I was born Sept 29, 1938 in Wichita, Kansas.
Both parents were alcoholic and died from this disease. We were poor and lived in
a WWII housing area on the outskirts of Wichita. Both parents divorced and remarried
3 times and home life was chaotic. I bounced between homes and sets of parents, always
in a clash or conflict with someone, and there was no real anchoring point in my
life as a high school student. There was a small Native American community in the
place I lived and I was an active part of it; my mom was part Comanche but none of
my family encouraged any kind of participation in Indian activities. But, always
the rebel, I pow-wow'ed throughout Oklahoma in the summer time and thoroughly enjoyed
myself. I was a fancy dancer and loved to dance.
One of my close friends was a Kiowa high school pal and after one of the divorces
I began spending most of my free time with his family. I practically grew up in their
family and am still today referred to as "their Comanche son". I loved
that family, and am still a part of it. They were loving, whole and complete; no
one drank, and I enjoyed being with them. The father, my adopted father, died in
1988 and had been a highly respected head singer wherever we went. Those were good
times for me.
I graduated from HS at barely age 18 and left to join the Marine Corps. At the end
of 13 weeks of boot camp I was the number two guy and received a PFC stripe, one
of three out of approximately 70 recruits. I was immensely proud of that!
Four and 1/2 year later my commanding officer told me I was the only one in the unit
who was qualified to enter a new flight training program called Marine Aviation Cadets.
Since I was an enlisted Lance Corporal I could "test out" without having
the basic requirement of two years' college. I spent a full day testing and passed.
However, while I desperately wanted to fly I was just as desperately frightened that
I would fail due to my lack of education and the knowledge I would be competing with
college students. While two years of college was the minimum, most had more and many
had their degrees. I was afraid I would never keep up and would wash out. And I have
never handled failure well.
I decided to make the attempt but prior to leaving I attended a powoww and they had
a special for me since I was going away. That dance forever haunted me because I
constantly remembered it, thinking I could NOT fail and return to my Indian people
as a failure. It was always in my mind... I worked hard during the 18 months. Every
day was a challenge, and nearly every day saw someone washing out, packing up, and
going home. They wore looks of abject failure, shame, and disappointment as they
packed, said goodbye to the rest of us, and left. I will never forget that.
In each of the four separate phases I was always number two among my peers. Never
number one and never number three. And each and every time the rankings were announced
I was totally, absolutely, without doubt convinced that someone had made an administrative
error of some kind and that I did not, in fact, actually deserve the ranking. I was
furthermore convinced that I would probably wash out in the next phase of training
and I would re-double my efforts; I never rested.
I received my gold wings as a Marine Aviator and my gold bars as a Marine Second
Lieutenant on February 25, 1963, and my girlfriend, Barbara, pinned both on me. There
had never been such a huge and unbelievable day in my life! It was just incredible
to think I had actually made it...and made it well. I had met Barbara during my final
phase of training in Beeville, Texas and she was truly a gift from God...and still
is nearly 38 years later. We were married two weeks after I received my wings and
We immediately had two small sons and I headed for Vietnam in 1965. We were one of,
if not THE, first Marine jet squadrons there. I flew many combat missions, picked
up some decorations, and came home 13 months later. A number of my comrades did not
come home. I stayed in the Marine Corps 2 1/2 more years, instructing in Advanced
Jet training, and finally decided to resign. I had taken a long, hard look and knew
I'd be forced to spend a minimum of 4 years, probably more like 6, away from my wife
and children if I completed the career I devoutly loved. It was a painful decision
and I dreaded writing my letter of resignation. But I had long ago promised myself
that my family would never be like the one I had grown up in.
When I left the Marine Corps I had served 11 1/2 years total time. I had gone in
as an 18 year old private and left as a 29 year old captain. And I had done it with
only a high school education. I had an enviable reputation with many accomplishments,
one I was extremely proud of, and was very well thought of by many.
