CALGARY — A pilot who drank a bottle of vodka in his hotel room before his flight and was so impaired he appeared to pass out in the cockpit says he is filled with remorse and shame.
Miroslav Gronych, a Slovakian national who was escorted off a Sunwing Airlines plane in Calgary on Dec. 31, pleaded guilty Tuesday to having care and control of an aircraft while he had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit.
The 37-year-old tearfully told court becoming a pilot was a childhood dream.
“I can’t even describe how ashamed I am,” he said in a soft voice.
Gronych, father to a toddler and baby, said the case, which made headlines around the world, has taken a toll on his family.
“My kids will be punished for my mistakes,” he said.
Gronych’s flight was scheduled to leave Calgary with stops in Regina and Winnipeg before continuing to Cancun, Mexico.
He was an hour late for his check-in and said he got lost going through security, said an agreed statement of facts read in court. When Gronych got on the plane around 7 a.m., he struggled to hang up his coat, was slurring his words and was staggering, court was told.
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 again to leave the plane and was held by gate agents until police arrived.
Court heard 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.
Defence 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 awoken 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, only that his willpower failed.
The defence asked for a three- to six-month sentence while the Crown 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.
“The gravity of this offence is extremely high. Mr. Gronych put the lives of 105 people at risk,” she said. “Hopefully he will never be permitted to fly again.”
Court heard Gronych has lost his job.
Karpa said he 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 read out from Gronych’s wife said her husband didn’t drink all the time but, when he did, it was in large quantities.
His wife, whom he met when she was a flight attendant, said he was a conscientious pilot and she felt safe when he was at the controls.
“He’s a good person. He is loving and caring and she cannot imagine a better husband and dad for her kids,” said Karpa, who summarized the wife’s statement.
“I know he feels sorry a million times.”
Gronych will remain in custody until his sentencing on April 3.
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. It is up to each airline to ensure those regulations are followed.
Sunwing 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 look for and report any unusual behaviour.
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.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau wrote a letter to passenger airlines to express his concern and gave them until Feb. 15 to confirm their measures to ensure flight crew members are fit to fly.
Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press