San Diego airport
The San Diego County International Airport. Photo courtesy KPBS News.

A former Alaska Airlines pilot pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Santa Ana to a charge of flying a plane while under the influence of alcohol.

The plea deal announced Feb. 6 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office calls for a sentence of one year and one day for David Hans Arntson, 62. Formal sentencing is set for June 11.

“This pilot worked for the airline for more than 20 years, and we now know that he was an alcoholic who flew commercial flights while under the influence of alcohol,” U.S. Attorney Nicola T. Hanna said earlier this month. “When he was finally caught, the evidence indicates that he had flown with an alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. Thankfully, Mr. Arntson was never involved in an accident, but his conduct could have resulted in tragic consequences. Very few people will ever hold the lives of so many people in their hands at one time.”

Arnston’s attorney, Dyke Huish, previously said his client “has a long and distinguished career as a pilot and has flown thousands of flights without incident. And he has a perfect safety record, and as any good pilot who is responsible for the lives of people, he is willing to take responsibility and accept the consequences for his mistake.”

According to court papers, Arnston was found to be under the influence when he piloted two flights on June 20, 2014. The first flight was from San Diego International Airport to Portland, Oregon, with 160 passengers aboard. He then he flew from Portland to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana on a flight with about 80 passengers aboard.

After he landed in Santa Ana, he was pulled aside by airline officials for a random drug and alcohol check that resulted in blood-alcohol readings of 0.134 and 0.142, “well above” the federal limit of 0.04 percent for pilots, according to the plea agreement.

Prosecutors allege that Arnston suffered from alcoholism for most of the two-plus decades that he worked for Alaska Airlines.

Arnston expressed surprise when he was told he failed the breathalyzer tests, according to prosecutors, and drove himself home that day.

“He later drove himself to a hospital where, at approximately 8 p.m., he had his blood drawn,” according to the plea agreement. “That blood test result indicated a blood-alcohol level that was substantially over the legal limit for commercial pilots. Defendant was kept at the hospital overnight due to his condition.”

In an interview with a Department of Transportation special agent on Oct. 20, 2015, Arnston said he was “only a social drinker” who did not have any “issues with alcohol abuse.” He said he “consumed only a few sips of beer during dinner” on the evening of the flights in question, according to court papers.

–City News Service