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Ex-pilot convicted of being drunk on flight in 2009

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Aaron Jason Cope, 32, was the monitoring pilot aboard the December 2009 flight
  • The flight's captain detected the smell of alcohol after he "took a big whiff" of Cope
  • He blew a .094 on a Breathalyzer shortly after plane arrived in Denver from Austin, Texas
  • Cope, who now faces up to 15 years in prison, was due to pilot the next flight

(CNN) -- A former commercial pilot has been found guilty of charges that he was intoxicated while co-piloting a flight from Austin, Texas, to Denver in 2009, a federal prosecutor announced Tuesday.

Aaron Jason Cope, 32, was found guilty of operating a common carrier under the influence of alcohol and faces up to 15 years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000, according to a statement from John F. Walsh, U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado.

The conviction was handed down by District Court Judge John R. Tunheim last week after a bench trial June 6-7.

Cope was the first officer aboard United Express Flight 7687 on the morning of December 8, 2009.

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," to which Cope 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, his blood alcohol content was found to be 0.094%, more than twice the FAA-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 also bought beer from a gas station near the hotel where he, Obodzinski and two flight attendants had stayed the previous night.

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