BOAF HISTORY PART 1
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
1975 -- 2021
In November 1972 Ward B spoke at the ALPA Board of Directors meeting about the need to keep pilots' jobs after they are in recovery. Aeromedical Advisor Dr. Richard L. Masters addressed in closed door session the need for establishing a health program to address the disease of alcoholism. In May 1974 the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism approved a grant to ALPA to fund a project known as Human Intervention and Motivation Study, HIMS for short, offering assistance to pilots who needed help as a result of excessive drinking. The first target airlines were Continental, Frontier and Braniff, chosen for their comparable size and diversity of medical programs. A liaison was established with the FAA to develop return to work procedures after diagnosis and successful treatment. The first of HIMS training sessions began in March 1975, originally planned as a 5-year study of the three airlines. In actuality the program lasted 8 years and eventually had 23 airline participants.
Coincidentally, in the Spring of 1975 after an airline pilot and an astronaut went public with their alcohol problems and subsequent treatment, Mike M, an airline dispatcher, sought treatment for people from his airline who suffered from alcoholism. Early that summer Mike went to Larry H., then director of the Alcohol Center at Puget Sound Hospital in Tacoma. Later that summer those two men met with Ward B to discuss the need for an AA meeting for airmen only. Later Rudy D was included, and he vigorously approved the notion since his airline had announced they had no alcoholic pilots and would fire him if they found one. Al J joined the other four and the first meeting was held on December 5 of that year. Ward let the FAA know he was a recovering alcoholic, and their response was that it was self-diagnosis, so they had nothing to do with it.
These Birds pioneers had quite a battle ahead of them because at that time FAA regulations declared that alcoholism was grounds for mandatory denial of an airline pilot's medical certificate. The airlines, ALPA and the Military Services had only developed a perfunctory awareness of the problems of alcoholism and of the importance of AA in helping recovery. Also, their early meetings were criticized by other AA groups, accusing the Birds of violating the 3rd tradition by apparent discrimination against non-flight individuals. Al J contacted the General Service Board in February of 1976, and they responded that "many special interest groups do meet together, and one of the ways this has been solved is by referring to it as a "meeting" rather than as a "group".
By February 1976 when the San Francisco nest was born, these guys weren't sitting on their hands - Birds were writing letters and making contacts and doing everything they could not only to carry the message to other alcoholics, but get the aviation world aware that lives could be saved. Not only that, to add a little honey to the pot, they assured the airlines they'd save lots of money by not firing the alcoholic pilots, but getting help for them. They were in full force at the HIMS seminars, pushing their points with the FAA, airline executives, medical people, union officials, anyone who would listen. They got a great deal of help from Dr. Joe Pursch, now an honorary Bird, and Dr. Bart Pakull, chief psychiatrist of the FAA was listening to them. It seemed the FAA was beginning to change its position. By September of that year United's MEC, Medical, and Flight Operations offices issued a joint statement establishing an Employee Assistance Program designed to assist pilot employees with difficulties that may ensue from alcohol dependency. It was a landmark and United was first, soon followed by the other carriers.
In May Chuck G, an early Bird who then had 12 years of sobriety, appeared as one of a 53-member panel of recovering alcoholic professionals on behalf of the National Council on Alcoholism in Washington, On November 10 the FAA issued their exemption letter based on the United/ALPA agreement. In December of that year, as Seattle Birds celebrated their first birthday, there were nests there, in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. Also in December Chuck G volunteered as the first exemption test case to Dr Pursch, Dr. Homer Reighard, Federal Air Surgeon, and Dr Frank Schwartz of United Airlines. The good doctors figured they could get it together in 30 days with all this recovery talk going on, but because of Carter's inauguration it took 33. January 15,1977 Chuck got his exemption.
That same month Pan Am, with gentle prodding from Ward B, issued a supplement to their Flight Ops Magazine titled "The Alcoholic - You Can Help." Also in January, Mike M. edited the first mimeographed issue of "Birds Eye View," a newsletter for the rapidly growing nest population. He announced there were now 6 nests in the US, plus unofficial nests in Germany, Barbados, and some Ag pilots in Saudi Arabia. At the Seattle Birds second birthday party in December of 1977, the principal speaker was Dr. H.L. Reighard, the Federal Air Surgeon. It was great progress in a short time to have a speaker of his federal authority, discussing the disease and exemption process before a group of recovering alcoholic pilots. At San Francisco's 2nd party the following February Doctors Pursch and Pakull were the principal speakers. In December of that year (1978) the first National Birds meeting was held to serve as a central body, coordinate communication, and assist new nest formations. John R. was elected secretary. For some time John had been bidding Washington schedules out of San Francisco so he could do some not-always-so-gentle prodding of FAA officialdom.
In October of 1979 Al J and Ward B explained the BOAF program at the Drug & Alcohol Abuse Committee meeting at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma. The McChord newspaper did a story on the presentation and listed Al and Ward as contacts. Subsequently the Commanding Officer issued a pamphlet called "Bottle to Throttle" to all pilots, navigators and flight surgeons - the pamphlet had been given to him, of course, by our own Ward and Al, and included their phone numbers again. Chuck G became the 2nd Big Bird of National BOAF in December.
The following April 1980 the Air Force Surgeon General authorized major commands to okay the return of rehabilitated problem drinkers to flying status. The Birds were forging ahead full throttle. In May there were nine nests. December of 1980 marked the first International meeting in Renton, WA. Al J was elected secretary and served for two years.
