Published by March 2016 issue
By Mark L. Berry
Are pilots who have a drinking, drug, or DUI conviction, or who fail a drug or alcohol test, ever allowed to fly a commercial aircraft again?
The answer has largely been an industry-guarded secret. I needed to clear this article with several layers of program oversight, union committees, and airline management before publication.
IMAGINE THIS SITUATION
You’ve had a few drinks and it’s time to go home. Should you drive? You live less than two miles away, and you’re sure there’s no way a sobriety checkpoint could be set up along the backcountry streets you plan to take. The fact that you’re concerned about getting caught, and not about actually driving under the influence, is the first missed clue about your drinking habits. You unlock your car and slide behind the wheel. “Seatbelt: fastened. Ignition: on. Headlights: on. Air Vents: open.”
The streets are dark but they’re also familiar. You make the required turns seemingly on autopilot, and your headlights— which have been on high beam the whole drive—finally reveal the reflective green sign announcing your street. Suddenly, flashing blue and red lights bounce off your mirrors into your eyes. Damn! While you slowly pull over, you wonder, “Was I speeding? Is my tail light out?” You don’t even consider that you might have been driving erratically in any way—another missed clue. As you shift your car into park, you pop a breath mint into your mouth before the officer reaches your window. You’re thinking, “Play it cool, because there’s no way I can afford a DUI. As an airline Pilot, that’s the kiss of death. This can’t happen to me.”
Fast forward to the field sobriety test. You couldn’t pass it tonight, not even in slow motion. Next is the breathalyzer. You blow, and are stunned by the results. “But I feel fine!” Unfortunately, there’s no credit given for acquiring a high degree of tolerance to alcohol or for your perceived ability to function under the influence. The legal blood-alcohol limits are set by the state—and your score depends on the quantity of your intake in relation to your body weight, and it’s slowly reduced by time. Your worst fear has just come true, and you’re off to a night in jail. Very soon, you’re faced with a whole new situation at work.
The above scenario is fiction, but it is based on stories that several of my friends have told me.
I have spent my working hours in cockpits for over 30 years. We career aviators spend a great deal of time and money learning how to fly, paying our dues by accumulating flight hours at lowpaying positions and working our way up a seniority-based system. Nobody wants to put all that at risk. When the rare individual succumbs to stress or, for whatever reason, drifts over the line that separates the casual imbiber from the alcoholic, it becomes headline news. The extremely fictionalized movie Flight, starring Denzel Washington, didn’t do the reputation of airline Pilots any favors. On March 8, 1990, the Pilots of a Northwest Boeing 727 connecting Fargo to Minneapolis were arrested for flying while intoxicated. All three ended up serving prison time. The hailstorm of negative publicity that follows a rare event such as this one serves as a strong deterrent to the remainder of the airline community.
So, no; we’re not all finishing our last drink at the bar right before departure, as classic comedians Dean Martin and Foster Brooks would have you believe in their famous skit.
Despite the media hype, the actual percentage of airline Pilots with drug or alcohol addictions is extremely low. Both the AVweb article by Glenn Pew, “How Many Drunk Pilots Are There?” (Dec. 14, 2009) and the Bloomberg Business article by Keenan Mayo “Bottle to Throttle: A Short History of Drunk Pilots” (Jan. 8, 2013) reported the NTSB stating: “There’s never been a commercial airline crash caused by a drunk Pilot.”
The FAA reports that more than 10,000 Pilots are tested every year, with about 12 failing on average. That’s just over 0.1%.
The five specific types of drug and alcohol testing to which Pilots are subject are: Pre-Employment (drugs only), Reasonable Suspicion, Post-Accident, Return-To-Duty, and the biggie—Random Selection. A positive result from any of these tests will immediately ground an airline Pilot.
A breath-alcohol level at or above 0.04% while on duty allows the FAA to immediately suspend a Pilot’s license and medical certificate by means of an emergency revocation order. Depending on the situation, that Pilot will be exposed to employment termination and possible criminal liability.
