The first week of March 1990 was one I will never forget. But not for the reasons I had hoped.
The sacrifices I had made for the previous twelve years had just begun to pay off. I was a newlywed, married to a lovely woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. We had just spent a wonderful vacation with friends, skiing in the magnificent high country of Colorado.
I left for work with optimism and hope for our future, knowing that I was about to finish probation as a “new hire” pilot with Northwest Airlines. My evaluations from previous Captains had all been excellent, which meant I was passing my probationary period with flying colors.
My wife Deborah and I were looking forward to my full pilot status and a healthy raise, finally putting behind us the low first-year pay an airline pilot receives. We were so close to buying our dream house on a lake in Nashville, Tennessee, that we were giddy with excitement. Everything was going our way. We had nothing to fear—or at least, that’s what we thought.
And then my world crashed down around me on the morning of March 8, 1990.
* * *
Outside it was a cold, wet morning in Fargo, North Dakota—but not as cold as inside the cockpit, due to the working relationship between the Captain and the other two pilots of our jet. That morning I was the Flight Engineer on a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727. As the plane entered the dark runway for takeoff, then raced down the runway, accelerating to attain takeoff speed, my insides were ripping apart in turmoil. I watched as the First Officer pushed the three engine throttles forward. The air inside the engines was being compressed under tremendous pressure—as were the thoughts overwhelming my brain. Fear bounced between my ears; the situation was
rapidly spiraling out of control.
With the engines developing thousands of pounds of thrust, the aircraft rapidly approached the speed necessary to develop sufficient lift on the wings to become airborne. The shaking of the airframe paralleled the shaking inside me. I was aching to scream “Stop!” and return to the gate, but I could not form the words. I’m convinced no one there would have listened to me, anyway; nonetheless, had I known what was waiting for us later, I would have done things differently.
Something that rarely happens in a modern commercial airliner was taking place. The crew coordination, communication and teamwork so
important for the safe outcome of a flight had been completely compromised days earlier by the poor leadership of the overbearing Captain. This officer, rude to the point of being downright mean, had nothing but criticism to offer anyone. The icy air hanging between all of us comprised a dangerous element in the cockpit.
The gear handle was raised and the landing gear rumbled into the wheel wells. The airspeed increased dramatically as the drag from the main gear was eliminated from the slipstream. As the airplane climbed higher into the dark morning sky, I contemplated the unfolding situation. Earlier, my repeated requests and desperate attempts to prevent this flight from ever taking place had failed miserably. Now everything I had ever worked for was at stake. My short airline career—a career that I had made so many personal sacrifices to attain—might end with this flight.
The reason: I was sitting in the cockpit of a commercial jet unsure whether there was alcohol running through my veins. I had done everything I could do to get this airplane properly pre-flighted and ready for takeoff—but I had failed to preflight myself. My life-long struggle with alcohol had resumed, and this time I had carried it into the cockpit with me, compromising my own personal value system. And I was not alone. At the time, I could not remember exactly how much I, along with the Captain and First Officer, had drunk the night before—but it had been considerable.
Now shame, embarrassment, even anger washed through me, followed by a feeling of total, absolute defeat. Thank God we had not been discovered— yet.
So there I sat, part of a dysfunctional crew, working under a “leader” who was himself out of control. I was trapped in a situation I did not
understand, and my decision to take this mess into the air had been one of the worst of my life. Just a few days before, my wife and I had experienced deep joy and happiness as we looked forward to a bright future together. Now, on this dark March morning, I was a pilot on a flight unlike that made by any three pilots I had ever heard of: we were at the controls of a commercial airliner with innocent passengers on board, and we were intoxicated.
We were flying drunk; and Federal officers had already been alerted.
Everything that could go wrong was about to.http://flyingdrunk.com