Alcohol and other chemical dependencies are now recognized as part of a disease process that is far beyond the control of the afflicted individual. This disease affects commercial pilots at no less a rate than the general population - somewhere from 5% to 8% depending on the research cited. The cost of misuse of alcohol alone in the United States has been estimated to exceed $150 billion in 1995.
For professional pilots, the diagnosis of alcoholism poses a career threatening risk that, left untreated, can lead to termination of employment, progressive debilitation and premature death. In addition, under the current FAR's, a pilot diagnosed with alcohol or substance abuse must demonstrate successful treatment and 2 years of abstinence before he/she may return to the cockpit. However, there is a program that allows a commercial pilot to come back to work much sooner with careful monitoring.
In the early 1970s, the HIMS program (Human Intervention Motivation Study) grew out of a grant that created an alliance between the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a federal agency, and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) a labor union, to test a program for dealing with alcoholism among the airline pilot population.
Several factors prompted development of a pilot specific model. The commercial aviation environment is not well suited for a traditional on-the-job supervisory program. It was assumed that a pilot's ability to function effectively was best observed by other pilots, not managers. Since 1974, over 3,000 airline pilots have been successfully rehabilitated and returned to their careers.
The FAA recertification process encompasses identification, evaluation, treatment, aftercare and close monitoring. The protocol used to allow pilots to return to work inside the mandated 2 year waiting/sobriety period, along with an appropriate timetable, is summarized below:
Inpatient treatment at an accredited facility (preferably 21-28 days). Group orientated aftercare - this should be an encounter group of recovering persons that is led by a treatment professional and meets a minimum of twice monthly. Independent psychiatric and psychological evaluation - accomplished no sooner than 30 days from the completion of the inpatient experience. Monthly monitoring meeting with both a supervisory manager (preferably a Chief Pilot) and a peer pilot sponsor. Highly recommended but not an FAA requirement - regular Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. Recommendation for FAA certification from a senior Aviation Medical Examiner, who, in this system functions as an Independent Medical Sponsor, or IMS. An IMS is a senior AME who has attended a HIMS training seminar and is designated by the FAA to "sponsor" a pilot for certification under the provisions of FAR 67.401, Special Issuance.
The process encompasses a tri-parte arrangement that includes active participation from management, the pilot union and the FAA. It is important to note that this arrangement is possible with the participation of only four persons, the pilot in rehabilitation, a management supervisor, a peer pilot monitor and a senior Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). Consequently, adapting this system to the Corporate Aviation working environment has been successful in several cases.
In corporate structures without a functioning medical department or an Aviation Medical Examiner, the FAA has been willing to provide assistance in guiding people unfamiliar with the recertification process in these types of situations. The aerospace medicine physicians of Virtual Flight Surgeons (VFS) (www.aviationmedicine.com) are also available to provide expertise and consultation. These same physicians regularly provide training and consultation for many HIMS participants throughout the aviation industry.
In summary, today there is every reason to be optimistic about a successful return to the cockpit of a pilot treated for alcoholism or substance abuse. The pilot committed to recovery and willing to participate in a structured recovery following the HIMS model will have the opportunity to return to flight duties much earlier than standard FAA medical regulations allow.
Alcohol and Substance Abuse - Hope for the Corporate Pilot
by Dr. Donald Hudson
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