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Federal judge sentences pilot for being drunk while flying

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 6:01 PM EDT, Fri November 4, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Jason Cope must serve 6 months in prison and 6 months of home detention
  • He could have gotten 15 years for "operating a common carrier" while intoxicated
  • He was the co-pilot on a 2009 flight from Texas to Colorado

(CNN) -- A federal judge sentenced a former commercial pilot to six months in prison Friday, followed by six months of home detention, for being intoxicated while co-piloting a domestic flight, a federal prosecutor announced.

Aaron Jason Cope, 33, was found guilty in June of operating a common carrier under the influence of alcohol. He could have been ordered to serve as many as 15 years in prison and pay a fine of as much as $250,000.

U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim, who oversaw the two-day bench trial, laid out a less-stringent sentence for Cope on Friday morning.

After his initial year in prison and home detention, the sentence includes two years of supervised release. Cope was ordered to report to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to begin serving his time by January 3, according to a statement from John Walsh, U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado.

"The public rightly expects that airline pilots will not drink and fly," Walsh said. "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."

Cope was the first officer aboard United Express Flight 7687 on the morning of December 8, 2009, as it flew from Austin, Texas, to Denver.

United Express is the name under which several regional airlines operate flights for United Airlines. Flight 7687 was operated by Shuttle America, a subsidiary of Republic Airways Holdings.

According to court documents, the flight's captain, Robert Obodzinski, testified that although his co-pilot "appeared to be thinking and speaking clearly, every few minutes during the flight (Obodzinski) detected an unusual odor, which he eventually concluded was the smell of an alcoholic beverage."

When the plane arrived in Denver, Obodzinski testified, he "leaned over and took a big whiff" and determined that the odor was coming from Cope.

Cope had been the "monitoring" pilot on the flight and thus had not manipulated the plane's controls. However, he was scheduled to fly the Embraer 170 aircraft on the next flight. The Embraer 170 has a seating capacity of 70 to 80 people.

Once Cope returned to the cockpit after conducting a post-flight inspection, Obodzinski reportedly told him, "if you have any problem taking a Breathalyzer, call off sick and get out of here." Cope then replied, "Well, I guess I better call off sick then."

Obodzinski, who had been on the phone with superiors while Cope was doing the inspection, was directed by his company to escort the co-pilot to an alcohol testing facility in Denver International Airport's main terminal, according to trial documents. There, Cope's blood alcohol content was found to be 0.094%, more than twice as much as the Federal Aviation Administration-prohibited level of 0.04% for any crew member of a civil aircraft.

Republic Airways prohibits any crew member from working with a blood alcohol level above 0.02%.

At the testing facility, according to testimony, Cope admitted that he had gone to a bar with a friend and bought beer from a gas station near the hotel where he, Obodzinski and two flight attendants had stayed the previous night.

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