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ATF Interview: Pilot/Author Joe Balzer - From Flying Drunk To Locked Down & Out To The Left-Hand Seat

By Elliot Borin, Air TaxiFlights.com Staff Writer - © 2009, Reproduction without permission strictly prohibited. All company and product names in this document are the property of their respective copyright and/or trademark holders.

ATF Interview: Pilot/Author Joe Balzer From Flying Drunk To Locked Down & Out To The Left-Hand Seat The lead paragraph in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's March 12, 1990 story seemed to say it all:

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Sunday that it received a tip at least three hours before a Northwest Airlines plane left Fargo, N.D., that the cockpit crew had been drinking, but allowed the flight to the Twin Cities because it had no authority to stop the crew.

As often happens, however, only the facts were covered in the media coverage. The real story, the human story, remained untold until the recent publication of Flying Drunk, Flight Engineer Joe Balzer's emotionally charged story of hellfire and redemption.

Now 53, Joe's roundtrip began when he was a toddler, living next to Wright-Patterson, arguably the biggest, busiest air force base in the world. His love of airplanes launched there, though it would take 20-some years to come to fruition with his becoming a pilot. Somewhere along the way, the seeds of his personal and professional destruction were sown.

By dint of determination and grunt work, Joe made it to the cockpit of a major airline. Which is where his self-destruction began flowering, now appearing, now disappearing, but always harboring a toxic component that would emerge one day and make headlines all over the country.

He went to prison for a year. He got out and became reacquainted with minimum-wage employment. His former professional career, his masters degree meant nothing in the work place. His felony conviction seemed to be his only "recommendation." With abject depression weighing him down, Joe began getting counseling, began trying to learn what had brought him down to earth.

"It took him five years from that point to regain his licenses and ratings and find merit with American Airlines as a full-fledged pilot."
He attended AA meetings for a year before the light bulb went on and he could authentically say, because he finally understood it to be true, "Hi, my name is Joe and I'm an alcoholic." It took him five years from that point to regain his licenses and ratings and find merit with American Airlines as a full-fledged pilot. He's been flying with the company for over a decade now; he's been sober for 19 years. He has made it full circle, back to the planes he loves, back to being at the controls as one of the sky jockeys he idolized as a kid.

Back to skillfully, soberly, confidently piloting hundreds of souls through skies blue and cloudy, friendly and stormy.

Since alcohol and airplanes are a potential lethal combination on any level -- air taxi or scheduled airline, corporate transportation or recreational flying -- we asked Joe to share his story with us.

AirTaxiFlights.com: Let's go back to that morning in Fargo. You'd been drinking pretty heavily the night before and you knew the other two members of the crew had also been drinking hard because you were with them. You're late for the pre-flight check and hurrying to get to the aircraft. Suddenly an FAA safety inspector stops you.

What goes through your mind when you find yourself in front of an inspector telling you about a 2 a.m. FAA Hotline call reporting that a NW crew has been seen out drinking?

Joe Balzer: They talk about 100 forms of fear. I was very fearful. My head was saying, 'You need to get down to the airplane and finish your preflight, you're in trouble anyway.' And my gut was saying, 'Runnnnn!' My gut was right.

The FAA inspector had already met with the captain and the first officer and said he wanted to have a meeting with the full crew before the flight left, but the captain never told me that. So I had a private meeting with the FAA safety inspector. He said he smelled alcohol.

I asked him, "Have you spoken with the captain?" and he said he had. He [inspector] claims that he smelled alcohol on my breath. I don't remember him saying that, but what I said to him was, "Just the fact that you're out here asking these questions, I think we should all be blood-alcohol tested."

At that point it was no harm, no foul, the airplane hadn't even moved off the chocks, I wasn't even on board the airplane, I was standing out in the hallway. We could have shut the whole thing down right there. Gone back to the hotel. They probably would have put us into some kind of recovery program. At least two of us ... I don't know if the first officer thinks he is an alcoholic or not, I've lost touch with him, and it's a shame, he's a really terrific fellow. But I know two of us would have probably gotten into recovery at that point.

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