April 30, 2013 in City

Cargo pilot who overshot Spokane airport convicted of flying while intoxicated

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A cargo pilot who overshot the Spokane airport by 50 miles last year, then lined up on the wrong runway during his approach, has been convicted in federal court of the rare charge of flying while intoxicated.

Paul R. Roessler, 48, of Federal Way, was flying a twin-engine Piper PA-34 Seneca for a company out of Seattle. He faces up to 15 years in prison, although he’s likely to get far less time when he’s sentenced on July 9.

A jury convicted Roessler under the federal statute of operating a common carrier under the influence of alcohol. His trial before U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko finished Friday.

Roessler was working for the contract cargo operator Airpac Airlines, Inc. when he took off from Seattle’s Boeing Field alone about 7 p.m. on April 26 last year. Some 42 minutes later, air traffic controllers in Spokane began trying to contact Roessler by radio.

After 10 failed attempts to raise him, air traffic controllers at 8:02 p.m. asked pilots in a nearby United Airlines plane to radio Roessler, but they also were unsuccesful, according to court records.

Roessler finally contacted the Seattle Air Route Traffic Control Center at 8:09 p.m. and said he had accidentally shut off his communication system.

Air controllers “informed the Defendant that he has overflown Spokane by approximately 50 miles and asked if he was going to return to Spokane,” court records say. Roessler said he would. “My mistake, my apologies,” he said.

As Roessler approached Spokane International Airport, he was told by controllers that he was cleared to land on Runway 25. But “during the approach … the Defendant lined up to land on the wrong runway,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Lister wrote in court records.

Air traffic controllers asked him which runway he intended to use and he shifted course and landed on the correct runway.

Spokane Airport Police sent Officers Clay Creek and Shauna McKinley to check on Roessler’s welfare when he landed, and the airport fire department was also dispatched to the plane.

When the officers arrived, Roessler was already busy unloading the aircraft. He told officers that he’d lost radio contact when he’d accidentally switched his radio to the wrong channel.

Officer McKinley noted that Roessler’s voice seemed “mushy,” which made her suspect he’d been drinking. Once inside, Roessler walked directly toward a coffee machine, but Officer Creek refused to allow the pilot to drink coffee because he feared Roessler was trying to mask his breath, court records state.

Both officers and a Federal Aviation Administration inspector — who responded to the report of pilot losing radio contact — said they could smell the odor of alcohol.

The officers tested Roessler’s blood-alcohol level an hour after he landed; it measured .109 percent. The legal limit to operate a vehicle is .08 percent

They contacted the Washington State Patrol and Trooper Ethan Wynecoop arrived at about 10 p.m. and put Roessler through a series of sobriety tests, which he either struggled to accomplish or failed. Wynecoop again tested the pilot’s blood-alcohol level and nearly three hours after he landed, it was .094 and .088.

Later, during an interview, Roessler admitted he’d been drinking whiskey mixers that morning. “The Defendant indicated he thought he was alright because there was an eight hour break from ‘bottle to throttle,” Lister wrote.

Roessler’s commercial pilot license has been revoked.

Federal defenders Robert Fischer and Syovata Edari had tried to suppress evidence and have Judge Suko dismiss the case, arguing that breath tests are unreliable and investigators failed to obtain a more reliable blood test.

But Judge Suko allowed the case to go to a jury trial.

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