Springfield Chapter Missouri Pilots Association

March 2003

Aviation Safety Corner

GREETINGS! For this month's topic, I would like to continue discussing, "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 III of IV.

Let's begin our discussion with, "The Regulatory Approach." The FAA has invested a great deal of effort and money into addressing the problem of flying while intoxicated. The fact that alcohol was cited as a factor in only 33 accidents over six years, less than 3/10ths of 1 percent of the 13,000 accidents during that period, shows either that it's working or that pilots really are too smart to drink and fly.

The FAA's primary methods of deterring flying while intoxicated are random testing of commercial pilots and inducing pilots to report being busted for driving an automobile while intoxicated. The DWI reporting, because it affects all pilots, remains the cornerstone of the effort.

The question remains, then, whether the emphasis on DWI during medical application is screening the problem drinkers are either keeping themselves on the ground or somehow managing to fly without accidents.

Attempting to make the connection between a pilot who gets caught driving while intoxicated and one who has an aircraft accident. Kathleen McFadden, a researcher at Northern Illinois University, studied the driving records of more than 70,000 airline pilots over a seven-year period. The results were sobering.

She compared records from the National Driver Register database with the accident/incident database. The good news is that 98 percent of airline pilots had never received a DWI conviction. The bad news is that those who had received a DWI were more likely to have had an aviation accident.

And it gets worse from there. A history of one DWI conviction was associated with double the risk of a pilot-error accident. Two or more convictions more than quadrupled the risk, this despite the fact that no pilot tested positive for alcohol during any post-accident investigation during the study period.

Interestingly, in the 13 cases in which the airline pilot had both a DWI conviction and a pilot-error accident, the DWI preceded the airplane crash 10 times.

Although these numbers are small, the researcher concluded it was reasonable to use a generous statistical threshold for significance because of the public safety aspect involved.

The study raises an important issue with respect to the FAA's request for information regarding DWI convictions on the airman medical certificate application. Any DWI should be taken as a significant red flag, not just a second in three years or a total of three or more, which is the criteria AMEs use in determining whether to issue the medical.

At the same time, the study also showed there was no evidence to support the notion that random alcohol testing would have prevented any airline accidents, except insofar as it served as a deterrent.

The same researcher followed up that study with another that looked at whether the FAA's program of penalizing pilots with DWI convictions has made any difference. Prior to 1990, the FAA did not take any action against pilots with DWIs unless they failed to disclose them on Form 8500-8.

Beginning in 1990, the FAA changed its tune and began to suspend or revoke certificates for pilots who had more than two DWIs in three years. The medical application got a provision giving the FAA permission to search the driver registry for convictions and began requiring pilots to disclose DWI convictions not only on the medical application but also within 60 days of the conviction as well.

However, the program is not without exceptions, and some pilots who have shown remarkably poor judgment about driving continued to fly for airlines. In McFadden's follow-up study, she found 29 airline pilots with four DWI convictions, six with five convictions, and three with six.

Now, In Conclusion, Remember, Getting into an airplane after a few drinks, even if you've flown the same airplane 1,000 hours in the last five years, is a far cry from getting into your car, and driving home from a party.

Don't miss next month's Aviation Safety Corner, when we'll finish our discussion, with, "Unconvincing Results." This will be Part IV of IV.

Larry G. Harmon
FAA Aviation Safety Counselor