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Police: Pilot arrested for driving with blood alcohol level 3x legal limit

Raises questions about handling alcohol offenses
Posted: 5:21 PM, Nov 21, 2016
Updated: 2016-11-22 12:22:32-05

A Brownsburg man, who is a pilot, was charged with driving while intoxicated after he was stopped last October by Plainfield Police.

Robert Harris III told police he was on his way to the Indianapolis airport.  Officers said Harris' eyes were bloodshot; his speech was slurred and he had trouble using his hands.

According to court documents, police stopped a field sobriety test because Harris almost fell over while trying to walk. A breath test revealed his blood alcohol level was .29,  which is more than three times the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle.

A Hendricks County judge ordered Harris’ driver’s license suspended immediately, and BMV records show the suspension took effect October 3.

Sources tell Call 6 Investigates Harris works for a commercial airline that flies out of the Indianapolis airport, but that airline would not comment on personnel matters, nor would they confirm that Harris works there.

A company spokesperson said they had no reports of a pilot arrested while on the way to work.

Even though it’s unclear if Harris was scheduled to fly that night, the drunk driving arrest does not necessarily mean a pilot will lose their license to fly.

Federal regulations state a pilot must follow the 8-hour “bottle to throttle” rule; some airlines require a 12 hour cooling-off period since the pilot’s last drink.

Pilots must report an alcohol-related conviction, suspension or revocation to the Federal Aviation Administration within 60 days, including a failed breath test.

Indianapolis flight instructor Bob Duncan, also an attorney, has represented pilots arrested for drunk driving.

“There’s no requirement in the federal aviation regulations that you have a driver’s license at all,” said Duncan. “I think it’s the difference between state law and federal law. Federal law has a process under the federal aviation administration; state law has a different process.”

Duncan says the FAA does its own comprehensive investigation when a pilot is arrested for drink driving. Whether the pilot keeps his or her license depends on a variety of factors including a pilot’s medical and criminal history.

“I would say the FAA process has been very effective in keeping pilots with alcohol problems under control, in the sense that public safety is not put at risk,” said Duncan. “The FAA takes alcohol or any drug offense very seriously. Absolutely.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving spokesperson Lael Hill is concerned pilots can lose their driving privileges, but keep flying a plane with passengers onboard.

“I would have assumed the FAA would have similar sanctions to the state of Indiana and withholding their license to operate a motor vehicle whether that’s a plane or car,” said Hill. “It’s a little bit concerning knowing someone accused of a crime and is allegedly drinking and driving and could have their driver’s license taken away and not their pilot’s license or certificate.”

Hill said MADD opposes operating anything with a motor while under the influence.

“Anything you need to stick a key in the ignition, no one should be using drugs or alcohol, ” said Hill.

Hill said the national MADD office hopes to work with the FAA to impose sanctions on pilots similar to those for drivers on the road.

According to the FAA website, pilots can operate with a blood alcohol content that does not exceed .04%.

“The FAA does not hesitate to act aggressively when pilots violate the alcohol and drug provisions of the Federal Aviation Regulations,” said FAA spokesperson Elizabeth Cory. “Airlines are required to have random testing programs in place.”

The FAA also searches pilot names against DUI/DWI databases in the National Driver Registry (NDR), said Cory.

“The FAA evaluates these cases on an individual basis, which could affect the pilot’s certificate eligibility,” said Cory.

The aviation industry also offers enrollment in a substance abuse program for pilots.

Robert Paul Harris III was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated endangering a person and operating a vehicle with an alcohol concentration equivalent to .15 or more.

Call 6 Investigates emailed and stopped by Robert Paul Harris’s home.  Harris’ attorney declined to comment but said his client entered a not guilty plea.

The case is set for trial in January.

Aviation expert Stephen Dedmon told Call 6 Investigates if a pilot has his driver’s license suspended, and is later convicted of drunk driving, the pilot would have to report both instances.

“If there are 2 or more motor vehicle actions within a 3-year period their pilot certificate will, more likely than not, be suspended or revoked,” said Dedmon, Associate Professor, Aeronautical Science, College of Aviation at the Daytona Beach Campus.

Dedmon also pointed out the pilot must report an arrest or conviction on their Airman’s Medical Application, and failure to report can result in suspension or revocation of their pilot certificate.

Pilots can face a $250,000 fine or up to 5 years in prison if they are not truthful about alcohol-related events, and other medical problems said Dedmon.

Airlines for America, a trade association, would not comment on specific incidents, but provided this statement about how the industry handles alcohol offenses:

"All U.S. airline pilots are subject to rigorous evaluations, which includes the FAA mandated random drug and alcohol screening that has been in place for more than 20 years. In addition, while working at an airline, all pilots have to regularly undergo thorough medical examinations to maintain their license and all U.S. airlines can and do conduct fitness for duty testing on pilots as warranted. The safety and wellbeing of passengers and crew is and will remain our highest priority. Airlines take these matters seriously, and have well defined policies and procedures to ensure the highest levels of safety are met for everyone who flies. We are in the safest period in aviation history due to the proactive safety culture and the ongoing and strong collaboration among the airlines, airline employees, safety organizations and government," Vaughn Jennings, Managing Director, Government and Regulatory Communications for Airlines for America