CALGARY, Alberta -- A pilot who passed out in a cockpit before a scheduled flight in Canada pleaded guilty on Tuesday to being impaired while in control of an aircraft.
Miroslav Gronych was employed by Sunwing Airlines on a work visa from Slovakia. His flight was to leave Calgary, Alberta, on Dec. 31 with stops in Regina, Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, before continuing to Cancun, Mexico.
Gronych, 37, was found slumped over in his seat and escorted off the plane.
“I can’t even describe how ashamed I am,” he told court. “My kids will be punished for my mistakes.”
A statement of facts agreed to by the prosecution and defense and read in court said police saw his pilot’s wings were attached upside down on his uniform and a maid discovered an empty bottle of vodka in his hotel room. It also said he was an hour late for check-in and that he explained his tardiness by saying he had become lost going through security
When Gronych got on the plane around 7 a.m., the court was told, he struggled to hang up his coat, was slurring his words and was staggering. When the co-pilot suggested Gronych was impaired and should leave the plane, “he seemed very nonchalant and said ‘OK, if that’s what you feel.’” But Gronych returned to the cockpit, sat in the pilot’s chair and appeared to pass out “resting his face on the window,” the statement said.
He was asked to leave the plane again and was held by gate agents until police arrived.
The statement said passengers on the plane were told the pilot had suddenly become ill, but some had already seen him and suspected he was drunk.
When police arrived, they found his pilot’s wings were pinned upside down. They smelled alcohol on his breath and he couldn’t stand up straight.
Defense lawyer Susan Karpa told court Gronych couldn’t sleep the night before his flight and felt like he was coming down with a cold. He took a couple of shots of vodka and a Tylenol, and planned to wake up in time to let people know he wouldn’t make the flight.
He didn’t set an alarm and was awakened by a call asking him where he was, Karpa said. He drank the rest of the bottle of vodka and left for the flight.
She said he doesn’t know why he drank the vodka, but only that his willpower failed.
The defense asked for a three- to six-month sentence while the prosecution asked the judge for one year in jail. Prosecutor Rose Greenwood pointed to a similar case in the United States where the pilot received five years.
“Mr. Gronych put the lives of 105 people at risk,” prosecutor Rose Greenwood said. “Hopefully he will never be permitted to fly again.”
Karpa said Gronych has been in treatment while out on bail and has abstained from alcohol.
“He wants his children to be proud of him,” Karpa said. “He wants to do everything he can to conquer his addiction.”
She said Gronych is the sole breadwinner for his family, including for his elderly parents, and is living off his savings.
A statement from Gronych’s wife read out in court said her husband didn’t drink all the time but, when it did, it was in large quantities.
Gronych tearfully told court becoming a pilot was a childhood dream
He was taken into custody while the judge mulls over his sentence. He is due back in court April 3.
Sunwing spokeswoman Jacqueline Grossman said Gronych, a contractor, was fired by his employer, Travel Service, shortly after he was found drunk. She declined to comment on the case but said Sunwing has formed a committee that includes management and union members to review and update protocols. Members of a flight crew are prohibited under Canadian aviation regulations from working within eight hours of consuming alcohol or while under the influence of alcohol.
Sunwing, a low-cost Canadian carrier, has said it has a zero-tolerance policy on crew members consuming alcohol within 12 hours of going on duty. It said it also trains all employees to report any unusual behavior.
After Gronych was charged, the Canadian Federal Pilots Association said Transport Canada should be responsible for checking the credentials of foreign pilots instead of leaving it to air operators.