in Fargo, North Dakota. Speaking with me at his home in Georgia 29 years later, he recalls that it was still dark, with only a shimmer of light on the horizon. The night before, he had joined First Officer Robert Kirchner and Flight Engineer Joseph Balzer at the Speak Easy Restaurant and Lounge in Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the Red River from Fargo. “A pitcher of beer was ordered, but I ordered a rum and coke, “ Prouse wrote in Final Approach, his 2011 memoir. “I had no intention of staying and getting drunk, nor did they, so far as I knew.” Whatever the trio’s intentions, it was later established in court that by the end of the night Prouse’s crewmates had ordered seven pitchers, and he’d had 17 rum and cokes.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations say a pilot cannot have a blood or breath alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater, which is half the legal limit for driving in the United States. Pilots are not allowed to drink any alcohol within eight hours of operating an airplane—“bottle to throttle,” as the FAA says. At Northwest, the rule was 12 hours.

The pilots arrived at the airport at about 5:30 a.m. Someone at the bar had tipped off airport officials. A local FAA agent briefly spoke with Prouse and Kirchner, reminding them of the eight-hour rule but said nothing further.

Northwest Flight 650, a Boeing 727 bound for Minneapolis-St. Paul with 58 passengers, took off as scheduled. The airplane landed safely in Minneapolis. When the crew walked off and saw Northwest company officials, airport policemen, and several FAA agents waiting at the end of the jetway, Prouse thought, “It’s over.”

Two hours after the flight, his blood alcohol content was 0.128, three times the legal limit. His memory of the exact course of events on that day is blurred, but he clearly remembers what he felt. “Incredible defeat, shame, disgrace,” he says. “And the finality of it.” There was no question in his mind that he would never fly again. A Marine fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran, he became, in his own words, the greatest pariah in aviation history.

But not the last: Last summer, United Airlines extended its no-drinking-before-a-flight period from eight hours to 12, longer than federal regulations dictate, after three pilots from two airlines were arrested for intoxication within one week. Statistics provided by the FAA indicate a notable increase in the number of pilots testing positive for banned drugs in the three years since 2017 than in the time between 2009 and 2016. The number of alcohol violations last year—23 total—was the highest of the last decade.

Pilots are a highly scrutinized group. They undergo annual physical exams, regular performance evaluations, and random screenings. This scrutiny has shown that the incidence of substance abuse in the profession is low. “Only a relatively small number of pilots are identified with an alcohol or drug problem,” says Dr. David Prewett, an aeromedical neuropsychologist in Atlanta. In 2018, the FAA issued about 1,200 special medical certificates for recovering pilots—roughly 0.2 percent of all active U.S. pilots. However, Prewett says, the actual number of pilots who struggle with substance abuse, mostly alcohol, is likely to be higher—probably the same as in the general U.S. population. According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, 12.7 percent of adult Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol-use disorder, the medical term for what most call alcoholism.

There is no evidence that alcohol-use disorder runs higher among pilots than the general population, but, without statistics to back him up, Prewett claims commercial pilots are more susceptible to the disease. One factor is the pilot personality, a subject he has studied for 25 years. Pilots tend to be extremely competitive, he points out. They excel “at binding and controlling anxiety”—blocking out feelings of fear and second-guessing. That’s a good thing when they’re flying, but it also makes them underestimate the warning signs of dependency.

Add to that external factors. Pilots who fly internationally often struggle with the disruption of their circadian rhythm and turn to alcohol to help them sleep. “And then you take a chew-leather, spit-nails Marine pilot like Lyle Prouse, who goes bear hunting with a stick and isn’t afraid of anything,” says Prewett. “He zoomed right through the early warning signs.”

The Turning Point

Lyle Prouse lives about 25 miles southeast of Atlanta, in a white ranch house on a wooded seven-acre lot. At 81, he still has the strong build and nimble movements of a Marine. As a tribute to his Comanche heritage, he wears his white hair in a long ponytail, a turquoise ring on his finger, and a silver bracelet around his wrist. His skin is dark from working in his yard all summer, a sharp contrast to his bright hazel eyes.

