United Express pilot Aaron Jason Cope,33, of Norfolk, Virginia, was sentenced Friday morning by visiting U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim to serve 6 months in federal prison followed by 6 months of home detention for operating a common carrier under the influence of alcohol, according to the Office of the US Attorney in Denver.
The judge ordered Cope to spend the first three months of home detention under electronic monitoring, according to a news release from the US Attorney's Office. Cope was also sentenced to serve 2 years on supervised release, according to a release by the US Attorney's Office in Denver.
U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim is visiting from the District of Minnesota. Cope was ordered to report to a facility designated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons by January 3, 2012, according to a news release.
According to the US Attorney;s Office in Denver: Cope was indicted by a federal grand jury in Denver on March 16, 2011. He was convicted of the charge alleged in the indictment, namely the operation of an aircraft under the influence of alcohol following a two-day bench trial which started on June 6, 2011 and concluded on June 7, 2011. Judge Tunheim's written opinion finding the defendant guilty was issued on June 17, 2011. Cope was sentenced today, November 4, 2011.
According to the indictment, facts presented during the trial, and the written opinion of Judge Tunheim, on December 8, 2009, Cope was the co-pilot and first officer on United Express Flight 7687, a commercial flight operated by Shuttle America, Inc., from Austin, Texas to Denver, Colorado. As co-pilot and first officer, Cope was in a "safety sensitive" position. The captain of Flight 7687, Robert Obodzinski, sat in close proximity to Cope in the cockpit. Obodzinski testified that although Cope appeared to be thinking and speaking clearly, periodically during the flight he detected an unusual odor, which he eventually concluded was the smell of an alcoholic beverage. Upon arriving at the gate at Denver International Airport (DIA), Obodzinski leaned over and "took a big wiff." Obodzinski testified that he concluded that the smell of an alcoholic beverage was emanating from Cope.
According to the facts presented during the trial, Obodzinski contacted dispatch to delay the next scheduled leg of the flight until the issue was resolved. While Cope went outside to conduct a post-flight inspection, Obodzinski spoke by phone with the acting chief pilot of the airline, his union representative, and a Human Resources Manager for Republic Airways, the parent company of Shuttle America. Once Cope returned to the cockpit, Obodzinski reportedly told him, "if you have any problem taking a breathalyzer, call off sick and get out of here," to which Cope replied, "well, I guess I better call off sick then." Obodzinski was directed by his company to escort Cope to an alcohol testing facility in DIA's main terminal.
At the testing facility, according to testimony, Cope stated that he had gone to a bar with a friend and also purchased beer from a gas station near the hotel. On December 8, 2011, at 10:33 a.m. Cope was administered a breathalyzer test, which reflected his alcohol content was .094. At 10:54 a.m. a second "confirmation" test was administered, which reflected a .084 percent alcohol content. According to Judge Tunheim's opinion, Republic Airways, the parent company of Shuttle America, has a "zero tolerance" policy regarding alcohol consumption in safety-sensitive positions, and considers a blood alcohol content of .02 percent grounds for termination. The FAA prohibits an individual from acting as a crew member of a civil aircraft while impaired by alcohol, with a blood alcohol content of .04 percent, or within eight hours after the consumption of any alcohol beverage.
"The public rightly expects that airline pilots will not drink and fly," said U.S. Attorney John Walsh. "Because flying while intoxicated is a serious crime and puts the lives of passengers and people on the ground in danger, we will prosecute it swiftly and effectively - every time."
"Today's sentencing is a clear signal that severe penalties are in store for those pilots who act in a criminally irresponsible manner and fail in their core duty to protect the passengers that are in their care," said Max Smith, Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) Special Agent in Charge of the Fort Worth Regional Office. "Both DOT and the OIG are committed to ensuring the safety of the Nation's aviation system. We will continue to vigorously investigate and work with our prosecutorial colleagues to see that those who violate criminal laws and endanger the traveling public are punished to the fullest extent of the law."