'Flying Drunk' Shares Pilots' Struggle to Overcome Alcohol

Photo: Flying Drunk: Pilots and AlcoholismCourtesy Savas Beatie LLC

Deep in his heart, Joseph Balzer knew it was wrong.

But the night before he and two other pilots were scheduled to transport 91 passengers from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis, Minn., Balzer spent the evening with his colleagues swigging beer at a local bar.

The next morning, with blood-alcohol levels above the legal limit for pilots, the three men strapped down in the cockpit and took off. But when they landed, they faced, arguably, the most devastating day of their lives.

After tests that morning in March 1990 revealed that their blood-alcohol levels were above the 0.04 percent limit for pilots, the men, who worked for Northwest Airlines, were arrested for intoxication. Later, all three were convicted, sent to federal prison and stripped of their pilot's licenses.

"It was horrible," Balzer, now 53, said. "I didn't want to live anymore. I was so humiliated, embarrassed [and] ashamed. It boils down to compromising my own personal value system. I didn't want to do anything to harm those passengers."

Balzer and Others Get Second Chance

At the time, he thought he would never fly again. Now, however, nearly two decades later, Balzer has been restored to the cockpit as a pilot for American Airlines.

He said he has not touched alcohol since the night in Fargo. But the road to redemption, he emphasized, has been long and strewn with setbacks.

In his memoir, "Flying Drunk," published earlier this month by Savas Beatie LLC, Balzer recounts his fight to beat back the bottle and the particular toll his addiction has taken on his career.

Although it only tells the story of one aviator, it speaks to an experience shared by thousands of other pilots who have been forced out of the cockpit because of alcohol and struggled to score a second chance.

Thanks to the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS), a recovery program for pilots supported by major airlines and pilot unions, more than 4,000 pilots have undergone treatment for alcohol abuse or dependency since 1974 and have been returned to the cockpit in the process, thwarting a potential public safety threat.

High Stakes Lead to High Recovery Rates

Balzer said that he and the other pilots were tested that day because of a call to the FAA hotline reporting that they had been out at a bar the night before.

Although a safety inspector called into investigate failed to intervene in Fargo, he called Minneapolis to report the incident.

Looking for an out and a "savior," Balzer said he asked the inspector to check his blood-alcohol level in Fargo.

"I was looking for someone to save me," he said. "I was looking for someone to take the lead role in the flight not leaving fargo. Today's Joe Balzer would take that role upon himself."

He hopes his book, along with the HIMS program, will encourage others to make the journey he has made.

Dana Archibald, chairman of the HIMS program for the Airline Pilots Association, said the program, which is open to pilots of corporate jets and helicopters in addition to commercial airline pilots, has an 88 to 90 percent success rate.

Most pilots enter the program after they have self-disclosed, although a small percentage come in after a violation. There were 13 alcohol violations in the 2008 fiscal year and four, so far, in fiscal year 2009, which ends Sept. 30, according to the FAA.

Violations can be issued after a pilot fails a random test or if airport personnel detect the presence of alcohol.

Archibald, a more than 20-year veteran of the industry, said he himself is a product of the program and that the program means a great deal to him.

"It didn't just save my job," he said. "It saved my life."

It worked for him and works for so many others, he said, because of the intensity of the monitoring and counseling. In the first year, a participant has mandatory meetings in a 12-step program, in addition to monthly meetings with counselors and regular physicals.

"It's a group effort here," he said, adding that many people -- from doctors, counselors and co-workers -- decide when the pilot is ready to return to the cockpit, along with many checks and balances that also ensure success.

Addiction experts say research indicates that recovery programs for professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and pilots, have far better success rates than other programs.

Structure and Support Help Rehabilitation

"What they've shown is that one of the most effective ways of keeping people sober is if you have somebody's license in your hand," said Dr. Joseph Troncale, a senior physician for the Wernersville, Pa.-based Caron Treatment Centers. "Nurses, doctors, lawyers and pilots tend to actually have better recovery rates than the general population because there's a big stick hanging over their heads."

For professionals whose careers depend on their sobriety, relapsing can mean losing an income, a pension, a home and more, he said. The general population isn't as motivated because the stakes aren't as high.

On average, Troncale said about 90 percent of professionals stay in recovery for a year and remain sober. When you look at the general population, however, the figure drops to 50 percent.

He also said that another reason licensed professionals have more success is because they've been screened in terms of mental health and other factors that can complicate addiction.

"They're really not the same population as the general population in terms of mental health, resources [and] intelligence," he said. "You're not really comparing apples to apples."

But much of the success also comes from the structure and support provided by professional programs.

Alcoholics in these programs are subject to mandatory drug testing, mandatory participation in 12-step programs and ongoing and intensive counseling, Troncale said.

The average person can't afford these kinds of programs but, "ideally, you would like everybody to be able to be in a program that's structured like these professional programs," he said.

Recognizing the success of the program, other pilots who have not participated in the HIMS program emphasize that alcohol use and abuse by pilots is considered a non-issue in the industry.

"I have never once encountered a crew member who, to my knowledge, was intoxicated or even hung over," said Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot and air travel columnist for Salon. "Maybe that sounds like a stock line but it's true."

Driving Addiction Underground Hurts Public Safety

He said the carriers tend to be pro-active about handling substance abuse issues. And the pilots themselves have invested so much money and time in their careers that they don't want to do anything to jeopardize their careers.

Because so much is at stake, most pilots with an alcohol problem self-disclose before getting caught, he said. "If you're a nervous flier, about the last thing you should think about, as you're strapping in, is whether or not the crew members are intoxicated," he said, adding that air travel, overall, has never been safer.

Although the recovery programs have found great success, those who run them emphasize that their effectiveness depends on the airlines' willingness to acknowledge that alcoholism is a problem among pilots, just as it is among the greater population.

"[If] you want to improve aviation safety, mandate the way corporations treat people in recovery," said Dave Fredrickson, an American Airlines pilot and certified addictions counselor, who ran the airline's drug and alcohol recovery program for five years.

Some airlines contend that they don't have a chemical-dependency issue in their companies, he said. But, given that the disease affects about 8 to 10 percent of the people in the country, those statements amount to denial, Fredrickson said.

Other airlines, such as regional airlines, say they don't have the resources to rehabilitate alcoholic pilots, even though airlines with recovery programs have reported cost savings, he said.

Punishing or terminating pilots with an alcohol problem fosters an environment in which pilots will go to great lengths to hide their own use or cover for others with problems.

And, he said, ultimately, a culture of hidden abuse is what compromises public safety.