50,000 airline flights a day in the United States
59,000 pilots in North America
300 air traffic facilities

When most of us think of a DUI (driving under the influence) we equate the term to being caught under the influence of drugs or alcohol while driving a motor vehicle on land or a boat in the water. But what many people do not realize is that DUI can also happen with pilots… in the air. And like other jobs, safety and health guidelines are foundational tools that keep employees, contractors, business owners, and the public out of harm’s way. According to the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) the amount of drugs present in pilots is equally proportionate to the rest of the U.S. population. With the increase in opioid use and recreational marijuana, the thought of “flying the friendly skies” with this knowledge is somewhat unnerving.

According to Federal Aviation Administration data, the number of pilots who tested positive in tests screening for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, phencyclidine (PCP), and amphetamines has been steadily increasing over the years.Here are the numbers provided of positive test numbers for the latest six years available:
2010: 23 verified positive drug tests
2011: 28 verified positive drug tests
2012: 25 verified positive drug tests
2013: 24 verified positive drug tests
2014: 27 verified positive drug tests
2015: 38 verified positive drug tests

As you can see, there was approximately a 30% increase in pilots testing positive for drugs from 2010 to 2015. And though it is possible these higher numbers are proportionate with an increase in number of pilots on the job, it still indicates an ongoing problem.

Matters of safety and health are elevated (no pun intended) when it comes to careers in aviation. As a commercial pilot, private pilot or air traffic controller, public safety is a top priority every moment on the clock. Add the physical and mental impairment that comes from alcohol or drug use and the dangers rise to a new level. Although the Federal Aviation Administration “FAA” is strict with pilots, issuing formal warnings to those not following air traffic control directives or operating the airplane in a reckless manner, drug and alcohol use aren’t deterred.

Why Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers Are at Greater Risk for Addiction

the view of the pilotMany jobs come with required training and associated certifications. The aviation industry is overwrought with regulations that are meant to serve the public interest. And because many pilots and air traffic controllers are essentially in the public eye, their ability to execute their job flawlessly is tenfold. One false move could cost them their job, their career, and the wellbeing of others – in an instant. That’s a lot of stress. There is evidence that shows the longer a person has been flying as a pilot, the higher the rate of alcohol or drug use. But there are many reasons why the aviation industry has increased concerns for its members and the incidence of drug and alcohol addiction.

The guidelines pilots must adhere to are more stringent than other professions. The FAA requires that pilots get both a medical certification and an airmen certification. Once they acquire them and begin to work as commercial pilots, for example, they are subject to random drug testing. Some take their chances before take-off and drink alcohol, or take in other substances to help ease the stress or offset the boredom of a long flight. Although in many states’ the legal limit of blood alcohol while driving is .08, for pilots on the job, it is .04 which is why it doesn’t take much to have too much in your system.

Reasons for Drinking and Drug Use in Pilots

There’s something to be said about stability, and I’m not referring to the lack of turbulence. A pilot’s life can be exciting, getting to travel to far away places, explore the far corners of the earth, and get paid while doing it!. But because pilots are often away from home, they may have to go weeks or even months without seeing their friends and family for extended periods of time. As you can guess, this can be an extremely isolating and lonely lifestyle. Depending on the type of job in the skies, extended flight time can also hamper health as regular sleep patterns are essential to wellness.

To compensate, pilots may use stimulants to help them stay awake. Alternatively, when it’s time to sleep, they may be driven to depressants like alcohol or prescription pain pills or sleeping pills to calm down, relax and sleep. The cycle can be never-ending, and the problem may continue to escalate as the pilot builds a tolerance to the depressant.

Why Air Traffic Controllers Use Alcohol or Other Drugs While at Work

There is never a dull moment as an air traffic controller. There are 87,000 flights that cross the United States each day. Managing and monitoring the skies can be an intense undertaking, requiring exceptional focusing skills and foresight, in case of emergency. But understaffing industry-wide and overworking air traffic controllers sets up contentious conditions, spurring a fight-or-flight response just waiting to happen. The stress can lead some to substance use, such as Adderall, to meet the demands of the job.

Drug Use Amongst Pilots Has an Unfortunate End Game

A lengthy study was conducted by the NTSB monitoring the drug use (legal and illicit use) of pilots between 1990-2012. There were 6,677 participants – all deceased. After viewing the records of pilots that were killed due to “general aviation” incidents, researchers found that antidepressants were evident in 5.3 percent of the pilots from 2008-2012, indicating the possible presence of depressive disorders. Illicit drugs tested positive in 3.8 percent of the participants, with marijuana the most common of all.

Antihistamines were detected in 9.9 percent of pilots in the same years. Though that finding may sound overzealous, antihistamines (used for colds and allergies) can bring about drowsiness. And like motor vehicles on land, the leading cause of accidental injury is from falling asleep at the wheel.

The leading cause for airline accidents is what’s referred to as the human factor. With the use of drugs before or during a flight, the human factor is magnified as the brain’s ability to provide sound reasoning and quick decisions is altered, delayed or completely compromised. If you are a passenger under a pilot’s care, and that’s exactly what it is every time you board an aircraft, sharp cognitive abilities are essential to doing the job well during unexpected, adverse situations.

Pilots Do Have Support and a Plan for Recourse and Recovery

Once a pilot has been caught for flying under the influence, treatment is mandatory including at least one year in a recovery program. Pilots lose their flying privileges and for some, that’s permanent. For others, there’s a long road ahead to recoup the career that is temporarily lost.

Pilots who have gone through the recovery program successfully can re-enter aviation by working through the certification process from the beginning as if they were doing it for the first time. After the application is completed and a private certification is in hand, the process continues as an instrument rating is needed, and more.

If you are a pilot or air traffic controller and think you may have an issue with drugs or alcohol, don’t let an accident be the reason to seek treatment. Get the help you need now.

Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2009. Call 602-346-9142.