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Pilots face prison for operating jet while drunk

Two airline pilots who got behind the controls while drunk drew sentences Thursday of 2½ years and five years in prison.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two airline pilots who got behind the controls while drunk drew sentences Thursday of 2½ years and five years in prison.

Thomas Cloyd, 47, of Peoria, Ariz., and co-pilot Christopher Hughes, 44, of Leander, Texas, settled into the cockpit of a Phoenix-bound America West jetliner in 2002 after a night of heavy drinking at a sports bar. They were arrested before the plane took off but after it had pushed away from the gate.

They were later fired and were found guilty June 8 of operating an aircraft while drunk.

Cloyd was sentenced to five years in prison. Circuit Judge David Young said he had no sympathy for Cloyd, who had been on probation for an alcohol-related offense just months before his arrest.

Hughes was ordered to serve 2½ years behind bars.

‘What were you thinking of?’
Prosecutors had recommended four years for Cloyd and three for Hughes, sentences that defense attorneys said were too harsh because no one got hurt.

The judge could not hide his disdain for either of them: “What were you thinking of?”

“What you did was absolutely wrong,” he said.

The pilots had been at the bar up until about six hours before their departure time; federal rules say pilots cannot drink in the eight hours before a flight. Police stepped in after screeners smelled alcohol on their breath.

Tested hours later, their blood-alcohol levels were above Florida’s 0.08 percent limit for drunken driving, which includes aircraft, according to testimony. Their levels were probably much higher when they were in the cockpit, the experts said.

Beer, wine and a martini
Testimony showed that Cloyd and Hughes ran up a $122 tab and drank seven 34-ounce glasses and seven 16-ounce glasses of beer over six hours at the bar. At dinner before that, they had wine and Cloyd drank a martini, prosecutors said.

The pilots had argued at trial that they were not drunk. They also contended they were not in control of their Airbus 319 carrying 117 passengers and crew because it was being towed by a ground crew when police ordered the jet back to the gate.

Prosecutor Hillah Katz called that argument “an insult.”

Plea for leniency
At the sentencing, the pilots’ attorneys said their clients had taken steps to fight their alcoholism and asked the judge to be lenient.

Cloyd’s lawyer said the pilot was having marital problems before his arrest and was still distraught by the death of his father in a plane crash years earlier.

Hughes’ family declined to comment while leaving the courthouse. When reporters asked Cloyd’s wife, Debbie, what she thought of the sentence, she would only say: “Haven’t you people had enough?”