Booze and Pilots: Flight

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to David Courtwright for offering this take on addiction, sobriety, and flying, sparked by the release of the film Flight

Some movie scenes, like Jack Nicholson smashing through the bathroom door in The Shining, enter popular lore from the moment they appear on the screen. Flight has two such scenes: the crash landing of a packed Boeing 727 and, no less harrowing, its alcoholic pilot contemplating a mini-bar. If you don’t like to fly, don’t see this movie.

Flight rips the scab off an old wound: fear of the intoxicated pilot. Back in aviation’s frontier days, drunken fliers mostly menaced themselves and their stunt men. One young wing-walker, Charles Lindbergh, noted the drinking habits of prospective pilots before he agreed to perform with them. When Lindbergh’s own epochal 1927 transatlantic flight, undertaken with water and ham sandwiches, opened new commercial possibilities for aviation, pilots’ sobriety assumed greater importance. Fear of flying was one of two critical problems, the other being cost, that held back the industry. Some airlines advertised that they hired only abstemious pilots, a claim for which the historical record offers scant support.

Nothing like a jammed elevator to harsh your mellow. Denzel Washington plays Captain Whip Whitman, flying high and staying stoned.

Why did early commercial pilots drink? To unwind. To cope with stress. To ward off cold. The most fundamental reason, though, was that they came out of a military subculture where smoking and drinking were accepted, even expected, off-duty pastimes.  Changing uniforms to fly mail and passengers did not mean changing their habits.

Both the airlines and the pilots’ union understood the explosiveness of the issue. They pressured pilots to rein in their drinking. Some pilots developed tricks, like alternate weeks of abstinence, to keep their consumption in bounds. Those who didn’t ran the risk of being fired or, in later years, being quietly referred to the airlines’ in-house employee assistance programs.

Early airline executives also worried about passenger drinking. Drunks did not make for a pleasant flight. Then again, there was money to be made selling gin to a captive audience. Passengers who couldn’t get their cocktails might patronize more accommodating rivals. By the mid-1950s the major U.S. carriers were selling booze on both domestic and international flights. Pan Am turned its new Boeing 707s into flying bars, from which airport thieves and light-fingered aircrew lifted hundreds of thousands of dollars of liquor every year. Casually filched mini-bottles even find their way into Flight’s plot.

Personally, I don’t worry much about pilots’ drinking because I don’t worry much about pilots.  The avionics revolution has turned pilots into monitors of equipment that mostly runs itself. Remember the two pilots who flew past the Minneapolis airport back in 2009? They blamed absorption in their personal laptops. Others suspected a nap. Either way, their Airbus A320 and its 144 passengers kept right on flying.

The pilot’s profession, like aviation generally, has been routinized to maximize safety and minimize cost.  Commercial pilots “fly the numbers,” like it or not. The exception is an emergency situation, which gives them the chance to really earn their keep.  Flight postulates that a good ol’ flyboy with a .24 blood-alcohol level and a line of coke up his nose is better able to handle a mechanical crisis than a youthful co-pilot long on sobriety but short on experience.  That may work, however shakily, as a dramatic premise. But if I ever find myself in an inverted 727, I’ll be praying for a veteran in the cockpit who has a clear head to go with his right stuff. “In my profession,” Lindbergh wrote, “life itself depends on accuracy.” In mercifully rare situations, that is still very much the case.

Meanwhile pilot sobriety has joined other sensitive but mostly invisible issues, like euthanasia, on the back burner of our collective consciousness. There it simmers until a sensational episode, such as the arrest of a drunken pilot at Heathrow Airport, turns up the heat. The story makes the evening newscasts and inspires cheeky headlines, like the The Sun’s classic “Thish Ish Your Pilot Shpeaking.” We laugh a little nervously and turn the page.

Nobody laughed during Flight, though. Director Robert Zemeckis set out to make a film about addiction, not airline safety. But the inevitable effect of putting 31 million dollars and Denzel Washington in his hands was to elevate the pilot-sobriety story above the crawl strips. You can bet that, for all its commercial success and critical acclaim, Flight will join United 93 as one of the movies the airlines will be least likely to schedule in-flight.

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