Aftermath: Drunk and Disastrous

Alcohol and aviation are best imbibed separately.

Aftermath Artwork

Aftermath Artwork

A 17-year, 26,000-hour A320 captain, who was a check airman for his airline as well as a certified airframe and power plant mechanic, called a friend to say he would fly over his house later that day to show him the Aerostar 601P he had bought.

At a quarter to five the friend, a retired military pilot, watched from beside his house as the Aerostar approached from the east, very low and very fast. It cleared a set of power lines by a few feet, turned north and pulled up into a vertical climb. It performed a right hammerhead turn, recovering 20 feet above the ground. After several other daringly low passes, during which his friend vainly shouted at the pilot to "just stop," the Aerostar cleared the roof of the house by 5 feet, turned northward again, and shortly afterward crashed and exploded.

A second witness, also a retired military pilot and currently an airline pilot, watched from another location. He was impressed by the flier's skill. He noted that he maintained a "high kinetic energy," each maneuver blending without pause into the next, always at high power, with wingover turns banked past the vertical. It was during the recovery from one of those turns that the wings rocked slightly before the airplane disappeared behind a ridge and struck the ground. He thought it might have experienced an accelerated stall.

Numerous others saw the ill-fated aerobatic display, and one shot cellphone video in which the distant airplane is seen repeatedly climbing, turning and descending in a roller coaster-like fashion. At a certain point, just as it passes behind some leafless trees and apparently moments before the crash, it appears to emit a puff of black smoke. Perhaps one of the fuel tanks had momentarily unported during a zero-G maneuver, causing the engine to stumble and distracting the pilot just long enough for him to fail to avoid a 100-foot tree. The National Transportation Safety Board, however, found no evidence of "mechanical anomalies."

The pilot had a history of alcohol dependence. He had undergone treatment and had reportedly been sober for four years. But he was anything but sober during the spectacular display of flying that led to his death. His tissues contained alcohol at more than six times the FAA's legal limit of 40 milligrams per deci­liter (or 0.04, as it would be stated in the context of driving, where 0.08 is a typical state-mandated definition of legal intoxication). A two-quart bottle of Highland Mist whiskey — the pilot's favorite during his drinking days — was found in the wreckage.

How prevalent drunken flying is is difficult to tell. A search for the word intoxicated in the NTSB database, from 2000 to the present, returns 44 accidents of which 35 were fatal. A number of these involved cocaine, marijuana and various kinds of medications like painkillers and antidepressants rather than, or sometimes in addition to, alcohol. Whereas a high level of ethanol in tissues, after making allowance for products of putrefaction, provides a generally accepted postmortem test of intoxication, the influences of recreational and medical drugs are more ­uncertain. The NTSB, in its zeal to connect drugs to accidents, has contrived to forge causal links even when drug residues appear only at very low levels during forensic testing. The victim is then said to have been impaired by "withdrawal symptoms."

Of the 35 fatal accidents associated with intoxication, a dozen involved drugs other than alcohol and two were apparent suicides, leaving us with 1.5 alcohol-related fatal accidents per year. In some of these, the occurrence was of so generic a type — stall on base-to-final turn, collision with terrain during a low instrument approach and so on — that it would be hard to make a conclusive case for impairment. The NTSB does not balk at circular reasoning, however, implicitly using the accident itself as evidence of cognitive impairment by whatever substance is implicated.

Men have traditionally fortified themselves for love, war and other hazardous activities by downing a few. I have gotten up from a long lunch at a French factory, during which company pilots (but not I!) drank multiple glasses of wine, and gone to evaluate a business jet. In Russia, vodka is served with meals in lieu of water; I suppose it's cleaner. A famous aerobatic pilot was a notorious alcoholic; it did not seem to affect his performances at all. There seems to be an unspoken consensus, at least among drinkers, that a small — or maybe not so small — amount of alcohol is not destructive of skill or judgment.

Nevertheless, our common-sense association of alcohol with impairment is well founded in experience. We often see people who are drunk acting incompetently, not to say ridiculously. The case with drugs like cocaine and marijuana is more obscure, because many closet users of those drugs lead normal lives and exhibit no noticeable deficits. In the context of aviation, we have no idea how many pilots fly after drinking or using recreational drugs, but it must certainly be more than 44 in a 14-year period. Thus, as with drinking and driving, we do not know how often it is done successfully. The cases that come to our attention are the egregious ones: the open vodka bottle in the smoking wreckage, the pilot who says a slurred goodbye to a bar on a foggy night and is airborne 15 minutes later, the insanely low aerobatic display.

It will be reassuring to alcoholic and formerly alcoholic pilots that the FAA's ability to keep track of DUIs, visits to rehab clinics and so on is itself impaired. A number of the pilots who eventually crashed with high levels of alcohol in their systems — one achieved a Homeric 0.56, enough to fell an ordinary man before he ever took off — had multiple previous DUIs and reported them on their applications for medicals without triggering any follow-up even though documented alcohol dependence is supposed to be disqualifying. Bureaucratic slip-ups, however, are probably far less common than frankly dishonest responses to the questionnaire.

It costs the great majority of pilots little effort to adhere to the FAA's eight-hour "bottle-to-throttle" rule. Most are proud to be able to say, "No thank you, I'm flying." Others no doubt bend it slightly, and perhaps head to the airport with four hours' sleep after leaving a bar at midnight. Taking off is easy, they reason; there's oxygen in the plane, and besides, when it's time to land they'll be legal. A few may be such experienced and well-regulated drinkers that they judge, perhaps rightly, that normal standards do not apply to them.

But if ever something made a slope slipperier, it's alcohol. Like hypoxia, it provides a cocooning sense of well-being and deflects self-scrutiny. The people who can look at themselves objectively and say, "I'm tipsy, better not drive," are the occasional drinkers, the amateurs. They notice alcohol makes them feel different; it raises a yellow flag. The more seasoned drinker makes such a smooth transition into inebriation that no unease is felt, no flags arise. Onlookers see the recklessness, the irrationality, the often repellent replacement of one personality by another. The drinker himself feels just fine.

Our duty as pilots is to assess a flight before we make it: not only the weather and the equipment, but also our own condition. But that duty is not without ambiguities. Sometimes we need to heed misgivings; sometimes we have to repress them — for who doesn't feel misgivings before his first solo instrument, night or aerobatic flight? There is no guarantee that our self-assessment will be accurate, but when alcohol is involved it is almost certain not to be. That is why we have the eight-hour rule; and that is why, now and then, it is sure to be broken.

This article is based on the NTSB's report of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers' attention. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.

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