Cockpit Chronicles: “Flying Drunk” by Joe Balzer

Most people would question their career choice after working for five different airlines in their first six years as a pilot. But the early ’90s were a turbulent time in the industry, and I was simply happy to be working, even if it was as a flight engineer on the 727. Flying is what I wanted to do.

But a flight engineer doesn’t actually fly. This position, once reserved for experienced mechanics, was now populated with junior pilots working their way up the seniority ranks until they could hold a co-pilot or captain seat. I seemed to have had the unfortunate luck to be at my third airline working at that very junior flight engineer seat by 1996.

There I was, sitting in another indoctrination class, in a windowless room featuring six Office Depot particle board tables with twelve swivel-type desk chairs looking at a white dry erase board.

This time I would be learning about Kittyhawk Air Cargo; their rules, procedures, insurance benefits and hazardous material policies among other things.

If I had, even for a moment, felt that my career had been less than charmed up to this point, those thoughts would soon be eclipsed by a pilot sitting behind me and to my left. He was someone with a very well known past.

In the previous row I heard the typical banter of two new-hire pilots. The first pilot answered the most often asked question in this setting; where’d you come from?

It sounds rather direct, but there’s no better way to get to know a fellow aviator; their experience and maybe even if they’ve flown with someone you know.

My ears perked up when I heard my classmate mention he’d flown in Alaska, since I had spent the first 3 years of my career up there. I quickly realized from eavesdropping, that we’d flown in different parts of the state.

“How about you?” The Alaskan pilot asked his neighbor sitting to the left.

“Remember those Northwest pilots who were arrested for flying under the influence?” He said, as everyone in the class glanced toward him like the famous EF Hutton commercial where people stop talking and turn to listen to a far more interesting conversation.

“I was the flight engineer on that flight.”
It’s fair to say that no one has ever had a more turbulent career than Joe Balzer. But flying was what he too, had always wanted to do.

His career started at Delta as an aircraft cleaner while he flew at night as a right-seat pilot/freight loader aboard WWII vintage cargo planes out of Florida to the Bahamas. Later on, he worked as a Learjet pilot before landing his dream job at Eastern Air Lines.

Joe left for greener pastures at Northwest while Eastern began to collapse.

And on a winter’s night in Fargo, North Dakota, his career would also begin to crumble.

Since it was clear that our indoctrination class wouldn’t be starting until we heard Joe’s full story, the instructor agreed to let Joe speak in front of our class.

This wasn’t going to be your typical indoctrination class, I remember thinking.

Joe explained the circumstances that led up to a night of drinking on his long Fargo layover. While he and his co-pilot had given up on their captain and went to bed before the eight-hour “bottle-to-throttle” rule, the captain remained at the pub long afterwards. He made enough of a scene that a few patrons of the bar elected to call the FAA in an effort to prevent this captain’s flight from departing in the morning.

A representative of the FAA met up with the crew the next morning and asked them about the night before. Joe insisted on taking a breathalyzer test, but the inspector deemed that to be unnecessary.

But when they arrived in Minneapolis a few hours later, the state police were there to handcuff all three pilots at the gate and take them away.

It turns out, Joe and the co-pilot were just over the FAA’s legal limit of .04 blood alcohol level.

While we listened to Joe’s story, I couldn’t help notice that he didn’t blame anyone but himself and he remained amazingly positive and upbeat about his situation.

After turning down a plea-bargain (a mistake that cost him dearly) Joe lost all his licenses and ratings to fly and spent a year in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. It was at this point that the story became edge-of-your-seat interesting.

Joe finished up his story, leaving his classmates and even the instructor in a stunned silence.

Later, I invited Joe to my place, where he relayed the experience in even more detail to my brother and me.

“Joe, you need to write a book.” I remember saying.

Apparently, over the next decade enough people said the same thing to Joe, that he’s done just that.

In July, Flying Drunk was released and I managed to get an early copy. It sat in my suitcase for a few days before I tackled it on a rainy London layover. I missed lunch. A few hundred pages later and I had missed dinner as well.

Joe chronicled his early career, which would be fascinating reading for anyone learning to fly today who hopes to become an airline pilot. Flying Drunk pulled me in like no other aviator autobiography.

For Kittyhawk and later American Airlines to give Joe another shot at a flying career after his horrible mistake in 1992, is a testimony to Joe and those at the subsequent interviews who listened to his story.

