The culture of alcoholism among commercial pilots is terrifying

The culture of alcoholism among commercial pilots is terrifying

CultureDecember 14, 2017 By Lindsey Kline

Imagine you’re 40,000 feet off the ground in an airplane soaring at 600 miles per hour. And the pilot operating this 400 ton piece of machinery? He's three Long Islands in and blitzed out of his damn mind. Do you trust him to lower you gently down from the heavens and place you gingerly onto the tarmac? Fuck no you don't, but ... you don't really have a choice.

On average, one U.S. pilot per month is apprehended before taking flight on account of being too drunk to fly. These inebriated aviators risk thousands of lives to enjoy a good buzz, and far too often, they don’t lose their jobs for it. So what’s being done to combat the issue? And how safe is it to fly with all of these piss-drunk pilots?

Like most adults with stressful jobs, pilots may need a drink or ten to unwind and take a load off. Except, unlike most people, pilots spend the majority of their days being solely responsible for hundreds of lives. We can only imagine the anxiety inherent in transporting helpless, innocent people through the skies in a metal behemoth, but it's not hard to see how a huge problem arises when this stress-drinking becomes habitual and culturally customary.

Jonathan, 28, a Colorado native, has been training for his commercial pilot’s license for nearly a year. Jonathan admits that he feels ostracized from his fellow pilots’ social circle because he doesn’t enjoy binge drinking as much as they do.

And just when and why are these non-Jonathan pilots binge drinking?

Independent News correspondent Simon Calder researched dozens of drunken pilot occurrences and reports, “Looking at a number of incidents, it appears that the most common time that a pilot is suspected of being drunk is after a night-stop away from base. In some circumstances there may be a culture among crews of drinking while away from home, perhaps as a reaction to boredom or loneliness.”

Unfortunately, boredom and loneliness aren’t facets of flying that can be eliminated. In fact, the problem is worsening as planes become more automated and pilots become less involved in the flight process. This leads some air crew to want to drink or use drugs to alleviate their mind-numbing boredom. 

“When we’re up in the sky, we’re working with a pretty wide open space. What’s everyone so afraid we’re gonna crash into?” Jonathan teases.

Drinking is a fitting pastime for a pilot’s way of life, as Andrew, a pilot of 8 years that we contacted through a flying subReddit, explains. “We fly to new cities every night, very seldom sleep at home, and often stay alone in hotel rooms. It’s a very solitary lifestyle, and it’s extremely conducive to drinking."

Commercial airlines acknowledge their pilots’ tendency to hit the bottle, and have created a simple guideline to combat it: 8 hours from “Bottle to Throttle.” The “Bottle to Throttle” rule specifies that there must be an 8-hour gap between the time pilots have their last drink and the time they fly a plane.

But ... haven’t you ever been so hammered that you’re still drunk 8 hours later? You bet your sweet ass you have. And that’s precisely why this guideline isn’t particularly consoling.

Sean Michael Fitzgerald, a 35 year old co-pilot of a charter plane, claimed to police that he was within the bounds of the 8-hour rule when he was arrested for intoxication. U.S. rules prohibit pilots from leaving the runway if they have a blood-alcohol content of .04 percent or higher. This threshold is half the legal limit for driving a car (.08 percent).

Fitzgerald had a blood alcohol level of 0.30, almost four times the legal limit for driving. His arrest occurred on August 26, 2016, when the captain of the plane got a whiff of his co-captain, who stunk of liquor. The co-pilot’s boozy stench, bloodshot eyes, and incoherently slurred speech were enough evidence to demand a breathalyzer and have Fitzgerald subsequently imprisoned. Just two days earlier, American Airlines pilot John Maguire pleaded no contest to charges of attempting to fly from Detroit to Philadelphia while intoxicated. Within the same week, on August 27, two United Airlines pilots were arrested for drunkenly attempting to fly 141 passengers from Scotland to the United States.

Peter Bartos, a retired military pilot, reviewed FAA records of intoxicated piloting incidences on behalf of Fox News. “The general public probably has no idea that this abuse is occurring with such regularity at certain airlines.”

And the majority of the time, these intoxicated pilots don't lose their careers over their drunken stints. More often than not, they're temporarily suspended from their duties, but eventually permitted to return to the cockpit. In fact, the FAA created a program to help recovering alcoholic pilots get back in the skies. The program is called the Human Intervention Motivation Study, or HIMS, and it requires pilots to pass an initial medical evaluation, then test clean in alcoholic monitoring for the next five years.

Dr. Gary M Kohn, medical director at United Airlines, comments on the program, “Pilots aren`t immune to the disease [of alcoholism]. Ultimately, we had to decide: Did we want a practicing alcoholic in the cockpit or a recovered one?”

It’s terrifying to think that when we fly, our safety is in the hands of potentially plastered pilots, recovered or otherwise. But ... what's to be done? What can we, the Universal Helpless Passengers United, do about the culture of drinking amongst plane drivers? 

You're not going to like this answer but ... nothing. Short of breathalyzing every single pilot before every single flight, it’s nearly impossible to ensure their sobriety.

The FAA’s 8-hour “Bottle to Throttle” rule and occasional random drug/alcohol screenings are the only tools currently at our disposal. We just have to trust our pilots in the same way we trust our Lyft drivers or our moms after they've eaten a CBD candy and they come to pick us up from adult soccer practice. But, rest assured that your odds of encountering a drunken pilot are statistically small: every day, there are nearly 100,000 flights around the world, transporting more than 8 million people, and the vast majority of those pilots are sober. In fact, you’re infinitely more likely to get killed by a drunk driver than a drunk pilot, so just relax into the knowledge that there's nothing you can do, so there's no reason to stress.

For a really heartbreakingly beautiful look at the lifestyle of airline pilots and the extreme conditions of loneliness and isolation they sometimes face in order to provide us with the services we need, check out this short film, "Long Term Parking." You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll have a drink ... and maybe next time you board a plane, you'll have a little more appreciation for the people getting you from A to B.