I joined Northwest Airlines two weeks after being honorably discharged on July 15,
1968; I was in class at Northwest on August 5, 1968. As in the Marine Corps, I began
at the bottom, as a flight engineer, and over the course of nearly 22 years I worked
my way up to captain. And, again, I was well known and had a super reputation as
an individual and as a pilot. I loved my job and it simply showed.
Over the years drinking became a large part of my life. I cannot determine when I
became an alcoholic; few can. But my drinking had escalated and I had a huge tolerance
for the booze. And I loved to drink. Many flew with me because I had a "good
time," was easy to work with as long as the job was done properly, and loved
laughing. Part of the pilot persona was to fly hard and drink hard, and I filled
the bill. On March 7, 1990 I had my last drink when I and two other crew members
got drunk and flew early the next morning.
As we landed at Minneapolis-St Paul Twin Cities Int'l airport we were met and arrested
by FAA officials, airport police, and Northwest Airlines company officials. Thus
began a 12 hour day of horror in which I saw my life come to an end. Blood tests,
meetings with attorneys, depositions, and at the end of the day, darkness. As we
were transported from company headquarters back to the airport it was all over. All
the years of hard work to achieve and accomplish, all the rewards of that work, my
career, my reputation...all lost. In the void came overwhelming shame, humiliation,
horror, and devastation.
I arrived home in Atlanta early the next morning after a sleepless night in Minnesota.
I saw two doctors that day, one referring me to the other. The second doctor, certified
in addiction medicine, spoke with me and I tried as hard as I could to be honest.
He took little time in telling me I was an alcoholic and needed to get into treatment
that night; my appointment with him had not been until 6 o'clock that evening. It
was Friday, March 9th, my 27th wedding anniversary.
So...I left his office and entered treatment with only the clothes on my back. Within
days the media had my story and every patient in the hospital knew all about me.
So did the rest of the world because mine was the lead story all over the United
States and CNN took it to the other parts of Asia and Europe. The shame I had already
been bathed in became almost unendurable. I had tried to always live my life in such
a way as to reflect honor, pride, and dignity on all I had tried to do, whether it
was each time I donned a Marine Corps uniform, flew a commercial airliner, or found
myself representing my heritage. Now, in one fell swoop, I had become a disgrace
to all I had held dear.
I completed treatment, working as hard as I once had to obtain my wings. I never
debated, questioned, or challenged anything I learned in treatment. I simply accepted
and tried to do what was asked of me. I had an intense 28 day experience because
a few days into treatment we learned I had not only lost it all but was facing a
federal felony conviction under a law no one had known about. I went through 6 legal
crises, each one expanding and worse than the previous, all while trying desperately
to focus on my recovery.
I was quickly convicted after a 3 week trial. I returned a few months later for sentencing,
knowing I, as the Captain, would receive the severest...and I had quietly accepted
that. The minimum mandatory prison confinement was 12 months and the maximum was
18, but we learned two days prior to sentencing that the trial judge intended to
go beyond those limits, which he could do at his discretion. As I stood to speak
I was so terrified that I did not, even at that moment, know what I was going to
say. I had said a prayer that God allow me to say whatever I was meant to say - and
I spoke of gratitude. And acceptance. To everyone's astonishment, the judge sentenced
me to 16 months in federal prison. A couple of years later he told my attorney that
he had intended to sentence me to 4 years until I said what I said.
All three of us had been convicted, the other two pilots receiving 12 month sentences.
We were told we could remain free due to many complex legal issues in this first-of-its-kind
trial ever and the appeals that would be filed. The other two chose to remain free.
I chose to go in and do it; to get my sentence done and over. I had learned to live
life on life's terms and there was nothing to do but force myself to make that walk
The FAA had stripped me of my medical certificate due to my alcoholism, and they
were right to do it. They had also done something rarely done, they had issued an
emergency revocation of all my flight licenses - and they were right to do that;
I didn't deserve to hold them.