Pilots who score a breath-alcohol level between 0.02% and 0.04% are not completely in the clear. The FAA will require them to obtain return-to-duty testing and substance-abuse evaluation.
Pilots with substance issues end up in a program called HIMS—Human Intervention Motivation Study. Though its existence is hushed, the program has a public website (http:// www.himsprogram.com) that defines it as an occupational substance abuse treatment program, or “an industry-wide effort in which managers, Pilots, healthcare professionals, and the FAA work together to preserve careers and enhance air safety.”
The first step toward returning to work requires the affected Pilots to get treatment for their condition. This is usually not an easy step. Denial is a root issue of alcoholism. In this regard, some HIMS-participating friends of mine have reported experiencing a memorable “moment of clarity.” Sometimes this occurred when they first realized they were actually lucky to have beenpulled over by the police, instead of having become the cause of an accident. The concept of inflicting injury or death because of their impairment shakes them into a new understanding.
Sometimes, Pilots will still refuse to believe that they have a substance or alcohol problem. All Pilots always have the choice to continue drinking. But they will also soon learn that they can’t return to the flight deck, and have to accept that their career is now over.
As stated above, Pilots require a medical certificate, in addition to a license, to operate an aircraft. CFR (Federal Regulation) Part 67.107 defines the psychiatric requirements for maintaining a 1st Class Medical Certificate and includes language that addresses substance abuse. The way back inside the cockpit passes through the completion of a treatment program in which recognizing that there is an addiction is an early goal.
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HOW THE PROGRAM WORKS
Once Pilots are accepted into HIMS, their first step is detoxification. This takes a variable amount of time, depending on the level of alcoholism each Pilot has reached.
Detoxification without doctor supervision can be dangerous, so it is effected as an in-patient therapy. Often, to ease the symptoms of withdrawal, medications are administered. As a function of the length of time between their last drink and their entry into treatment, some Pilots may not require detoxification.
After detox completion, an intensive 28-day in-patient treatment begins.
During this part of the program, Pilots enter one of several nationwide facilities. One such is Father Martin’s Ashley treatment center in Havre de Grace, Maryland. The staff confiscate the Pilots’ cell phones and require their undivided attention. In general, Pilots attend classes to learn about the effects of substance abuse on the human body and brain, and how to overcome their addictions. Other classes include private counseling from mental health specialists.
There are group meetings that pave the way for Alcoholics Anonymous (or Narcotics Anonymous) membership after release from the in-patient therapy. AA and NA are not specifically religious, but they are spiritually based programs that focus on a higher power—any power each participant chooses. These are the norm. But a small percentage of HIMS Pilots chooses one of two lesser known abstinence-based group programs without a spiritual emphasis: SMART Recovery and Rational Recovery.
Each Pilot also helps develop and accept an extensive posttreatment plan that he or she will have to follow for at least three years or, in some cases, for the remainder of his or her career.
Following detox and in-patient therapy, it generally takes six months to a year before a motivated Pilot can return to work. The Pilots’ first assignment is to attend 90 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (or Narcotics Anonymous or SMART Recovery) within 90 days. They must also meet regularly with their Alcoholics Anonymous (or alternate program) sponsors, who are required to document the Pilots’ attendance.
All HIMS Pilots must also attend monthly meetings with their airlines’ Chief Pilots and peer monitors, weekly sessions at an aftercare treatment facility, and regular meetings with their specified Aero Medical Examiners (HIMS-trained FAA Physicians).
Abstinence from alcohol and other mood-altering substances is an absolute requirement, and participants agree to a much higher level of testing than the standard federal aviation requirements. Some Pilots are given personal Breathalyzer units to carry, and must use them whenever they receive texts from their program coordinator. The Pilots text back the results, along with selfies taken while blowing into the tube. This is the airline version of putting a testing device that requires an alcohol-free blow in order to engage the starter inside a DUI-convicted driver’s car.
