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CNN ACCESS

Lyle Prouse: Pilots and drinking

July 3, 2002

Former Northwest pilot Lyle Prouse
Former Northwest pilot Lyle Prouse

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on CNN.com providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

(CNN) --The arrest of two America West pilots who were charged with trying to fly a jetliner while drunk draws attention to a serious issue for the airline industry. Former Northwest pilot Lyle Prouse has a unique perspective on drinking and flying. Twelve years ago he was arrested for flying while intoxicated and spent time in a federal prison for that offense. He spoke with CNN's Paula Zahn Wednesday.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Delighted to have you with us this morning. Welcome.

LYLE PROUSE, RETIRED PILOT: Good morning, Paula.

ZAHN: If you could, take us back to the day of your arrest in 1990. What happened?

PROUSE: Well, I had been drinking the afternoon and evening before a flight. And you know, I went over to this place. I didn't intend to stay. I didn't intend to drink a lot. I didn't intend to get drunk. But the fact of the matter is I drank way too much, and I was arrested the following morning when I landed -- and I should have been.

ZAHN: When you got into the cockpit that day before you flew from Fargo to Minneapolis, did you know how much trouble you were in?

PROUSE: No, I didn't. And you know, I had no idea that I had a problem with alcohol. I came out of an alcoholic family. I had struggled very hard to be different from the two parents that I had grown up with, both of whom were alcoholics and died from the disease. And I didn't think I had a problem. But that's the very nature of the disease of alcoholism.

ZAHN: So what you're saying, then, is your arrest was the first time you had to confront the reality that you were an alcoholic?

PROUSE: That's true. And you know, the very nature of impairment is that when I'm doing something after I've been drinking, I don't recognize the fact that I am, in fact, impaired. And I didn't think I was that morning. And that was flawed thinking. It doesn't gel with what I know now, but that was the way it was that particular morning.

ZAHN: Do you ever remember going to the cockpit feeling like you weren't in complete control?

PROUSE: Well, I had been hungover before. It wasn't a widespread, common occurrence in my life, especially when I was working. But yes, there were times when I flew and I didn't feel like I was 100 percent. There were times when I didn't sleep well that I didn't feel 100 percent. So you know, I'm not sure exactly how to answer that question. It wasn't like it was an everyday occurrence.

ZAHN: During your trial, the prosecutor made the point that he thought you may have flown that morning to protect your career over the lives of the passengers you were flying that day. Did he have a point?

PROUSE: Well, it was a female prosecutor. But no, she didn't. It was not a conscious choice that I was going to risk the lives of 58 people in order to save my career. Had I thought that I was endangering anyone at that time, I would not have flown. I said to somebody at the time, if I had thought we were going to crash, I wouldn't have gone. I was in the front of the airplane. I hit first.

But that's the nature of being impaired. I didn't understand then what I do understand now. And you know, this is an insidious process.

And I want to make clear that I'm not implying that these two gentlemen are alcoholics. I have no way of knowing that. That will be determined medically. But I know that I am, and I didn't know it until that morning.

'Gratitude every day'

ZAHN: And based on what you know today, how much regret do you have that you even got into the cockpit that day, the day you flew from Fargo to Minneapolis, where you were later arrested?

PROUSE: Well, I'm going to give you a mixed answer on that. Do I regret that I risked the lives of 58 people? Absolutely. I certainly do. But I'll tell you this: As I look back on it, it was the thing that saved my life. So, you know, I have mixed regrets. I would like to find every one of the 58 people that were on board my airplane that morning and apologize to them and talk to them. That's not possible. I can't do it.

But the horror and the tragedy that I experienced that commenced and began that morning, which launched me on another journey, was the very thing that saved my life. And do I regret that? No. It took a long time for me to find any kind of gratitude, because we were broke inside the first month that this occurred. My life was destroyed and shredded and devastated. And I didn't know at that time that I was beginning to build a new life. It didn't feel like it that particular morning.

I have no idea what's in store for these two gentlemen. But my hope for them is that they will find something even remotely close to what I have found.

ZAHN: And what you found is new peace in your life?

PROUSE: I've been sober since that day, you know, in a story that's too long to go into here and that's filled with miracles. I was never to fly again, ever to fly again. I had been stripped of everything. And it was fair. I should have been stripped of everything. I accept full and total and complete responsibility for all of that.

But I was subsequently able, over a journey that was a million miles and a million tiny steps, all of which were connected to each other, to regain my licenses. The president of my airline, in a courageous moment that I will never understand, and the corporation itself demonstrated extraordinary courage, and they brought me back.

I was able to retire as a 747 captain. I never could have dreamt that.

ZAHN: You must have an enormous amount of gratitude that you were given that second chance.

PROUSE: I have gratitude every single day. I live under a big umbrella of gratitude. I don't have any bad days today, you know? I am grateful to be sober. I am grateful for the things that happened to me, because without them, the other things could not have happened for me.

The prison experience was a grim, horrendous, sick, obscene experience, but it was part, it was simply part, of the price I had to pay. And I accepted that.

ZAHN: And Lyle, I know you feel that when people hear about stories like the arrest of these two pilots yesterday, they often jump to conclusions, and the conclusions are much exaggerated. But what can you tell the American public this morning, some flyers who are very shaken by this news that don't have complete confidence in the men and the women who are at the controls of the cockpit?

PROUSE: Well, it's a mistaken concept. You know, this is a horrible tragedy, as was mine. But the airlines have a tremendous monitoring program. We have tremendous alcohol programs. We have tremendous peer identification programs. But you've got to understand and recognize that no system is ever perfect.

There is no profession anywhere that I am aware of that is as closely regulated, monitored, and watched as that of being an airline pilot. We have to do things on a routine, annual basis that doctors don't have to do, attorneys don't have to do. And it's a safe environment.

These things happen, and it's sad, and it's tragic, but we live in a world where human beings do certain things, and I'm sad to see this thing. And I have a flood of emotion, and I have great empathy for the passengers. I'm not purely, totally pro- pilot. But I know, I know what it's like to go through something like this and to have your entire life defined by the worst moment in it.

ZAHN: Well, in closing, I know you take full responsibility for what happened to you, but what role ultimately do you think flight attendants and copilots need to take -- what kind of role do they need to play in each other's lives?

PROUSE: I think one of the most difficult things that anyone will ever confront is talking to someone else, a close friend or an employee and an associate about their drinking. It's just a horribly hard, difficult thing to do. And it requires great concern and a high level of courage to do that. But that's the only way that we're going to be able to help our fellow employees, and that is to call up the courage that's required to do that.

ZAHN: Well, we thank you for sharing some of your courage with us this morning. We know it's not easy for you to travel back in time and discuss that very painful chapter of your life. But we're happy to hear you're on a brand new, happier road.

PROUSE: Life couldn't be any better for me, Paula.

ZAHN: Thank you again for sharing some of your thoughts with us this morning.

PROUSE: Thank you.


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