Aviation Safety Corner
GREETINGS! For this month's topic, I would like to discuss, "Cocktails & Cockpit". Flying while
intoxicated doesn't happen often, but when it does the results are usually tragic. A single DWI may point to trouble
ahead in airplanes. This is Part I of IV.
Let's begin our discussion with, "Reality Check". Recent high-profile incidents involving allegedly drunk airline pilots reporting for duty have renewed the call for more random drug/alcohol testing of flight crews. Public hypersensitivity over anything aviation even led CNN to host an online poll that asked if all pilots should be tested for alcohol-to which 89 percent replied yes.
Pilots, meanwhile, point to a relative dearth of alcohol-induced crashes and wonder what all the ruckus is about. Good sense, it seems, keeps alcohol-impaired pilots out of the cockpit the vast majority of the time, because the pilot's sitting in the seat that frequently hits first.
The FAA has been trying for years to get a handle on alcohol use by pilots, both through random testing and driving records. In fact, for thousands of pilots, box 18.v. of FAA Form 8500-8 represents either a dilemma or a cruel reminder. The form is the FAA's application for the medical certificate. The Box: Have you been nailed for driving while intoxicated?
While drunk driving has been under relentless scrutiny for the last two decades, alcohol use by pilots has been a much less visible affair, aided by the fact that a study of U.S. airline accidents up to 1990 failed to turn up s single accident ever in which a pilot was found to be drunk at the time of the crash.
While General Aviation has not compiled such a spotless record, pilots do a much better job than drivers at avoiding bent metal.
While the rate of alcohol-related accidents is low, they are frequently deadly. A review of accidents the NTSB determined to be alcohol-related found 33 such accidents in 1996-2001. About 70 percent of those accidents involved fatalities, and in only two did any occupant escape unharmed. Thirty-six people died. The accidents generally fall into four categories: buzzing, skill impairment, drunk pilotss trying to function normally, and what can only be classified as general irresponsibility. Granted, there's some overlap here, but we'll get to that.
Now, Let's Discuss, "Buzzed Buzzing". Not surprisingly, buzzing is the most common. Just as beer and joyriding go together in the eyes of many newly licensed teenage drivers, the record is populated with pilots who have a few and decide to take their friends flying. It is during just such an activity that the pilot is vulnerable to errors in judgment, reaction time, and motor skills.
The speed rush involved with flying low seems particularly appealing. One pilot even taunted a passenger who suggested that they fly higher, saying "Why, you ain't scared, are you?"
One pilot flew underneath a bridge before hitting wires. One pilot skimmed a golf course pond, skipping the wheels off the water before one caught enough to make the airplane nose over.
Eleven of the 33 accidents fell into the buzzing category. In several cases, there were other factors that showed the pilots' general disdain for playing by the rules. In two the airplanes were stolen. In another, the pilot had no pilot certificate and the airplane was several years out of annual.
Now, Let's Discuss, "Motor Skills? No Thanks". Skill impairment accidents are those in which the pilot appears to be trying to fly responsibly (if that can be done while intoxicated), but just isn't up to the task. We'd equate this roughly with driving home slowly and carefully after imbibing a few too many at a party.
Eight of the accidents primarily fell into the category of skill impairment. In these we include accidents prompted by the lack of a preflight, such as the one in which the control lock was still installed. It includes the one where the pilot reported being out of gas, with the fuel selector on both, when in fact, the fuel selector didn't have a both, one tank was empty and the other was nearly full. We include the unexplained loss of control shortly after takeoff (aided by a .285 blood alcohol level) and the three in which a safe landing was just too much to ask.
Now, In Conclusion, Finally, we'd include the accident in which the pilot, who had been drinking at a bar with a friend until 3 a.m., decided to fly home at 4 a.m. so he could have the rental returned by 8 a.m. His wingtip caught the water during an abrupt turn.
Don't miss next month's Aviation Safety Corner, when we'll discuss, "Welcome to Reality, and I'll Do It My Way". This will be Part II of IV.
Larry G. Harmon
FAA Aviation Safety Counselor