Convicted Of Flying Drunk, Former NWA Pilot Tells All

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — At the annual meeting of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office staff, prosecutors heard from the prosecuted.

A defendant in a decades old story that remains impossible to forget.

“Late night TV comics made the flight immortal,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

Choi’s keynote speaker was the self-described, “greatest pariah in commercial aviation history.”

When he took his place at the lectern, he simply said, “My name’s Lyle and I’m an alcoholic.”

In 1990, Northwest Airlines Captain Lyle Prouse, his co-pilot and a flight engineer were arrested for flying drunk after taking passengers aboard Northwest Airlines flight 650 from Fargo to Minneapolis.

At the time, WCCO-TV reporter Alan Cox wrote, “Witnesses at a bar told investigators the captain had more than a dozen mixed drinks and co-pilots shared six pitchers of beer.”

Now 27 years after the incident, county attorney staff sat in silence, mesmerized as Lyle Prouse described growing up in an alcoholic household in Kansas. Still, he credits them for instilling in him solid values and work ethic.

“I don’t blame them for my alcoholism, I’m an alcoholic because I made a choice to drink,” Prouse told the audience.

Yet for years as a commercial pilot, Prouse denied his own drinking problem.

“I’d seen the drunks around the country, laying in alleyways, the ones drinking out of paper bags, dirty and filthy, the ones passed out on the grass of a park, laying on a bench, those were alcoholics. I couldn’t be an alcoholic,” Prouse said.

But the successful pilot was indeed. His addiction and inability to admit to his problem would cost him his job. Prouse went broke from the loss of income and legal expenses, and thought his life appeared over.

“That shame and desperation and sense of dishonor went all the way to my bone marrow. Because I wasn’t supposed to be there,” the retired pilot admits.

Prouse went through chemical dependency treatment just a day after police and FAA agents met him at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport gate.

Several months later, he and his fellow pilots went on trial in Minneapolis and Prouse was found guilty and sent to federal prison, where he’d serve 424 days.

“No Northwest pilot ever survived anything like this and their situation wasn’t 10 percent as bad as mine was – I knew it was over,” Prouse said.

But far from it. In a touching moment at Wednesday’s speaking engagement, retired District Court Judge James Rosenbaum was in the crowd too, seated near the back. At the end of Prouse’s speech, he came up and surprised his former defendant. The two embraced as if old friends. Here was the disgraced commercial pilot, and the man who presided over his trial and sent him to prison.

Judge Rosenbaum would later write a touching letter of support for Prouse, in a petition for reinstatement to fly again. And it was instrumental in convincing President Bill Clinton to grant Prouse a full pardon.

“You never know, at a certain point you have to be willing to take some kind of risks and believe human beings can be better,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum knew it was risky, should Prouse ever lose sobriety at the controls of a commercial jetliner. Equally risky was the courageous decision by then Northwest Airlines CEO John Dasburg, who allowed Prouse to rejoin the company.

Prouse was rehired by Northwest in 1993 and would remain with the company until 1998, when he retired at the mandatory age of 60, a 747 captain.

What appeared to be Lyle Prouse’s darkest days, would eventually unleash his brightest. His book detailing his experience, “Final Approach,” helped other struggling alcoholics seek treatment.

“No matter how far down the scale we’ve gone, we will see how our experiences can benefit others,” Prouse said.

More from Bill Hudson
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