What Do You Do With a Drunken Pilot?

The Wall Street Journal reminds us that the real terrorists are we.

We spend hours in line at security to reveal our weapons and gels, while a breath away from comatose, there in the cockpit of the airplane, the captain at the controls . . .

is snockered.

I don't know about you, but when I board a plane, I try to catch a glimpse of the pilot, try to reassure myself that this guy has had enough coffee for the flight. He tends to look like a marine, which is reassuring, and once in awhile he will be a she. Sometimes he'll have a drawl, sometimes will have that clip to his speech that says, "I'm all business. Get your laughs elsewhere."

In any case, you hear a lot as a therapist, so you worry about the shape of the captain. Pilots are people, too, and like everyone else, they work hard and some of them play hard. It can't be easy working hard if you've played hard the night before.

Maybe some of us are neurotic fliers and worry needlessly about dying in an airplane crash, especially because it's a quick and easy way to go. But that's not why we buy our tickets.

Susan Caray tells us the story.
The United Airlines pilot arrested this week in London for alleged drinking before taking the controls of a 767 jetliner to Chicago might have his pilot licenses revoked and could spend two years in jail.
And my kids wonder why I save all of my morning prayers, afternoon prayers, you name it prayers, for air travel. You need a lot of these, you know, if the pilot is going to be impaired.

Ms Caray continues:
The pilot, Erwin Vermont Washington, also could wind up back in the cockpit, through a rehabilitation program run by the Air Line Pilots Association union and a long but well-trod route to redemption blazed by a number of pilots over the years.
This is reassuring, it really is, that the union for the pilots offers rehab for substance-dependent pilots. Perhaps last week's latest wake-up call will wake someone up. All over the country, indeed, I hear pilots telling their loved ones,
"I'm going into rehab! Forget about the holidays. This is more important!"
My guess, however, is that no one will.

This is because a drunken pilot is a pilot in denial. Mr. Washington, last week's drunken pilot, had a swig of the hooch shortly before take-off. That's definitive denial, a pilot with a problem that won't ground him, no sirree.

Does anyone know this song?
"Drunken Sailor"

What do you do with a drunken sailor,
What do you do with a drunken sailor,
What do you do with a drunken sailor,
Earl-eye in the morning!


Way hay and up she rises
Way hay and up she rises
Way hay and up she rises
Earl-eye in the morning
The next verse is one from my tribe, I'm pretty sure, although my father denies singing it to me. I thought he learned it in the Navy in the Pacific:
Hit him in the head with a wet salami,
Hit him in the head with a wet salami,
Hit him in the head with a wet salami,
Earl-eye in the morning

Alcoholics at the helm of the family car typically tell their partners on any given night out,
"I drive just fine."
Which makes me think that more people need to buy salamis, and soak 'em well. Don't hit anyone, what responsible clinician could recommend that, for it is futile, but keep the salami around.

We don't want our pilots slowed down, retarded from alcohol, none of us want that. Should we revive this classic song, the salami could serve as an aversive stimulus. Hanging in the kitchen, perhaps the cockpit, too, the sausage might become a symbol of sobriety. Consider this an upgrade.

Rehab would be great, don't get me wrong, but since no one's racing to that solution, we really do need to come up with a better one, something a little more acceptable than deli. Vegans are insulted as we speak. A modest proposal coming right up.

Isn't there a little contraption, a breathalyzer that you can use for your car that won't let Old Red start-up if you have a level?* A level is a blood alcohol level above .08, but states vary. The car won't start until the driver takes the breathalyzer test and passes. Lose the test, lose the keys, or may as well, for they are useless.

The Air Line Pilots Association should consider lobbying management at UAL to install breathalyzers on every plane. They need to protect us, the consumers. We like living. We're not in denial.

Denial means that someone struggling with alcohol dependence may not think he's too drunk to operate a vehicle. Should that someone be a pilot, the vehicle an airplane, this makes him a terrorist, a time bomb.

The FAA ultimately has to do something about this; it's not unique to United Airlines. The industry has to do much more than offer rehab. Something has to bring these guys down to earth.

Oh, and most people avoid rehab, you know, until it's too late.**


*In random conversation I suggested that any official in the organization could administer a breathalyzer test to pilots prior to take-off, de rigeur. Then FD told me about these gizmos you attach to the dash. Much more elegant. Although obviously, it will ground us for who-knows-how- long while the airline scrambles to find a replacement. I, for one, won't mind the wait.