He sits at the family-room table, holding a large coffee mug with both hands. Next to him is Barbara, his wife of 56 years. She’s tall and soft-spoken with meticulously groomed blond hair. Their dogs Micki, a black lab mix, and Murphy, who is part rat terrier, have settled on the floor.

The day after Prouse got home from what he thought was his last flight as a pilot, he entered Anchor Hospital, an addiction treatment center on Atlanta’s south side.

Even though their life was about to turn upside down, Barbara remembers that she felt a sense of relief as she dropped Lyle off at the hospital. “Of course, for his sake I was not happy,” she says. “But I knew this was a turning point.” Her husband had always been a hard drinker, but she wasn’t sure if he had a problem. Now it was obvious he did.

In the months that followed, Prouse reached a mental low. “Here I was, 51 years old, in a treatment center for recovering alcoholics, with my flying career in shatters,” he recalls. Flying was all he’d ever done. He was a high school graduate with no additional education to fall back on. He contemplated suicide. “The idea of ending it all became seductively attractive.”

Treatment at Anchor was based on the 12-step model. He had a hard time embracing the concept of disassembling oneself, diving deep into the journey of self-inspection and sharing the innermost feelings with a group of strangers. But he had no choice. He began slowly to let go of his resistance and take stock of his life.

Born and raised in Kansas, he grew up in a household of alcoholic parents. His mother was half Comanche. Only later did he learn that she was abused by members of her own family and community. His parents divorced when he was 14.

Prouse became friends with a boy who was a Kiowa Indian. The boy’s family taught him how to do feather work and took him to powwows. “That’s when I started to identify culturally,” he says. He also remembers that in the native community, alcohol was ubiquitous.

At 18, he joined the Marines. He did well in boot camp, was selected as an officer candidate, and went on to flight training. He flew the A-4 Skyhawk and was deployed in Vietnam. After 11 years of service, he resigned in 1967.

When he went into treatment 23 years later, he found his identity as a Marine became a double-edge sword. “For a Marine, surrender is an anathema,” says Prouse. “Surrender means quitting.” He takes a long look into his coffee mug. “I had to learn that surrender is the key to recovery.” With a generous belly laugh, he adds: “I know that doesn’t generate the same level of applause as the John Wayne concept does.” During his month-long stay at Anchor Hospital, the roadmap to his new life started to take shape. Prouse reunited with his two adult sons, one of whom also struggled with addiction, and with his estranged daughter, whom he and Barbara had adopted as a baby and who had run away from home when she was 17.

Shortly after he left the hospital, Prouse was notified that Northwest had fired him and that the FAA had revoked his pilot’s licenses. He had already lost his FAA medical certificate because of his diagnosis of alcohol dependency. Then he learned that a federal jury had indicted him.

On October 26, 1990, U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum presided over Prouse’s sentencing hearing. He said more people had written him letters attesting to Prouse’s strength of character than on behalf of any other convict he’d ever sentenced. One of the letters, the judge noted, was from Brigadier General Marion Carl, whom Prouse had served as an aide during his time in Vietnam. The letters, and Prouse’s own “chivalrous and proper” remarks had made a strong impression, the judge said, but his duty remained clear. “The hand that will punish you is mine, but the hand that strikes you down is your own,” Rosenbaum said. “I do so with no joy.” He sentenced Prouse to 16 months in federal prison. (Kirchner and Balzer would get 12 months apiece.)

Prouse ended up spending eight months in a federal prison in Atlanta and another five months in a federal halfway house. After 424 days, he was finally free. He was also completely broke.

He started working as a clinical assistant at Anchor Hospital, making $6.75 per hour. But the pilot community hadn’t forgotten about him. While he was in prison, nine of Prouse’s fellow pilots, some he only knew by name, had started to make the couple’s monthly house payments. Prouse found it hard to accept help, but he was grateful.

