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Brandi Jewett, Forum News Service, Published November 19 2013

Redeemed retired airline pilot shares story with UND students

GRAND FORKS – When retired airline pilot Lyle Prouse walked up to a podium and introduced himself to hundreds of University of North Dakota students Tuesday night, he said things usually go a little differently.

“Typically, I’m speaking in front of a recovering audience,” he said. “I usually come up to the podium and say ‘Hi, I’m Lyle, and I’m an alcoholic.’ ”

Prouse has been sober for about 23 years, but the event that brought him to the door of a treatment center made headlines across the nation.

“I was the first airline pilot arrested and sent to prison for flying under the influence,” he told the crowd, largely composed of students studying aviation at the university.

The last time Prouse spoke at UND was 10 years ago. The Aviation Safety Association, a student organization focused on promoting safety through education outside of classrooms, brought Prouse back to campus to once again share his story.

Overcoming denial

March 9, 1990, should have been a happy day for Prouse. It was his 27th wedding anniversary, one he thought he would be sharing with his wife, Barbara, in Atlanta.

A choice two days prior would keep him from celebrating that milestone. On March 7, Prouse drank at a bar in Fargo, headed back to his hotel room and then flew a plane – the now infamous Flight 650 – to Minneapolis the next morning.

When the he exited the plane, Prouse was met by authorities who interrogated him and eventually let him return home. The next day, after seeing two therapists, Prouse checked into a hospital to receive treatment for his alcoholism.

“Hell of a way to spend an anniversary,” Prouse recalled saying to his wife. The response from Barbara was quiet, but it has stuck with him through the years.

“Might be the best one we’ve ever had,” she said.

Prouse said the signs were there throughout his life, but the events of March 1990 forced him to confront his alcoholism – a disease he grew up with and that took the lives of his parents.

“Some place way down deep, all the dots connected,” he said. “I realized I had become the one thing I never wanted to be.”

Consequences

While in treatment, Prouse received news that his employer, Northwest Airlines, had fired him. Next came his trial, where he was found guilty and sent to federal prison for 16 months.

Stripped of all credentials, Prouse said he had to earn back everything from the ground up.

“I thought I’ll never fly in this country again,” he said.

In what Prouse refers to as one of many miracles following his conviction, Northwest Airlines invited him to fly with the company again.

“My goal when I stepped on that property was to be the best employee they ever had,” he said of getting his job back.

When he retired at age 60 in 1998, Prouse was captain of a 747. Three years later, he received a presidential pardon from President Bill Clinton.

“Life today is better than it has ever been,” said Prouse, who celebrated his 50th anniversary with Barbara this year.