Infamous pilot lands at UND

Lyle Prouse, first person charged with flying under the influence, visits campus.

Lyle Prouse, the first pilot to be charged with flying while intoxicated, giving a speech at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. Photo by Keisuke Yoshimura/The Dakota Student.

Northwest Flight 650 is not a flight that many college students remember because they were very young or not born yet. The infamous flight on Mar. 8, 1990  traveled from Fargo, N.D. to Minneapolis, Minn. and was captained by Lyle Prouse.

For Prouse, it was like any other flight. But what happened after the plane landed changed Prouse’s life forever and ended a 22-year decorated career as a pilot.

When he got off the plane, authorities met and questioned him for 12 hours for having flown under the influence of alcohol. Prouse was allowed to fly home to Atlanta, Ga. the next day where he immediately entered into alcohol treatment.

Prouse spoke to UND on Wednesday at the Chester Fritz Auditorium for the aviation program’s annual fall safety seminar about his journey with alcoholism, public humiliation and his way back to flying. Prouse spoke at UND 10 years ago.

“I’ve told this story a number of times, and it still plays like a video running through my mind,” Prouse said.

Prouse grew up in a poor family in Wichita, Kan. where both his mother and father died of alcoholism. He entered the Marines right after high school, where he spent 11 years making a name for himself and doing whatever it took to become a pilot.

Prouse had spent the night of Mar. 7 drinking at a bar in Fargo with crew members. Another bar patron had reported the crew, leading to the questioning, arrest and eventual conviction.

“I was the first airline pilot arrested and sent to prison for flying under the influence,” Prouse said.

Prouse returned to Atlanta on March 9, 1990 — his 27th wedding anniversary. Prouse’s wife Barbara picked him up at the airport that morning.

“We drove home in silence,” Prouse said. “What wife would not have those questions that any wife would have had?”

Prouse would enter into an in-patient alcohol treatment center later that night, where he spent 28 days. He would find out while in treatment that he had been fired from Northwest Airlines.

In August 1990, Prouse was sentenced with the two other pilots from that flight. Since he was captaining the flight, his punishment was the heaviest — 16 months in Atlanta federal prison. He was sanctioned by the judge so he would never be able to fly again.

“I served 424 days in there,” he said. “Sixty-two days shortened for good conduct and behavior. One day at a time.”

Prouse stayed sober and has not had a drink of alcohol since that night at the bar in Fargo.

“I’ve been sober 23 and a half years now,” Prouse said to a round of applause.

Return to flying

Prouse was told if he ever wanted to fly again, he would have to start at the bottom — something he was determined to do. With the help of the judge who sentenced him, the sanctions were lifted. He received his first four pilot licenses quickly and, in 1993, was re-hired by Northwest Airlines.

“The day the licenses physically arrived, I received a phone call within an hour,” Prouse said. “It was a representative of the pilots union for Northwest Airlines. He said, ‘John Dasberg, President and CEO of Northwest Airlines made the decision to bring you back and re-instate you to full flight status’ … Why he did that is beyond me.”

Prouse spent the next four years doing what he loved — flying for Northwest Airlines. Prouse did not think it could get better, but it did in 1997. Prouse got a call informing him that Dasberg had again done the unthinkable, and had allowed him to become a 747 Captain for the last year of his career.

Prouse spent the final year of his career at Northwest flying Boeing 747s around the world. In January 2001, he received a presidential pardon by former President Bill Clinton, wiping his record clean.

“How fortunate can somebody be? I can go anywhere on the face of this planet. I can climb mountains. I’m still flying a little airplane. I still got an FAA first class medic,” Prouse said. “The only thing that I can’t do is ingest a substance that’s become toxic to me.”

Megan Hoffman is a staff writer for The Dakota Student. She can be reached at megan.hoffm[email protected].