A portable ladder dangled from the huge transport plane on the tarmac of Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Joseph Balzer was only three years old, but he was tantalized by the sight. His father, Bob Balzer, understanding his son’s excitement, helped him up the first few rungs of the ladder. Suddenly a hand reached down, grabbed the belt of his pants and yanked him all the way up. Little Joseph didn’t know what was happening.
He didn’t need to worry. The hand belonged to a pilot who hoisted him into the plane and gave him the surprise of his young life. The man lifted him inside the cockpit and sat him in the pilot’s seat. With all those gauges and controls in front of his eyes, Joseph imagined he was a real pilot, ready to take off into the wild blue yonder!
That imagination eventually became reality. But only after he spent many years studying, working hard and flying thousands of miles in different types of aircraft to earn his coveted pilot licenses. The whole time, he had one passion – to fly for a major airline. And he made it.
Today he is Captain Joseph Balzer, a First Officer for American Airlines who still remembers that childhood incident and goes out of his way to talk to children who come aboard his plane. If they seem interested, he even lets them sit in his seat.
Years earlier, he had realized his dream of becoming a pilot with a major airline by signing on with Eastern Airlines and later with Northwest Airlines. But between that first job as a pilot, and his current job with American Airlines were years of heartache and regret - not to mention a year in federal prison.
Capt. Balzer pulls no punches when he describes events leading up to the March 8, 1990 flight when he and two other legally drunk pilots flew a Northwest Airlines 727 from Fargo, North Dakota to Minneapolis, Minnesota with 91 people on board. The plane landed safely and no one was hurt, but the fallout from that flight cost Capt. Balzer his reputation, his self-esteem and his pilot’s licenses.
“March 8, 1990…[Northwest Airlines] Captain Joesph Balzer…and two other legally drunk pilots flew a Northwest Airlines 727 from Fargo, North Dakota to Minneapolis, Minnesota with 91 people on board.”
Many articles have been written about Capt. Balzer’s struggle for redemption after that fateful flight in 1990, and most focus on how hard he worked to regain his standing as a pilot with a major airline. But that’s not the whole picture he wants to see painted about his struggles. Capt. Balzer acknowledges that he worked hard to get back behind the controls, but he’d rather give the glory to God and not himself.
He counsels people to remember that God will help them open up another door if they mess up, “Don’t stop the first time you fail, because that is just a closed door and you will meet plenty of closed doors. God will open up another one for you.”
But the road back wasn’t easy. There was a time in his life when, as he puts it, “It was hard to wake up every day and be Joe Balzer.”
Capt. Balzer said he was an alcoholic for many years before he could admit it to himself. He didn’t recognize his problem even when he would black out after a night of heavy drinking. He often went out drinking with other pilots and flight attendants when they had to stay overnight between flights, and sometimes he couldn’t remember where he’d spent the night or how he got from the bar back to his hotel.
When he began to think he might need help, he decided to do it on his own rather than swallow his pride and go to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. He did all right for a while. He’d been sober for several months when he got his job with Northwest Airlines.
When he left for his training with Northwest, he received some great advice from his father, a recovering alcoholic who had become a Christian. “Don’t go out drinking with any of the flight crews in your first year at Northwest Airlines.”
How he wished he had taken that advice! But he didn’t. During an eight-hour period the night before the flight from Fargo to Minneapolis, he and the first officer shared at least six pitchers of beer while their captain downed up to 20 rum-and-Diet Cokes. Less than 10 hours later, the crew was in the air - in violation of a Northwest Airlines rule that prohibits pilots from flying within 12 hours of their last drink.
Witnesses who saw the pilots in the bar contacted the Federal Aeronautics Administration in Fargo. Capt. Balzer said he actually asked for a blood test or any other kind of test before he took off, but the flight went on as scheduled without any testing of the pilots. It wasn’t until they arrived in Minneapolis that FAA officials administered blood tests which showed they were all drunk.
Northwest Airlines fired the pilots, and the government filed criminal charges against them for flying under the influence of alcohol. At this point in his life, Capt. Balzer said he finally admitted to having a problem he couldn’t solve on his own and started attending AA meetings. Today he’s been sober for 19 years.
It was July 25, 1990, when he and the other two pilots were convicted of flying a commercial airliner while under the influence of alcohol. Capt. Balzer was sentenced to a year in jail. The legal fees and related costs had eaten up his bank account, which included $50,000 that he and his wife had saved toward buying a house.
“Losing my wings, my career, my life savings, and my home equity was almost more than I could handle. Watching my wife and family suffer so much from my actions was unbearable,” he says. The very next day, he began his fight for redemption and the determination to regain what he had lost.
His prison experience was hell on earth physically, full of frightening experiences with other prisoners and prison guards. But the time behind bars turned out to be a spiritual shot in the arm as he attended meetings of Campus Crusade for Christ, the Salvation Army and other Christian leaders.
Some of the Bible studies were led by an 83-year-old former missionary to India named Dr. Grimm. Many of the things Dr. Grimm taught are still fresh in Capt. Balzer’s memory, such as: “Some people…think they have to do something to get to heaven, to go ‘up’ to God. But the wonderful thing is that God comes down and works through us, and we have the awesome privilege of being a part of God’s new creation each and every day.”
Capt. Balzer had become a born-again Christian in Fort Lauderdale at age 28, but through Dr. Grimm’s teaching, he developed a greater depth of trust in God.
He said it’s important for people to realize that being saved and being a person with an incurable disease can go hand in hand, something he said he did not understand and which many others don’t understand. “Many alcoholics are saved. Many are sober and saved, and that is a great combination,” he said.
After Capt. Balzer finished his prison sentence, it took years to get his pilot’s wings again - years of retraining, working menial jobs while he studied new aviation developments, and retesting for all the pilot’s licenses he’d once had. He got back into flying by earning the right to fly Captain for a 121 carrier, Kitty Hawk Air Cargo in Dallas, Texas. In 1999, he became a First Officer with American Airlines.
“With such a black mark on my career, it is a miracle that I got the job,” he said, recalling the time when he, as an ex-con, was literally turned down for a job selling television sets at Circuit City.
Capt. Balzer, who has a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Education, has logged more than 15,000 hours in the air yet he makes time to travel the country speaking to pilots and others on the dangers of alcohol and other addictions, pointing out that alcoholism is the number one health issue in the country. It’s a serious topic yet Capt. Balzer is living proof that, with God’s help, people can get sober and stay that way.
Bio: He tells his life story in the book, “Flying Drunk,” which was published last year by Savas Beatie of New York and California. It is subtitled, “The True Story of a Northwest Airlines Flight, Three Drunk Pilots, and One Man’s Fight for Redemption.” More information is available on the websites: http://flyingdrunk.com and http://savasbeatie.com/books/FlyingDrunk_book.htm.
Thank you Captain Balzer, for sharing your Story with us.
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