**And until they do, there are plenty of great recovery websites on the Internet.

I found it!


TechnoBabe said…
One of the articles I read in the UK claimed that this particular pilot had way more than a swig. The first thing I thought when I read the first account of this incidence was thank God he was found out before he got in the air. Hopefully, with all the attention this particular incident is receiving, the FAA will move forward more briskly with a change in policy for mandatory breathalyzer and/or other solutions.
Dreaming again said…
lol .. when I read the title the song started to run in my head.
Isle Dance said…
It's the alcoholic who asks/bribes/demands another to breathe into the breathalizer for them, that gets me. It's not good for any of us, indeed.
John said…
Well, I still like your blog posts, all of them insightful, this one included, yet today it seems to have been written while multi-tasking maybe. . . it wasn't as flowing nor as deep as others where I've been quite moved. It's OK, we can't all go deep all the time, I just am wondering if my projection is correct.
Kathie said…
I'm married to a commercial pilot (who I happened to meet in flight school while getting my own commercial pilot certificate.)I'm now home with our children, but have had my fair share of "pilot experiences".

Pilots who fly for the commuters (ie. smaller planes with United, Delta, etc. colors but actually contracted by Skywest, Mesa, etc.) are generally young, mostly single guys/gals. When they arrive at their destination, the party begins, often late into the night. The FAA regs say 8 hrs. 'bottle to throttle' and a when flying, a BAL of over .04% is considered illegal.

If you choose not to participate in the party, you are labled a "slam clicker" which refers to the pilot going to his/her room, closing and locking the door behind him/her. Slam clickers in the commuter airlines are rare (unless you are an older, married person.)As stated, they are younger and out to have a good time. That, coupled with the sometimes short layovers rarely leaves enough time for the rest needed before flying the next day. I seen many, many pilots (and flight attendants) who are completely hungover but take to the cockpit and fly passengers. These incidents are not isolated.

IMO pilot fatigue is actually far more common and potentially dangerous than the few pilots who show up to fly with too much alcohol in their system. I am not excusing their behavior. It's completely irresponsible. But we hear about those drunk pilots on the national news and it makes it seem as though all pilots are drunks. That is not the case! There are checks and balances in place, aside from TSA smelling alcohol on the breath of a pilot. Pilots are accountable to one another and both are required to report any suspicion of drug or alcohol use prior to taking off, as are the flight attendants. This does happen, by the way. Although it doesn't make the national news because it is kept within the personel of the airline.

Those "military" type pilots you talked about: in my experience pilots out of the military are cocky and anti-authority when it comes to the standarizations imposed by the airlines. They have a 'know it all' attitude, as thought they've flown better, faster aircraft and often don't follow the rules of the airline to the letter. Not all, but in my experience this is the norm. My husband does not enjoy flying with the military guys (even though my husband is the Captain) because of their "anti-authority" attitude, thinking they know better than the standards imposed by the airline.

The FAA needs to impose stricter regulations regarding rest requirements for pilots and longer periods of time between consuming alcohol and flying. For example, pilots shouldn't be allowed to drink at all during their tour. Can't they go a few days without a beer? More importantly, the FAA needs to allow more rest time for pilots.

As of today, pilots get 8 hours mandatory rest. The clock starts when the parking brake is pulled in the plane. There is still paperwork, etc. to do and then getting through the airport, finding a shuttle to the hotel, checking in, getting uniform ready for the next day, checking itinerary, weather, etc. Oh, and don't forget they need to eat. That leaves about 5-6 hours to sleep, wakeup and shower, get dressed, eat, shuttle to the airport and get to the airplane. ALL of that counts as 8 hours of "rest". Most of the time, they actually get about 3-4 hours sleep, if that. Pilots are over-fatigued, which is as bad or worse than being drunk. Most airline accidents are due to pilot fatigue.

No excuse for the drunk pilot, but that's a tiny drop in the bucket when it comes to the true saftey of airline passengers. Pilots need more rest in order to ensure a safe flight for the passengers. And only the FAA can change that. But imagine how the airlines would feel....more rest means less flights, less money.... It's all about business.
Michal Ann said…
That was a wonderfully comprehensive comment, Kathie. I want to put you in charge. Is there anything in the works nationally? Internationally?