I served 424 days in the federal prison system, one day at a time, shorter when necessary.
I finally got out, convinced I would never again fly on the face of this planet.
But a meditation book I had said "Before any dream can come true, there must
first be a dream," and a couple of years later I began to dream of flying again.
The FAA told me I would have to begin at the very bottom, with a Private license,
something I'd never had because I came out of the Marine Corps and was given a Commercial
license with an instrument rating. No one...not one person I knew, thought it was
possible to go back and do what they were requiring of me.
So, one day at a time, one step at a time, I studied hours and hours...days and days...weeks
and weeks. I went back, passed all the written exams, most of them 4 hour exams,
but one of them 6, and my average score was 94. Next came the flying but I had no
money; it had been gone in the first month of all this. I was stopped in my tracks.
Then a friend in Minnesota, who had a flight school I knew nothing about, asked me
to come and live with him while I did the flying at his expense. I coordinated with
the corrections people and they allowed me to travel there. I flew 78 hours in 30
days, getting 4 licenses - two of them in one day. The impossible had been done,
thanks entirely to AA and all I had learned.
Three months later, nearly 4 years since my arrest, I received a phone call from
a pilot representative at Northwest. He informed me that the President and CEO of
Northwest, Mr. John Dasburg, had made a personal and humanitarian decision to reinstate
me. This was beyond belief! In the face of mountains of media coverage, the unforgiveable
amount of embarrassment I had visited upon my airline and my profession, he displayed
a level of courage and faith in me that was beyond extraordinary! I have never, to
this day, been able to fully understand why.
I went back to Northwest on November 1st, 1993, fully reinstated, but I was told
I would only fly as a copilot; that I would never again be a captain. But I was too
overwhelmed with joy to care. I was given back my honor, restored among my peers
who overwhelmingly welcomed me back, given back a retirement, along with an opportunity
to earn, once again, my reputation. Several years later I was approaching the end
of my career due to the age 60 rule when I received another phone call. This time
the President/CEO had changed his mind again and decided I would end my final year
of flying as a 747 captain! Again, the unbelievable had occurred! So I went back,
checked out once again as captain, and concluded my career from the left seat. The
circle... I retired September 29, 1998.
But God has a sense of humor, I've discovered. He has put so many miracles in my
life that were so huge I never thought they could be topped. With each one I have
found myself looking up and saying, "Wow! Thanks, God, nothing can ever be better
than THAT!" But I've been wrong each time. And so it is as I left Northwest
as a fully restored captain and full fledged member of all I had once shamed and
disgraced. One week ago yesterday, on January 20, 2001, two hours before he left
office, I received a Presidential Pardon from President Clinton. The miracles keep
coming and I am always overwhelmed and left standing in awe.
The most difficult thing I had to do in the years after my incident was return to
my Indian community. I was just too ashamed. I finally received a phone call from
one of my brothers and as we talked I told him of my shame. He said, very quietly,
"I think you forget what our people respect the most," and I said nothing.
He said, "You have forgotten, haven't you?" and I replied, "Yes, I
guess I have..." He said, "Honesty and humility. And you have those."
So that summer I returned to Wichita to the big 3 day powwow. I walked among those
I had grown up with, laughed, and I danced again. It was just one part of my healing
- but it was, to me, probably THE most important single piece and as we drove home
I felt whole once again.
I'm dancing again. Gourd dancing, which we
never had when I was young. And I'm building a straight dance outfit, ever so slowly
and it's taken a long time. But I'll get it done someday and I will straight dance
I have been active in AA since the day I first got sober. I love sobriety. In recent
years I have become aware of Native American sobriety events and those I cherish
more than anything. To all my Native brothers and sisters I say "Aho" for
letting me walk in your midst, for taking me back, for loving me, and allowing me
to come home. One day at a time...
- Lyle P. 1/28/01