Boozin' and cruisin'

May 1, 1998

William Shakespeare said of alcohol that "It sharpens the desire but dulls the performance." While the Bard was referring to other activities, since airplanes were not yet invented, he was dead on target about the effects of Demon Rum on pilots — pun intended.

Alcohol made a big impression early in my flying career and created some significant problems for our small airport. The airport was located at the edge of a major university campus, where fraternity and sorority houses crowded beneath the departure path. One foggy winter evening some 25 years ago, a student pilot with bottle in hand took the cherryest J-3 Cub on the line and, together with a drinking buddy, managed to get airborne. It was a very short flight; at five hundred yards or less, they tangled with some trees on frat row. The Cub came straight down into the street, and the ensuing conflagration incinerated the airplane while cremating the occupants.

Our airport was under siege for months while the local pilot community worked to educate the neighbors and the college that this was a random event that had never happened before. By pure dumb luck there were no ground injuries. This crash could have closed the airport. There was measurable damage to general aviation, and the newspaper photograph of the burned-out hulk sitting in front of one of the houses made a lasting impression on everyone who saw it — pilots and nonpilots alike.

Alcoholic beverages have been a part of the myth of aviation for years. A stereotype of hard-drinking, hard-flying pilots, while not as common now, seems to persist. Stories abound of missions flown by pilots in less-than-perfect condition. Of course, they are usually told in bars and are enhanced with each repetition, even with the customary allowance for storytelling. Generally, the outcome is successful, although it's a sure bet that the hero would have done even better without the benefit of Budweiser or Jack Daniels coursing through the veins.

Alcohol is not a huge problem in general aviation, according to the NTSB, which categorizes it as a cause in about three percent of fatal accidents and a factor in another half a percent. The FAA's medical institute, however, estimates a higher ratio — around eight percent. That's fewer than two fatal accidents per month. The FAA considers alcohol to be a factor when the tissue samples show greater than a 0.04-percent concentration. Compared to the highways, where it is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of fatal accidents involve alcohol, this is far better — but it's nothing to be proud of. For aviation professionals the FAA had a random alcohol-testing program in which 25 percent of the pilots, mechanics, or anyone else in a safety-related position was tested. The 1996 results showed that only 0.08 percent tested positive, so the test population has been cut back to 10 percent. However, even one alcohol-related accident is too many, and we all suffer by association. Naturally, it's impossible to measure the number of pilots who fly impaired without incident.

A number of years ago the FAA decided to mix flying with drinking and driving by cross-checking the National Driver Registry. When a pilot obtains or renews a medical certificate, one of the questions is whether he or she has any alcohol-related convictions or administrative actions. If the carnage on the highways isn't enough to dissuade you from having a snort before flight, remember that based on driving history the FAA can just say "no" to granting or renewing anyone's medical certificate. FAR 61.15 is a rule with which anyone who enjoys the grape should be familiar. The regulation itself goes on for paragraphs. The essence is that if your driver's license is canceled, suspended, or revoked because of alcohol or if you refuse a Breathalyzer test, the incident must be reported to the Civil Aviation Security Division of the FAA within 60 days, as well as on your next medical certification application.

When this was implemented, there was an outcry from some corners that being blitzed on the road had nothing to do with flight operations and we should be free to separate ground transgressions from aeronautical activities. However, with a DUI on record, pilots contemplating a professional piloting career will probably eliminate themselves from job consideration with most airlines and many corporate flight departments. Is it worth it? Questions on the rules or how they are interpreted should be directed to AOPA's Medical Certification Department at 800/USA-AOPA.

The effects of alcohol are well documented. Primary flight textbooks are consistent in describing the physiology of alcohol and flight. Depending on the individual, one ounce of liquor, one bottle of beer, or just four ounces of wine has been shown to impair flying skills, but effects will vary from pilot to pilot. The human body metabolizes or burns alcohol at a fixed rate, so no amount of coffee or medication will speed this up. It takes time to eliminate booze from the system. If a pilot has been drinking seriously the night before, the hangover may easily render him or her unfit to fly the next day even though the FAA's eight-hour minimum bottle-to-throttle time has elapsed.

It's worth noting that FAR 91.17 has been strengthened over the last decade. The regulation states that there will be no operation of an aircraft within eight hours of consumption or while having as little as 0.04 percent of alcohol by weight in the blood. This is less than half of what most states allow on the road. Additionally, local law enforcement is authorized to conduct a blood test or have one conducted and submit the results to the FAA. The official crackdown is of some concern, but the real focus should be with the long arm of gravity rather than the law. The punishment is usually swift and severe. There is never a plea bargain.

But a few pilots continue to test the odds. For example, late last year there was a crash involving a VFR pilot and two friends who departed from a private turf strip in a Piper Cherokee Six into night IMC. The weather at the nearest reporting point was 400 overcast and two miles' visibility. The flight departed at 10:09 p.m., and at 10:35 p.m. the pilot attempted a landing back at the same strip with no instrument approach. A ground witness estimated the visibility at 1,200 feet — less than one-quarter mile. This is half of what is required to conduct a full Category I ILS approach. Some trees drastically shortened the landing roll, with fatal results for all on board. Alcohol was suspected and GA got tagged with some negative publicity.

Each year, 20 or so pilots commit the ultimate sin of drinking and then flying a perfectly good aircraft into the ground. The tragedy is for the passengers and the families involved.

This is not something that really needs to be explained more than once to new pilots. Anyone with the intelligence to fly should make the connection immediately. Our image, individually and collectively, can do without this particular stain.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.