Captain Robert Piché survived one of the most terrifying ordeals a pilot can face. Surviving the hero worship that followed, however, proved to be even tougher.
The Quebec pilot was showered with accolades after he successfully glided a crippled Air Transat plane to safety in the Azores last year, saving more than 300 lives. He emerged unscathed from the heart-stopping exploit, but being catapulted into the role of a hero overnight was so difficult that he obtained counselling at an alcohol detox centre.
A new book on Capt. Piché to be released in Montreal today says the pilot was unprepared for the sudden glare of the spotlight, which continues unabated. Yesterday, he was awarded the Medal of Honour from the Quebec National Assembly.
"He wasn't prepared for all the glory that fell upon him," said Pierre Cayouette, a Quebec journalist who wrote the authorized biography of Capt. Piché.
In an interview, Capt. Piché said he had to cope with the dramatic trajectory that took him from anonymous Quebec pilot to headline-maker around the world.
"There are no courses on Celebrity 101," he said. "I was just doing my job, and found myself in a situation I didn't want. I couldn't make the connection between doing my job and becoming a hero. I didn't seek to become a celebrity."
The book, Robert Piché aux commandes du destin ( Robert Piché at the controls of destiny), published by Libre Expression, depicts Capt. Piché as a world adventurer who honed his survival instincts in the 1980s while imprisoned on drug-running charges in a Georgia jail.
In March, Air Transat cryptically announced that Capt. Piché was on sick leave from the company for an undisclosed ailment. It refused to elaborate.
In fact, Capt. Piché had suffered emotional aftershocks from his near-death experience in the air; he had also grown worried about his wine-drinking during social occasions, Mr. Cayouette said. He sought a leave from Air Transat to obtain help at an alcohol-treatment centre. The airline paid for his seven-week treatment.
Mr. Cayouette said there is no evidence Capt. Piché drank on the job. He was a responsible and trustworthy pilot "but he liked to party," the author said in an interview.
Capt. Piché said that he attended the clinic less for alcohol rehabilitation than to get therapy to deal with the intense emotions he experienced the night of Aug. 23.
"Imagine flying over the Atlantic at 39,000 feet in the dark with no fuel and 300 people under your responsibility. I was up against the wall, facing death. But I didn't choose to be there."
The authorized biography of Capt. Piché appears as Portuguese-led investigators complete a final report on the widely publicized near-disaster over the Atlantic. Authorities have not yet determined what led the Airbus on Flight 236 from Toronto to Lisbon to lose fuel and cause engine failure, as hysterical passengers held hands and prayed.
Regardless of the probe's outcome, Mr. Cayouette said, the man in the pilot seat that night was a gut-level survivor, who sharpened his instincts during the months he spent in a Georgia jail on a drug charge in the early 1980s.
The jail sentence, which has been the subject of news reports in Quebec, taught Capt. Piché to overcome fear; the jail was rife with racial tension and Capt. Piché survived by forming alliances with fellow inmates, he said.
"It transformed him," Mr. Cayouette said. "He came from small-town Quebec . . . and here he was in a Georgia prison. He was afraid. But he decided he had to survive, and said 'If I can get through this, not much will scare me for the rest of my days.' He's like a figure out of a novel."