An Interview with Flying Drunk author Joe Balzer
: Flying Drunk is a shocking book. Why did you finally write it?
JB: I wrote Flying Drunk because I was encouraged to tell my story by other people who heard me tell it in person. I want to offer hope and grace to other people through my story of struggle, perseverance, and redemption.
: You mentioned in Flying Drunk that pilots and crewmembers were getting together for drinks. Does that still happen? What do you do on your layovers now?
JB: In my book I do talk about Eastern crews and how we drank more than ever toward the end of the airline’s existence. I do not see people drinking now because I do not drink anymore, and rarely find myself sitting in a bar with other crewmembers. I do not know what other pilots are doing on their layovers. Over the past three years, I spent my layovers writing my book (laughing), visiting local friends, and getting exercise and rest.
: What effect do you think your book will have on the flying public?
JB: It is my dream that Flying Drunk will offer hope to many people and answers to their problems. Alcoholism remains the number one public health issue in our country. It negatively affects millions of people, their family members, their children, and their peers. I hope that by putting a real person’s face (mine) on a compelling story, I can help readers recognize similar challenges in their own lives, let down their defenses, and seek help. I hope my story can change people’s lives in a positive way.
: How do you think your book will be received by other pilots?
JB: The vast majorities of pilots have been extremely supportive of me and say very nice things to me about my story and my perseverance to pursue my dreams and never give up. This book is bound to stir up old emotions from a time when my actions as an impaired crewmember wounded many innocent people and embarrassed people in my profession. I continue to make amends to pilots and am sorry for my actions in the past. Today I am part of the solution rather than the problem, and that is a very good place to be.
: Will the book Flying Drunk have a positive or a negative impact on Northwest Airlines?
JB: Northwest Airlines gave me a wonderful opportunity in 1989 when they hired me as a pilot. They were not aware of my struggle with alcohol. My actions in March 1990 embarrassed the company internationally. I have made public amends to the airline and its employees. They too learned a lesson from the incident. Before the 1990 incident, they told a prominent doctor that “we have no alcoholics flying for Northwest Airlines.” I mentioned this in the book. As an individual, I did not understand how alcohol had affected me, so I am not in a position to judge what NWA did or did not do in the past.
: Do you think the 1990 incident had any positive consequences for the airline industry?
JB: That’s a good question. One very positive consequence of the 1990 incident was the pilot recovery program NWA put into place; they now have a very dedicated team of people working to prevent future dangerous situations. Everyone can be thankful for that, especially the pilots who have benefited from the recovery program.
: Is Northwest the only airline with such a program?
JB: Actually, American Airlines (which I work for now) has been an aviation industry leader in helping pilots recover from alcoholism. Other corporations look at American’s model and hope they too can have programs with such great success rates; American’s programs save lives while enhancing air safety. I am truly blessed to be employed by such a progressive and enlightened organization. They offered me grace by hiring me, and it is my hope that my book will offer hope and grace to a great many people who still suffer from alcoholism.
: There have been a few recent news items about pilots testing positive for blood alcohol content, such as a May article in the London paper “The Sun” about an American pilot who flew while under the influence of alcohol. Can you comment on that?
JB: All I can say about the incident in London is that my heart goes out to this pilot and his family. I know the pain all too well. I pray that if the facts show that he was under the influence that he will seek the help he needs and make a positive change in his life. As I am not familiar with the specifics of this case, I cannot comment further on the incident at this time.
: To what do you attribute your successful sobriety?
JB: My sobriety is predicated upon my understanding that alcoholism is a disease caused by neurological and biochemical dysfunction. No matter what I do, I cannot drink successfully because my body does not process alcohol normally. Once I understood this, I realized I could never drink again.
: What else helped you achieve sobriety?
JB: I belong to a wonderful 12-step fellowship program which helped me realize that other people will help you if you are willing to ask for help. It taught me that God is alive and well and wants me to share what I have learned with people facing similar challenges. I have never met anyone who does not know an individual in their life who suffers from alcoholism. The book Under the Influence helped me recognize my own alcoholism, and I refer to this book in Flying Drunk. In the end, my mission to help others become and stay sober is what keeps me sober.
: What do you want people who read your book to walk away with?
JB: I want people to recognize similarities between my life story and their own; I want my message of optimism to resonate with their own hopes for a brighter future. If they are suffering, they do not have to do it alone. They can learn to trust other people, and they must keep moving forward in the face of insurmountable odds and impossible obstacles.
: So would you consider hope to be one of the main themes of your story?
JB: Most definitely. This is a story about hope, love, family, dedication, and strangers reaching out to and befriending a man who was totally lost and destroyed. Slowly, over the course of several years, I was able to rebuild my life by admitting that I did not have to have all of the answers in life, and I certainly did not have to do it all alone. I have been blessed by the journey, and I pray that people will read my book and be blessed by my journey too.
: Thank you, Joe. We really appreciate your time.
JB: You’re welcome, it was my pleasure.
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