Cecil Ewell, the well respected and now retired Vice President of Fight Operations at American, says this about Joe:

“In 1998, a man came to my office looking for a job as a pilot for American Airlines. I had 50,000 applications for only 80 jobs per month. The story he told me nearly caused me to fall out of my chair. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In my 50-year aviation career, his hiring was my greatest success.”

I talked to Joe Balzer this week about the book and his flying career:

Kent: Joe, American took a bit of a publicity risk in hiring you 11 years ago. Have they been supportive of your efforts with this book today?

Joe: The men who hired me at American Airlines knew my hiring had potential for controversy, yet they felt like they were doing the right thing, by giving a man a chance that no other airline would give him. This is a company that is dedicated to helping people recover from alcoholism, saving families and pilots, and getting people back to work with the true potential that they have living sober lives. I struggled for so long to feel useful in the workplace, and writing this book has created the opportunity for me to give something back to all of the employees of American Airlines and the rest of the world.

Kent: There have been a few recent cases of pilots that were pulled off trips while passing through security after they were found to have been drinking prior a flight. Have you ever talked to any of these pilots?

Joe: I have spoken to several pilots who have gotten into trouble. It’s amazing how similar their feelings are to the ones I was having when my life fell apart. Most of these pilots really want to change their lives and get help. They want to surrender and learn about themselves and the disease of alcoholism, find support, get an education and become healthy and sober people.

Alcoholism is a very misunderstood disease, and denial and the negative social stigma do tremendous damage. My desire is to educate people about the disease, and perhaps raise the tragic bottom for someone so they don’t have to go through what I did before they seek help.

Kent: Do you think alcoholism is a widespread problem among airline employees? Should passengers be concerned?

Joe: Based on the letters I have received from other pilots and many conversations I have had, alcoholism is alive and well among every work group in this country, and to think it doesn’t affect pilots in today’s world would be pure denial of reality.

All airlines and companies with flight departments have people who are still suffering from alcoholism and need help, and thankfully, many companies have an employee assistance program to help people recover from this 100% fatal disease.

Over 4,000 pilots have been rehabilitated with the HIMS program, and every single pilot who is flying in recovery is enhancing air safety. Think about it, if just one pilot on the NWA crew in 1990 had been in recovery, the flight would have never left the gate.

Kent: What has been the reaction from the pilots you’re currently flying with?

Joe: The vast majority of pilots I have flown with or talked to have been very positive. Most pilots tell me that they admire my perseverance and are happy that American Airlines offered me the opportunity to fly again for a major airline.

Some amazing things have happened also. One pilot I spoke to on an airplane called me a few weeks after I met him and told me that “after hearing your story and talking to my wife, I decided to enter a treatment program for alcoholism.” When I heard that, I had a feeling of usefulness, that all of my pain and suffering was for the greater good and would help other people.

This pilot is a happy sober pilot today and is grateful for the positive change sobriety has made in his life. It’s easy to be locked into toxic shame and guilt, and in my story I explain how that was very dominating in my life. It kept me from wanting to get help.

Just yesterday I had a jumpseat rider who read my book on a four hour flight home. His comment to me was, “Every pilot in the industry needs to read this book.”

Kent: Had you taken the plea bargain which would have eliminated the felony charges, would you have been able to keep your licenses instead of having to go through, like you did, and earn them all back?

Joe: No, the FAA had already EMERGENCY REVOKED all of my pilot licenses–a very horrible experience to say the least. Obviously, my life had become unmanageable at that point in time, I had compromised my personal values by flying an airplane with too much alcohol is my system, and the locomotive had already crushed me. I was like a bug on the windshield of life, crushed and battered, but still somehow hanging on, just enough to get through the day. My flying days were gone, and a giant vacuum was whistling through my heart. That’s how much I enjoyed flying.

Kent: Are you aware of anyone else, besides the Northwest captain, who lost their licenses and earned them back again after a case like this?

Joe: There are many people flying today who have had to earn their licenses back in order to fly again. I think historically, we were the first ones who were ever charged with criminal charges for flying under the influence.

Kent: What has been the most rewarding thing about telling your story?

Joe: The things people say to me after they read the book are very uplifting. My life was super painful and difficult for a very long time. I suffered from post traumatic shock from being in prison for one. Then endured years of rejection from potential employers. I reflect on the wonderful people who were already in my life, my wife, family and friends, and all of the new people God put in my life who have supported me emotionally and spiritually over the years.

Joe’s book, Flying Drunk is available at book stores or directly from his website.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers.