Is it really possible that a pilot could get away with flying while under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Possible, yes, but not really all that easy, according to former pilot and AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) blogger Chip Wright.
In one of his AOPA blog posts, Chip talks about having watched the movie, “Flight,” which starred Denzel Washington and hit theaters a couple of years ago. Washington starred as Whip Whitaker, a drug and alcohol addicted pilot who performed an act of heroism to save a planeload of potentially doomed passengers, only to end up sacrificing his career on the altar of addiction. Good story, apparently, but according to Chip, not really all that believable.
How FAA Drug Testing Works
New hires that are brought on by any airline are subjected to immediate and unavoidable drug and alcohol testing. Following the initial testing, the FAA then requires that airlines sample 25% of their employees annually, system-wide. What that means is that airlines can’t just target employees in one location – if you operate in, say, Cleveland, Atlanta, Newark, Dallas, and San Diego, you can’t say “Okay, more than 25% of my employees work out of Newark, so that’s where I’ll test. You have to do at least 5% in each city. And you can’t just test for alcohol, or just for drugs – you have to mix it up.
You could conceivably go for years without being tested if you work for a large company, but the thing is, you never know when it’s going to happen. You could have your pre-hire test, and then next week be tested again. Or you could wait for ten years before being asked to urinate in a cup. You just don’t know. And forget about refusing he test – it’s considered to be a positive drug test if you refuse.
What if You Know You’re About to Be Caught?
According to Chip, most airlines give you a chance to “come clean” before you’re tested. Most of the time your union will work on your behalf, but you may end up getting a chance to enter a rehab program instead of being fired.
Under the HIMS program (Human Intervention Monitoring System), pilots who have addictions can seek help, and in fact, Chip knows a number of pilots who have used the program and been able to return to the cockpit. Testing positive and denying that you have a problem, though, will almost certainly get a pilot fired, and the chances of him or her ever getting a job with another airline are slim to none.
So, What About Denzel?
At some point, Whip Whitaker would have been caught. He would have been given a chance to “come clean.” If he didn’t, the FCA would have revoked his certification, and he would likely have been prosecuted for flying drunk and reckless endangerment. There’s a good chance he would have gone to prison. The first officer who allowed Whitaker to fly even though he reeked of alcohol would also have faced serious repercussions.
What’s the moral of the story? Pilots who need help should ask for it. There’s no escaping FAA drug testing. It’s a public safety issue, and that’s one of the reasons why there are so many opportunities for drug and alcohol test technicians in the aviation industry – the FAA doesn’t tolerate impaired pilots, and demands rigorous testing. Airlines generally are good friends to pilots who need help, but in the final analysis, friends don’t let friends fly drunk.