Once HIMS Pilots have completed at least 90 days of sobriety, their next step is to complete a two-day psychological and psychiatric evaluation, which includes the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale—Fourth Edition (WAIS—IV). This is an IQ test designed to check for any possible mental deficiencies. This test is rarely administered before Pilots complete 60 days of sobriety (and 30 days after in-patient therapy), and it usually follows the 90-day protocol.
Eventually, the Pilots must pass special 1st Class FAA medical examinations with designated HIMS FAA physicians. And as FAA Headquarters reviews all their reports from the entire program, weighing whether to issue the Special Issuance Medical Certificates, the Pilots must continue the multi-step treatment program (AA meetings, Chief Pilot meetings, peer reports, after-care visits, etc.).
As you can see, the requirements to which recovering Pilots are subject in order to return to their careers are deliberately very intensive.
The goal of HIMS is to save Pilots’ careers and, in some cases, also their lives. Substance addiction is a problem in all walks of life, but the aviation community is fortunate to have this program as a way to offer hope.
Pilots entering the program soon learn that HIMS has a very high success rate. According to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) website, the program has returned 5,400 Pilots to the cockpit as of the summer of 2015. In addition, “85 to 90% (HIMS Pilots) will have remained sober at the two-year mark. After the two-year mark, we see about a 10% relapse rate over the remainder of a Pilot’s career.”
The small numbers of relapses are either self-reported (a strongly-encouraged quality of HIMS) or recognized through the program’s extensive testing requirements. Some Pilot relapses have also been identified through subsequent DUI incidents.
KEEPING THE FAITH
Airline passengers have no option but to place a lot of trust and faith in uniformed strangers doing a job that defies gravity with aerodynamics that are difficult to comprehend.
We commercial airline Pilots train extensively, take our careers seriously (too seriously sometimes, just ask our spouses and partners), and strive to remain professional even in the face of adversity. But we also recognize that we are still human.
HIMS is one of the ways by which the human factor is addressed in a positive way that both serves the aviation community and ensures public safety. While I am not a HIMS Pilot, I sit side by side with them, and I am only made aware of their being in the program if they decide to reveal that to me.
The takeaway for passengers is that a comprehensive system is in place that enables Pilots with alcohol or substance issues to thoroughly address them with the endorsement of their respective airlines, the FAA, and trained medical professionals. Without this program, Pilots would be more prone to conceal their addictions, and potentially perform their duties in a safety-compromising condition without treatment.
The takeaway for Pilots is that the program is stringent.
If you suspect that you have an addiction, your easiest path is through self-disclosure. A friend of mine recently told me, “The monitoring and schedule requirements of the HIMS program are restrictive enough that I wish I’d evaluated my drinking habits before slipping into a qualifying event.”
Pilots who have been the object of a non-aviation alcohol incident (such as a DUI), will be required to undergo substance abuse evaluations, and may be required to enter HIMS to remain employed. The airlines employing Pilots involved in aviation-related substance events (for example, having been flagged by the drug- and alcohol-testing system in place for all Pilots) are under no obligation to accept them into HIMS.
The Human Intervention Motivation Study is a medical health benefit for those who choose to accept it—not a Pilot’s absolute right. On the up side, one major airline advised me that approximately 40% of their participating Pilots volunteered for the program.
AN EYE TOWARD REHABILITATION
Commercial aviation is a highly visible profession but, because the identities of its participants are kept confidential, a clandestine aura surrounds HIMS.
Pilots should be aware that addiction and substance abuse don’t need to be a career-ending condition. If you are a Pilot and suspect that you might be developing a problem, don’t wait until the red and blue lights flash in your mirrors.
If, instead, you are an occasional airline passenger, you need to know that any physiological factors affecting Pilots’ health and their ability to perform at the highest levels are addressed through employee assistance programs, including HIMS, in a very thorough manner.
Finally—regardless of whether you are a Pilot or a passenger— think about HIMS with this analogy: if you had suddenly received a DUI late one night, would you want your driver’s license taken away from you for the rest of your life? Or would you rather wish that there was a way for you to earn it back through appropriate guidance, training, and commitment?