The Airline Pilots Association will argue that the actions of a few bad apples shouldnÃt spoil the reputation enjoyed by thousands of highly competent commercial pilots. That logic, however, would be seriously flawed.
Maybe a few bad apples shouldnÃt ruin the reputation of professional sports, or an army, or the entertainment world but, when it comes to a commercial airliner traveling at 35,000 feet and 650 miles per hour, even one bad apple is unacceptable. With the stakes that high, poor judgment and carelessness are simply not options.
On July 1, 2002, Thomas Cloyd and Christopher Hughs ran up a $122 bar tab at a sports bar during an all-night drinking binge that ended at 4:40a.m. and included 14 beers. Six hours later the two men boarded their plane at Miami International Airport for a flight to Phoenix, Arizona. The only problem was that they wouldnÃt be able to sleep off their hangovers since they were supposed to be flying the Airbus 319 with 117 passengers and crew members.
When security screeners smelled a strong odor of alcohol on Hughs and Cloyd got into an argument concerning his attempts to bring a cup of coffee aboard, they alerted police who then ordered the plane to turn back and arrested the pilots. Hours later, they registered blood-alcohol levels above Florida’s 0.08 legal limit.
Following a criminal trial in Miami, Florida, the two former America West pilots were found guilty on June 8 of operating an aircraft while drunk. They were held without bail and face up to 5 years in prison when they are sentenced on July 20. Those familiar with DWI and DUI cases wonder if this was the first time the two men had taken the controls while intoxicated or merely the only time they had been caught doing it.
As bad as that case was, it pales in comparison to what happened at 41,000 feet over Missouri on October 14, 2004. This time, people died.
On that night, Capt. Jesse Rhodes and First Officer Peter Cesarz of Pinnacle Airlines (an affiliate of Northwest Airlines) were ferrying a Bombardier jet from Little Rock, Arkansas to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The cockpit voice recording released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provides a chilling record of the final 26 minutes before the jet crashed in a residential neighborhood of Jefferson City, Missouri.
At 9:48 p.m., while cracking jokes, Cesarz and Rhodes decided to "have a little fun" by pushing the jet to 41,000 feet, the maximum rated altitude for that particular plane. Generally, commercial flights fly at lower altitudes.
By 9:49 p.m., Rhodes stated, "40 thousand, baby." Cesarz encouraged the pilot to push the jet higher stating: "Man, we can do it, 41-it." At 9:51 p.m., Cesarz exclaimed: "ThereÃs 41-0, my manÃ–Made it, man."
At 9:52 p.m., one of the pilots opened a can of Pepsi and the two men joked about drinking beer. At 9:53 p.m., Cesarz said: "This is the greatest thing, no way."
All of this frivolity was short-lived, however. At 10:03 p.m., the pilots reported one engine had failed. At 10:08 p.m., they reported both engines had failed and they requested a direct route to any airport.
The recording became more frantic as their desperate efforts to restart the engines and gain altitude failed. They crashed into a residential neighborhood as they attempted to reach the airport at Jefferson City, Missouri. Both men died. CesarzÃs last words were: "WeÃre not going to make it, man. WeÃre not going to make it."
Whether the relatively inexperienced pilots were unaware of the problems that could develop in the thin air at 41,000 feet is unclear. David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, was very concerned with the reckless actions of the pilots. He stated: "This was boredom and experimentation, these guys experimenting with things they had no business doing."
Everyone is painfully aware of the havoc a commercial airliner is capable of producing when it changes from a method of travel into a guided missile. Can the public, or the Airline PilotÃs Association for that matter, really afford to have drunk or reckless pilots at the controls of commercial jets.?