Florida: Jurors Deciding Fate of Former America West Pilots Accused in DUI Case

Two former America West pilots on trial for operating an aircraft while drunk reeked of alcohol and were careless and reckless when they climbed into the cockpit three years ago, a prosecutor told jurors before they began their deliberations Tuesday.

Assistant Miami-Dade State Attorney Deisy Rodriguez said pilot Thomas Cloyd and co-pilot Christopher Hughes showed up groggy for their 10:30 flight after a night of drinking in which they staggered out of a bar after 4:30 a.m.

“The boys wanted to play pool and pound beers,” Rodriguez said. “They weren’t drinking water. They were drinking beer, Sierra Nevada beer with a 5.6 volume of alcohol. It takes less of these to become impaired.” The jury of six men will continue their deliberations this morning.

If convicted, Cloyd and Hughes could be sentenced to up to five years in prison. America West fired both men, and they have lost their commercial pilot’s licenses.

Rodriguez said Cloyd and Hughes endangered the lives of the 127 people aboard the Phoenix-bound flight in July 2002 when they climbed into the cockpit while drunk.

Breath tests administered hours after their scheduled departure showed both pilots’ blood-alcohol levels were higher than Florida’s 0.08 limit. A bartender testified the two men ran up a $122 bar tab and ordered seven 34-ounce and seven 16-ounce beers.

In their closing arguments, defense attorneys told jurors that the pilots were never in control of the airplane as it sat at the terminal and as it was being towed to the tarmac. Hughes’ attorney, James Rubin, said the tug operator was in charge of moving the plane because the pilot’s controls were disconnected.

“It’s like playing your Atari with the joystick unplugged,” he said. “It’s not going to work.”

Both Rubin and Dan Foodman, Cloyd’s attorney, also were quick to note that a slew of witnesses never noticed that the two men were impaired. A flight attendant, several security screeners and police officers did not see the two men slur their speech or stumble, Foodman said.

The defense attorneys, who rested their case after calling only the tow truck operator as a witness, attacked the credibility of the Miami-Dade police officers who arrested the pilots. They accused officers of failing to perform enough field sobriety tests and of failing to count how long Cloyd and Hughes blew into a Breathalyzer, which skewed the results.

During his closing statement, Foodman refocused the jury’s attention on what he said was the case’s central issue: control of the aircraft.

“Flight is when an aircraft is under its own power,” Foodman said. “Under FAA regulations, the pilot does not become a crew member until that happens.”

Rodriguez, however, told jurors that they must also examine the pilots’ actions 30 minutes before the tug pulled the plane from a terminal at the airport. Rodriguez said Cloyd and Hughes rushed through a crucial preflight check of the aircraft and entered navigation coordinates into the plane’s computer while impaired.

She also reminded jurors that Cloyd released the airplane’s parking brake and ordered the tug operator to pull the plane away from the gate, Rodriguez said.

“You just can’t sit in an Airbus 319 and go,” she said.

Source: Reprint, with permission, of an article by Chrystian Tejedor, from The South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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