I-Team: Alcoholic pilots

February 11, 2010 4:20:07 PM PST
From his home in Apex, American Eagle Captain Dana Archibald runs a national program called HIMS - short for Human Intervention Motivation Study.

It's a program that gets alcoholic airline pilots out of the cockpit and gets them sober by sending them to rehab centers and supporting them through recovery.

"We average about 120 or 130 pilots a year that go into the program," Archibald explained. "If they come into the program, and work real hard in the program, their job will be there and they will get their lives back too."

Most recently, Captain Archibald's program has been working with Erwin Washington. He's the United Airlines pilot pulled out of the cockpit at London's Heathrow Airport in November - just before a transatlantic flight.

British authorities say he had a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit for pilots.

ABC11 has learned Washington was drinking the night before the flight, is very remorseful, and is going through the HIMS program which could get him back in the cockpit.

"Typically, a pilot will go through an inpatient treatment center," said Archibald. "He will also be required to do something kind of recovery support program."

If rehab is successful, the FAA will reinstate the pilot's license.

But monitoring and support will go on for years.

"We are never cured," said Archibald.

"Because you are never cured, some people might say it would increase the margin of safety if alcoholic pilots were not allowed to fly," offered ABC11 Investigative Reporter Steve Daniels.

"And I don't agree with that. I see working one day at a time is our greatest strength to the disease," Archibald replied.

Since the 1970s, the HIMS program has helped 4,400 pilots get treatment and return to the cockpit.

Archibald is one of them. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse.

"I was probably at the lowest point in my life," he said. "I had hit rock bottom."

In 1998, Archibald was fired from Business Express Airlines.

"Were you ever in the cockpit when you should not have been?" asked Daniels.

"I was probably hung over," he said. "I can't honestly say that I was in the cockpit inebriated."

Archibald says pilots arrested at the airport generally have not left enough time between the "bottle and the throttle". He doesn't know of any cases of pilots drinking in the cockpit.

But, critics think the system is flawed - saying more needs to be done to catch pilots before they arrive at the airport.

"Is the system working if we are seeing pilots pulled out of the cockpit and arrested?" Daniels asked Archibald.

"I still believe the system is working very well. We're getting volunteers 99 percent of the time," he said. "The one or two that make the media moment - we tend to look at that and that is where the public raises the concern."

"It could also lead to an accident," said Daniels.

"Absolutely, that is, we are very fortunate that has never happened," said Archibald.

During our investigation, ABC11 learned the FAA does random alcohol testing of airline pilots. Last year, it tested about 12,000 pilots and only 11 tested positive. We also discovered pilots are required to send a letter to the FAA if they get an alcohol related citation while driving. Last year 1134 airline and private pilots sent letters.

Archibald says the HIMS program has a 90 percent success rate. That's higher than programs for other professionals - perhaps because their success is so closely tied to their livelihood.

And, he says it makes good business sense for airlines. It's cheaper to send an experienced pilot to treatment than hire and train a new pilot.

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