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Southwest Airlines co-pilot faces federal DUI charges

He was preparing to man plane from Salt Lake City to Phoenix at 8 a.m.

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Carl Fulton

Carl Fulton

A federal complaint was filed Monday against a Southwest Airlines co-pilot accused of operating a plane under the influence of alcohol.

Carl Fulton, 41, made an appearance before U.S. District Judge Paul Warner Monday.

Fulton was charged with one count of operation of a common carrier under influence of alcohol or drugs. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

Fulton was pulled from the cockpit of a Southwest Airlines Flight preparing to leave Salt Lake City bound for Phoenix with 123 passengers on board at 8 a.m. Sunday after a Transportation Security Administration screener detected alcohol on his breath.

The screener followed Fulton and watched him board Flight 136, a Boeing 737. Airport police were called and Fulton was asked to step outside the plane, according to a complaint filed in federal court.

"Pilot Fulton acknowledged very politely, 'Yes, sir,' that he understood the accusation. Pilot Fulton stated, 'Do what you have to do,'" according to court documents.

Initially, Fulton said that he had just a beer the previous night, he stopped drinking by 10 p.m. and he refused a breath test, according to court documents.

When informed the FBI was now investigating, Fulton submitted to the breath test. His blood alcohol content was 0.039 approximately one hour after being pulled from the cockpit, court documents state. A second test registered his blood-alcohol content at 0.038.

Under federal statute, a pilot is presumed to be under the influence if his or her blood-alcohol content is at 0.10. But U.S. Attorney Stephen Sorenson noted that mark was only a presumption and not a set standard. A pilot can also be charged if he is simply assumed to be under the influence of alcohol.

Sorenson said other tests can be used to determine if a person is under the influence other than a breath test. But he declined to comment on other possible evidence in Fulton's case.

It is a crime under Utah State Code to operate an aircraft with a blood-alcohol content of 0.04 or higher, the same standard as the FAA. The limit in Utah for driving a car is 0.08.

FAA regulations also require eight hours "from bottle to throttle," meaning a pilot cannot fly within eight hours of having any alcohol. Even if a pilot's alcohol content is at 0.02, FAA rules require that pilot to be grounded for eight hours.

As investigators continued to question Fulton, he said he had been at Brewvies, 677 S. 200 West, a local movie house that serves beer and food, and had consumed "two of their large beers," according to court documents. After the movie he went back to the Red Lion Hotel, 161 W. 600 South, and had another beer in the lobby.

An FBI agent interviewing Fulton told him it wasn't mathematically possible to have a 0.039 blood-alcohol content if he had just three drinks the day before, according to court documents.

"Fulton then stated he had also consumed a 'grenade of vodka,'" according to court documents.

In court Monday, Fulton appeared in hand shackles and what appeared to be his pilot uniform with all the pins and patches removed. Prosecutors told Warner they were planning for a grand jury indictment.

"Public safety is a very important issue, Mr. Fulton," Warner told the pilot in court. "I have to be very cognizant of the public safety."

Neither prosecutors nor the judge felt Fulton, who lives in Texas, was a flight risk. They agreed to release him on certain conditions, including that he will not use drugs or alcohol, will submit to random alcohol tests and will not leave the country.

Prosecutors had asked Fulton not be allowed to fly. Saying he did not want to deprive Fulton of his livelihood, Warner denied that request but noted Southwest may impose its own restrictions.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart said the company has placed Fulton on paid leave — which prohibits him from flying — pending the outcome on an internal investigation. What action the airline may take does not necessarily depend on the criminal proceedings, Stewart said.

Fulton told the court he was an active member of the military. Prosecutors did not have information Monday about where Fulton was serving or in what capacity.

In 2002 the FAA found a decade-high 22 pilots in violation of the .04 alcohol violation. Since then, that number has been reduced every year.

The agency regularly matches pilot's names against DUI data in the national driver's licenses registry, FAA Northwest Region spokesman Allen Kenitizer said. The agency also requires airlines to have random testing programs in place. Between 2000 and 2003, more than 10,200 pilots were tested, FAA data show.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com