Alcohol and pilots. Not a pretty picture. And we've gotten a lot of publicity recently around this issue: America West pilots, Atlantic Southeast pilot, Mesa. The old myth of the pilot swaggering out to an airplane after partying just isn't real, but there is a problem. Even now, some hang on to the idea that alcoholism is a social disorder or that it's caused by mental immaturity. While it affects at least 10% of the general population, crossing social, economic and racial lines, people still think that a drinker can just put down the bottle if he/she really wants to. It's not that easy. Alcoholism is a disease. Even the AMA finally came out with that fact way back in 1956. "The alcoholic's enzymes, hormones, genes and brain chemistry work together to create his abnormal and unfortunate reaction to alcohol." (Under the Influence, Dr. James R. Milam and Katherine Ketcham, p. 35).
Back in 1972 a brave pilot in recovery spoke to the ALPA Board of Directors. Up to that time, pilots simply were terminated if they had a problem with alcohol. Some airlines insisted that they absolutely had no alcoholic pilots, and if one perchance were found, he would be fired immediately. This brave soul was speaking about the need to keep pilots' jobs after they were in recovery. In 1974 HIMS (Human Intervention and Motivation Study) was funded by a grant to ALPA from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. HIMS training sessions began in March 1975 and, in the beginning, the target airlines were Continental, Frontier and Braniff. And finally in 1976, with approval of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York City, a meeting in AA for pilots only was born. They called it Birds of a Feather.
What is this all about and why is it in our ISA publication? Since we're a bunch of female pilots here, I thought you souls would enjoy this part. For a pilot with an airline, the process of returning to the cockpit after being busted for drinking is a long and arduous one. Perhaps you know of a fellow pilot who's gone through this. She may keep this completely to herself; others, however, may feel no need to hide the fact of their recovery. They finally figure it out: everyone else knew they were drinking too much anyway--although while their drinking's going on, they are sure they've been hiding it well enough and that no one knows. Ah, that's the thinking of the true alcoholic. But someone found out and they were intervened, caught, stuffed into a treatment program and eventually popped out again to face the world without alcohol. Some of us walk into a recovery program under our own steam having had enough of the confusion, pain and deception business which goes along with alcoholism. I'm one of those.
It's been fifteen years since I made the phone call to a friend I knew who was in recovery. My final decision to call wasn't really an 'aha' phenomenon; it was the result of an accumulation of the sorrowful and angry looks my kids would give me, the utter demoralization of realizing I had no power over my actions, and the stomach churning fear that my flying was at risk. I'm sharing this for the ISA pilots, women airline pilots. My purpose is twofold: to get in front of the 90% the fact that alcoholism is out there, it is a disease, and perhaps to open your eyes to the thought of helping someone whose drinking you noticed. And then to the 10%--perhaps to put another brick in their wall to eventually stop them from drinking. I felt that way about my process. Each sorrowful look from the kids, each calm word from a concerned friend--these were bricks in my wall which eventually stopped me, causing me to make the call. I have learned a lot, seen a lot of fellow pilots and fellow humans survive major changes in their family structure, have watched them rejoice in their new lives, and yes, suffer from relapses too--all of it. Kind of like living is--only now it's clearer and sharper since alcohol isn't there to blur the edges and soften the hard knocks. You'd be interested to also know that pilots have the best recovery record of any. With this disease under control in my life, I was able to finish my professional flying career, retiring as a B727 Captain and I now fly a Cub and an Aztec with my husband, a retired Delta Captain.
During this journey, I have found a meeting which has helped me immensely and it's called Birds of a Feather. It's the same batch of pilots who found themselves in the forefront those 26 years ago, gathering together for their own benefit and to extend the hand to another stumbling flyer. Up until 1999, Birds of a Feather had been headed up by male pilots. After all, female airline pilots were few and far between during those early days, and, of course, they didn't drink too much alcohol. Ha! We females share the same percentage of alcoholism among ourselves--approximately 10% of us are destined to be alcoholics. That's just the way it is.
In 1999 Birds of a Feather had, as usual, its yearly international conference. This one was held in Colorado Springs. Since BOAF aspires to the same principals as AA, we do not have a president, a tsar or a dictator; we just have a Secretary, know as "The Big Bird" and an Alternate Secretary/Treasurer to take care of the details of the yearly international convention and the other business which presents itself to any organization. At the 1999 gathering they chose me as the first female to serve in the number two spot of Alternate Secretary/Treasurer and in 2001 to take the job of Big Bird. I teased them upon acceptance there in Dallas, where the convention was held that year, saying "Thank you for the trust you have invested in me. And thank you for recognizing, after only a quarter of a century, that there is also a woman in the cockpit."
To say I have been totally supported in this process by the Birds is to put it much too lightly. The pilots in AA work with each other in ways too numerous to count--from providing transport to meetings, to listening to gripes and problems (real and imagined), to rallying behind another pilot who may be having a particularly tough time with his/her company or family or life itself. Good stuff. Having made the decision to take the step into sobriety--and knowing that decisions are the only things over which we have much control in life--we are fortified and championed by our fallow pilots in recovery.
The organization has "moved" this year to assure the continuation of Birds of a Feather. We have applied to get federal registration for the names we use--Birds of a Feather, BOAF International and The Bird Word, our quarterly publication. We're stepping out, putting notices in publications such as ISA News, ALPA Pilot and the like, about the fact that we exist and we can help. Notices were put in publications in years past, and articles were written, so this is not new ground. We're just reiterating the good news: pilots can recover from alcoholism. Pilots can go back to work after a diagnosis of alcoholism. Companies now support the process, the FAA supports it, and ALPA has been a champion of it since the beginning. We are making known our presence in the hopes that even just one soul, thinking she might drink a bit too much, would make the phone call which would set her on the path to recovery.
We have a website (www.boaf.org) which gives the history in more detail than I have. We have links to other help sites. And we always have our hands out to help in any way for the pilot who needs help. Anonymity is strictly preserved, no question about that. Thanks for the opportunity to write this.
Birds of a Feather
FOR THE WOMAN PILOT
The following article was written by Dotty W., a retired airline pilot, and was published in the Fall 2002 issue of the newsletter of The International Society of Women Airline Pilots. We reprint it here in its entirety.
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