US airline pilot facing jail for being legally drunk


An American airline pilot prepared to fly a plane fly out of Heathrow Airport while three times over the legal drink-fly limit, a court heard.

Erwin Vermont Washington, 51, of Lakewood, Colorado, had been due to captain a midday flight bound for Chicago with 124 passengers on board and 11 crew members when staff smelled alcohol on his breath.

Police were called and he was breathalised out of the sight of passengers on the Boeing 767, before being escorted off the plane.

He recorded a reading of 31 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath compared to the legal limit of nine micrograms.

The alcohol level in his blood was 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100ml of blood – the equivalent of just half a pint of normal strength beer.

The legal limit for airline staff is 20 milligrams – a quarter of that for car drivers.

Washington, who served as a gunner in the US Air Force before becoming a commercial pilot, pleaded guilty at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court to being above the alcohol limit for flying a plane on November 9 last year.

He now faces a maximum of two years imprisonment with the potential addition of a fine.

The Boeing 767 departure to Chicago was “imminent” when police arrived, magistrates heard.

Kevin Christie, prosecuting, said two policemen called onto the aircraft performed a breath test especially designed for aviation staff, which he failed.

“At the conclusion of the test the word ‘fail’ were displayed on the screen of the device,” Mr Christie said.

“Mr Washington was arrested as it was believed he had reported for work and had intended to fly the aircraft in the role of captain.”

When he was informed of his arrest after being taken off the flight, Mr Christie said, he simply responded : “Okay, fine.”

The plane was subsequently cancelled and passengers were transferred to other flights without being told the reason for the disruption.

A United Airline is expected to make a decision on his future with the airline after his sentencing, at Isleworth Crown Court on February 5.

“Safety is of the highest priority and the pilot has been removed during legal proceedings and our own investigation,” a spokesman said.

Police have declined to reveal how Washington came to be over the limit – whether drinking the night before or on the morning before the flight, and he did not comment as he left court yesterday.

Chris Humphreys, defending, said he his client was “remorseful for events”.

He said legislation regarding aviation staff over the legal limit for flying had only been used seven times since it was introduced in the Railway and Transport Act 2003.

“There are, thankfully, very few cases of this sort,” he said.

In one such case, American Airlines pilot Joseph Crites, 57, blamed strong foreign beer he had drunk the night before he was due to fly for being over the limit.

Washington was released on unconditional bail.