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 based in Seattle. He faces up to 15 years in prison, although he’s likely to get far less time when he’s sentenced 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 concluded Friday.
Roessler was working for the contract cargo operator Airpac Airlines Inc. when he took off alone from Seattle’s Boeing Field 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 unsuccessful, 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, controllers told him 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 accidentally switched his radio to the wrong channel.
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 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 a pilot losing radio contact – said they could smell alcohol.
The officers tested Roessler’s blood-alcohol level an hour after he landed; it measured 0.109 percent. The legal limit to operate a vehicle is 0.08 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 failed or struggled to accomplish. Wynecoop again tested the pilot’s blood-alcohol level; 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 Suko dismiss the case, arguing that breath tests are unreliable and investigators failed to obtain a more reliable blood test. But Suko allowed the case to go to a jury trial.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.