Barbara and Lyle Prouse
Barbara and Lyle Prouse, seen outside their home in 2019, were married in 1963, just days after Prouse completed his flight training. They hadn’t planned ahead: As Prouse recalled in his memoir, their friends Coy and Mona Blankenship volunteered their own wedding rings for the hastily arranged ceremony. (Katja Ridderbusch)

Lifelines

Curiously, the widespread publicity his arrest had received had an unexpected effect: Influential people seemed to be taking an interest in his recovery. Ben Jones, a second-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives and famous for his pre-public service role on the hit TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, had visited Prouse in prison and taken a liking to him. During his time in the halfway house and after his release, Prouse kept up correspondence with Jones and several other congressmen focused on addiction and recovery.

The support was almost enough to encourage him to think about flying again. By all rational analysis, that matter was closed. But somewhere deep in the uncharted corners of his mind, a spark of hope had begun to flicker.

By 1990, many airlines­—but not Northwest—had implemented a program called Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS), which had been around since the 1970s. A joint effort by the FAA, the airlines, and the Air Line Pilots Association International—a pilots’ union—the program codifies the process of identifying and treating impaired pilots. It also includes a pathway back to the cockpit.

Some pilots volunteer; others are ordered to the program after testing positive for alcohol or drugs while on duty, explains Craig Ohmsieder, ALPA’s national HIMS chairman and a commercial pilot himself. Legal consequences are handled separately and outside the HIMS program, but, says Ohmsieder, “they have to be resolved before the pilot returns to the flight deck.”

By 1992, time was running out for Prouse. He was 53, just seven years away from mandatory retirement. (The age was raised to 65 in 2007.) And Judge Rosenbaum had banned him from flying. At the suggestion of his attorney, Peter Wold, he wrote a letter to the judge asking him to lift the ban. It ran to 11 typewritten pages.

Prouse took a series of neurological exams to determine if his alcohol use had damaged his brain. He scored high and regained his medical certificate. He caught an essential break when the FAA agreed to let him retain the 15,000 flight hours he’d earned prior to his arrest instead of making him restart at zero. But the agency still required him to go through the steps of acquiring a private pilot’s license, then a multi-engine rating, and finally a commercial air transport pilot rating by taking numerous written tests and flight evaluations. Terry March, then a captain with Northwest, owned a flight school in Buffalo, Minnesota. He invited Prouse to stay with his family in Buffalo while Prouse spent about six weeks re-earning his ratings. Prouse could not have afforded to pay for that training, and March never asked him to.

Meanwhile, another Northwest captain, O.C. Miller—the head of ALPA at Northwest at that time—was lobbying the airline to re-hire Prouse. As Prouse would write years later in his memoir, despite “a deep chasm of distrust and dislike between the pilots and Northwest management,” Miller had the respect of John Dasburg, the airline’s president and CEO. Prouse was aware of Miller’s campaign on his behalf, but he focused his energy on simply getting his licenses back. The prospect of flying for a major airline again was too extravagant a hope. “Winning the lottery seemed more realistic,” he recalls.

In September 1993, on the same day his FAA licenses arrived in the mail, Miller called him with an even more welcome piece of news. ALPA had successfully pleaded the case to Northwest that alcohol dependency is a disease and thus no grounds for dismissal. “We’re going back,” he remembers muttering to Barbara in disbelief.

Prouse’s return was conditional. He would not initially be permitted to fly as a captain. And while the airline allowed him to retain his years of service for seniority purposes, the fact was that nearly four years had passed since Prouse had been responsible for an airplane full of passengers. He went through Northwest’s new-hire orientation, including classroom and simulator training.

In May 1995, Prouse returned to the line as a Boeing 747 first officer. After two more years of exemplary performance, his superiors at Northwest decided to promote him back to captain. He retired on his 60th birthday in 1998.

And then Judge Rosenbaum, the man who had sentenced him to prison almost a decade earlier, offered to back a petition for his pardon. “That was a real shocker,” Prouse says now. With additional letters of support from Georgia’s two senators, he sent an appeal to the White House. On January 20, 2001, he received a pardon from outgoing President Bill Clinton. He’d been a pariah. Now he was no longer even a felon.