After September 11, I met an older woman in a dollar store. She was purchasing baseballs which she intended to carry on future airplane flights. Her intention was to practice pitching in case she needed to take action against unruly passengers. I thought that was American ingenuity at it's best. I never considered wet salami.

Baseballs it is! If the FAA won't take action, how about the rest of us "playing ball"??
On the Dveykus 2 album they have a version of Od Yishama to the tune of What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor, which they attribute to the Dubliner Rebbe.
therapydoc said…
See, people need to know these things. I guess the investigative journalists out there will do some digging, but it makes sense that pilot fatigue is more common, and as dangerous, as an impaired pilot.

And now we know there's a possible Jewish source for the song. I knew we would get to the source of this and it has been bothering me for years.

John, as a blogger I consider myself a macro-system person, meaning that I consider anything in my universe blog-worthy. So look forward to more shallow posts, I'm sorry, in the future.

There's a really good equation, don't know if I've ever posted it, about expectations. Keep them low, basically, and life is more tolerable.

Not everything is deep. Sometimes the nose at the end of the face needs commentary, in my opinion, and someone has to mention the unsightly whatever it is, the dirt, the spinach, whatever, that's planted there. I wouldn't run from that.
Anonymous said…
I am assuming John is a good friend of therapydoc's to have commented as he did.

And this is a blog. It's going to navigate a range of depths. That's the way the genre works.

But I am a meddler because therapydoc has already replied, yet I can't help myself.

therapydoc said…
It may be naive, but we're all good friends here. My Less virtual friends, the people in my hood never comment on posts. They prefer to stop me in the grocery store and go, " ya' know that one on..."
Lou said…
Doctors have access to the same type of intensive, long term treatment (they are monitored for five years) that has proven so successful. Unlike the 28 day programs people without unions or money go to, the pilot union's treatment plan is a concentrated rehabilitative effort. I understand what you're saying, and it certainly adds to one's fear of flying. But I'm a little curious why no one is advocating breathalyzers in the scrub room of the OR.
I recently ended up in a situation where I had to report a colleague for being impaired (presumably by alcohol) on call. While that was uncomfortable, and took some time for me to figure out the proper channels, and while it's uncomfortable in the extreme to do that as a new doc in the community, I ultimately decided I couldn't live with the thought of patients being put at risk.

While I certainly assume that the inebriated pilot is the exception rather than the rule, I would hope that any copilot or flight attendant or navigator or whoever would take the responsibility of their passengers' safety seriously. And the big difference between an inebriated pilot and physician? A physician who is impaired is only responsible for one patient at a time, while a pilot is responsible for possibly hundreds of passengers.
therapydoc said…
See, that's why I posted on it. It's that mass burial thing. Thanks (and thanks everyone) for writing.
Jack said…
I step on a plane and hope that all is well with everyone and everything.

It is one of those things that you have to do, assume that all is well. Otherwise you can make yourself truly crazy.

But I also want to be sure that systems are in place to help protect us passengers.
Syd said…
I put my life and trust in God when I get on a plane. If I trusted the humans, I wouldn't be riding. Thanks for posting the drunken sailor song. It is great.
natasha said…
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The Blue Morpho said…
I'm a white-knuckle passenger, myself. I don't think our culture as a whole promotes the idea of being comfortable with someone else in control. And we'd like to imagine those who are in control are as serious about flying or driving or whatever, as we are. And they might be - but being human - they can imagine they are totally serious about it, but hey what's a drink or twelve? Alcoholism is a problem for so many; just tackling it in a single industry seems random. How about school bus drivers? We need to figure out how to take care of everyone. Naive, and wishful, but there ya go.

Blue Morpho
therapydoc said…
School bus drivers! Oy yoy!
Anonymous said…
It was extremely interesting for me to read this post. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to them. I would like to read a bit more soon.
Anonymous said…
What do you think of couples that dress alike? I'm talking of husband and wife who wear the same color top and pants. Do you think it is weird? Is it a sign of insecurity? Is it playful? Is it easier to find each other when they shop to look for the colored shirt that matches what they're wearing? Sometimes its blatant like matching polo shirts, sometimes its just the same colors so they don't clash. Is it juvenile? What if its grandma and grandpa; is that cute? Have you ever thought about this?
Desert Dweller
therapydoc said…
I haven't given it much thought. But it surely says something. Maybe they like being same-ies.
The Dubliner Rebbe reference by the makers of Deveykus was a joke on their part, in case that wasn't clear.