April 3, 1981, Cindy Rucker, one of the first female commercial airline pilots, put out the first issue of the "Bird Word," a publication to be sent out to the Birds four times a year, to replace the random issues of "Birds Eye View." The mascot was Orville C. Gull, a bird seeking to stay sober through the fellowship of AA. Sadly the second issue was edited by Pat W. and carried Cindy's obituary. She was tragically killed when she crashed during an air show performance, but her legacy still lives on in her lasting memorial, The Bird Word. Buzz A spoke at her service and messages were received from Mrs. Betty F. and Dr. Reighard, Federal Air Surgeon. By December of 1981 there were 14 nests, including Vancouver, officially making Birds International, with a membership of 335.
It was decided to move the annual meeting to May and Dean T. was elected to follow Al in 1982. Federal funds for the HIMS seminars were withdrawn during that year - some of the Birds tried to keep it going on their own, but the task was too formidable.
Up to now there had been annual meetings of Birds of a Feather usually held in conjunction with the Pearl Harbor (December 7) group in Washington DC. At the official BOAF convention in Atlanta in May of 1983 the Vancouver Birds announced that the Canadian Department of Transportation had accepted BOAF as a more than viable organization, just as the FAA had done in the United States. Grant B became the editor of the Bird Word, now publishing 500 copies at a clip.
Here we are in San Diego again, as we were in April of 1984, where a great time was had by all. In 1985 we convened in Chicago, and shortly thereafter Birds were well represented at the 50th AA birthday party in Montreal. Ron D, secretary at that time, explained Birds of a Feather to 1500 people at the Airline Coordinators meeting along with Dr. Bart Pakull who shared insights on prevailing FAA involvement in recognition, treatment and control of alcoholism within the airline industry. He reported a 90% success rate in first time exemptions and special issuances since 1979.
At the 1986 convention in Washington Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Frank Austin reported that 700 pilots had been recertified. Linn J took over as Editor of the Bird Word, now done with a word processor and lookin' good! A Southern California consortium of nests put on the 1987 convention in Orange County, and 1988 found us with our first International Nest in Vancouver BC, where Bill P. was elected Big Bird. Mike M, one of the original Birds, passed away in August of that year.
1989 found us in Miami where we learned that over 1000 commercial pilots had returned to work, a monumental achievement and very different from previous automatic dismissal not too many years earlier. In that year an editorial appeared in Western Flyer, a widely distributed and respected newspaper aimed primarily at general aviation. The author heaped praise on the past and continuing efforts of Birds of a Feather to help their fellow alcoholic airmen back to productive lives. He concluded the editorial with telephone contact numbers for 25 nests in the United States, Canada, Germany and Iceland.
In 1990 the Birds convention was held in Las Vegas, where we were honored with a private performance by the Air Force Thunderbirds. A couple of months later Birds hosted a hospitality suite at the Big 55th AA Birthday Bash in Seattle. That year more than 600 issues of the Bird Word were being published, with Frank G. as the newest editor.
The BOAF lapel buttons got in motion at the 1991 convention in Atlanta. Sadly, Al J, one of the original Birds, passed away in March of that year. It was Al who had acted as the Birds liaison with the General Service Office in New York. He and Ward B. made quite a team in the early years, blazing the trail for recovering pilots in whatever ways seemed appropriate, sometimes with a gentle nudge, but more often than not, with in-your-face behavior!
The theme of the 1992 convention in Portland was "Amazing Grace" - their hostess was a mannequin named Grace who appeared in various costumes at every event, and the appropriate response to any comment about her was "That Grace - she's amazing! Fritz G. was installed as Big Bird, and many of us bought the new BOAF lapel pins, a circle and triangle with a seagull in flight at the center, originated by Mac M. (SAN) in 1980-81. When the convention closed with all of us singing "Amazing Grace" together, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. By now, nests were sponsoring personal messages in professional publications offering contact numbers for pilots who might need or want help.
Our Higher Powers cooled the weather off only during the days of our convention of warmth and fellowship in Palm Springs, 1993. We were issued a rare invitation to tour and have lunch at the Betty Ford Center there. Jack B. was the new Editor of the Bird Word which had graduated from word processor to professional looking computer printing and now listed 56 nests or contact points. During this time (1992-1996) HIMS II financed by the Air Line Pilots Association focused on alcoholism at the level of regional Airlines.
The Portsmouth New Hampshire convention in 1994 had us buying golf hats with the lapel pin logo, and there began the planning that leads us to today. The Bird Word came onto the information super-highway, so that any member with a modem could e-mail notices, letters, or articles. In the fall Betsy D. started coordinating Birds on the Internet, and a new nest was born. As of this writing the NetNest, as it's called, has 38 extraordinarily active members, sharing experience, strength and hope on a daily basis worldwide. That makes 65 nests or contact points to date, and the beat goes on.
Sadly, during 1994, we mourned the loss of John R. who played a significant role in the recertification process. We also lost Ward B., co-founder and prime mover in the recognition by officialdom that recovering pilots could, in fact, be restored to lives of productivity. When asked how he wanted to be remembered Ward responded, "As an airman and co-founder of Birds of a Feather." Now in the 20th year of our existence, we are convinced to a man that Ward, Al J., John R. and all the other Birds who have Flown West are sitting with Dr. Bob and Bill W. where they can watch the growth, the fellowship, and the recovery in Birds of a Feather - and they smile.
Glen B. accepted the Big Bird's hat at our annual convention in 1995 with Mac M. heading the SAN nest. The gathering coincided with the International Convention celebrating the 60th birthday of AA, Birds of a Feather was listed in the official program guide showing the scheduled workshop where several of our members explained our purpose. We've come a long way!
Richey G., SFO
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