Today, that pardon hangs framed on a wall in his office, surrounded by photographs, certificates, and Marine Corps memorabilia.

His life is different now. He takes yoga classes and meditates daily. He likes hunting and fishing. He has a small private airplane, a ’75 Piper Warrior, which he mostly flies to rescue animals that were displaced during natural disasters.

He dedicates most of his time to the recovery community. He goes to a 12-step meeting in his neighborhood. He visits inmates in the nearby county jail. He attends the weekly meetings of Birds of a Feather, a group of recovering pilots. Hollywood has knocked on his door several times, but he never felt comfortable giving up control of his story.

Lieutenant Prouse in his Douglas A-4B Skyhawk
Lieutenant Prouse in his Douglas A-4B Skyhawk in Vietnam, circa 1965. ”A mere touch on the stick brought instant response,” he wrote. “I only had to think the airplane into doing what I wished.” (Courtesy Lyle Prouse)

Torchbearer

Matt, a commercial pilot who does not want to disclose his real name due to privacy concerns, was fired by his airline when he got into trouble with alcohol and cocaine. He was early in his flying career when the story of Flight 650 hit the news. “I remember very clearly how it unfolded,” he says.

One night shortly after he entered treatment, Matt sat across from Prouse at the Birds of a Feather meeting and heard his story firsthand. He says listening gave him hope “that there’s a possibility to come out at the other end of this.”

Prouse told Matt to call him every day, as long as he needed to. The younger pilot did—for two years. Prouse picked up the phone every single time. Five years into his sobriety, Matt was rehired by his former employer, for whom he still flies today.

That path is not the norm. Three major U.S. airlines—Delta, American, and United­—did not respond to requests for comment describing under what circumstances they would consider rehiring a troubled pilot. A source close to Delta, which merged with Northwest in 2008, says the airline decides on a case-by-case basis. Factors to be considered may be whether the pilot was criminally charged for flying while intoxicated and under what conditions the arrest happened. The FAA, meanwhile, says that following an alcohol or substance abuse violation, pilots must obtain a new airman medical certificate before they can fly again, and are subject to at least six and as many as 60 months of follow-up sobriety testing.

Three decades on, Prouse’s story continues to echo through the aviation industry and beyond. “His example has had direct and immeasurable indirect impact on the HIMS program,” says Prewett. A program that, ironically, never benefited Prouse.

Today, all major carriers in the United States and Canada have adopted HIMS. “They have a vital interest in keeping their pilots flying,” he says. Hiring and training a pilot is a costly endeavor. “To let an asset like that go doesn’t make business sense,” Prewett says.

More than 6,800 pilots have gone through the HIMS program since its inception. Pilots have become more open to stepping forward and to seeking help, says HIMS chairman Ohmsieder, adding that Prouse set the precedent. “He led the way by sharing his experience and spreading the message of hope and strength,” Ohmsieder says.

The relapse rate for pilots in HIMS is 14.6 percent, compared to 60 percent in the average recovering population. The program owes its success in part to the strict monitoring requirements that pilots in HIMS must adhere to but also to what Prewett calls the pilot personality. “Pilots coming out of HIMS are simply better employees,” he says. “They take less sick leave, they’re more motivated, and they’re grateful to be back in the cockpit.”

There’s a point when even the most intriguing story becomes yesterday’s news. Eventually, that happened to the story of Northwest Flight 650 and its drunken cockpit crew. Prouse could have ridden out the media storm and on into the sunset as a quietly recovering pilot. He chose not to. He wrote his book; he agreed to be interviewed on TV by Diane Sawyer and Ted Koppel; he accepts speaking gigs; and he chose to participate in this article. “I think it’s important to understand that people can change,” Prouse says. “That our lives are not the sum total of our failures.”

After a pause he continues, “You know, telling the story is not a form of self-torture. It’s quite cathartic, actually.” In the native community, story­telling is considered a healing agent, he says.

He’s given his story a powerful ending.

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