by Steve H.
From Corporate Pilot to cab driver to Chief Pilot. A success story.
Four years ago I found myself lying on my back staring up at the knots in an open beam ceiling. They were the same knots I’d stared up at many years before as a young kid, except this time they were moving - not spinning (I’d long ago learned to handle that) - they were changing, undulating, becoming other things. I closed my eyes tightly, took another shallow breath, and looked again. Still moving.
The second and third days of alcohol withdrawal were the worst. It was October 2003. I’d had my last drink a couple of days earlier, and I was alone in the childhood home I grew up in and left as a teenager.
I left because I’d been hired for my first “real” flying job other than flight instructing. I was moving north with my girlfriend to fly piston-singles and twins full of bank checks around California and Oregon. I loved this job. It was 1979, I was now 20 years old, and I was getting paid to fly. It didn’t get any better than that. Flying had changed my life, and I was good at it. When I was 22 I took my ATP check-ride. The FAA gave me a letter saying that I had met all of the requirements for the certificate, and that it would be issued to me on my 23rd birthday. Life was good.
By this time I had applied to every airline in the country and a few outside of the country, as well as many corporate operators. No one was hiring, at least not without a degree (I had left college to take the cargo job). Then one day I got the call. A small company was buying a new Learjet, and they needed another pilot. Mine was the only resume in their files, so they typed me in the airplane, and we started flying trips. I was in heaven. A few months later just after my 23rd birthday, I got my ATP in the mail.
After a couple of years I became a Captain for a large commercial Learjet operator. Mostly we flew movie stars and entertainment industry people around, which was pretty cool stuff for a 25-year-old pilot. We regularly spent days in Aspen, Sun Valley, Vail, Cabo, Vegas, Puerto Vallarta, Santa Fe, and New York. Passengers would invite us to their parties, their resorts, and their restaurants. When we weren’t flying, we were drinking. When people found out who we were flying, they wanted to buy us more drinks. They’d take us snowmobiling, or mountain biking, or sailing, and everything involved plenty of alcohol. The other pilots would usually run out of steam around 3AM, and head back to the hotel. For me, voluntarily sleeping wasn’t part of the equation.
After about 8 years of this, my life began to come apart. It was difficult getting to work on time. When I’d get back from a trip I wouldn’t go home - I’d go out drinking. I was miserable and depressed, and the only thing that seemed to relieve that pain was more alcohol. Life had become an endless routine of drinking, sobering, flying, and drinking. The job was simply transportation to the next few days of drinking. Gradually, I started calling in sick when it looked like I couldn’t meet the 10-hour rule, or I just didn’t feel like flying. My friends were fading away, my employer was getting tired of my unreliability, and after years of putting up with the hell of living with an alcoholic, my girlfriend was in the process of starting a new life for herself separate from mine.
Finally, after I didn’t come home for several days following a trip, and after my employer fired me in absentia for not being available, my girlfriend called our family doctor, who also happened to be my AME. He told her to have me call him when, or if I ever came home.
A few days later I went to see him. He asked if I thought I was an alcoholic. Wanting desperately to minimize my problem and downplay the seriousness of what was coming next, I simply said, “I don’t know. How about we talk about it over a drink?” Not finding my reply humorous in the least, he went on to describe the program, and ended with the ominous words, “You will do this, or you will never fly again.” I was both angry and scared.
A couple of days later I checked into a treatment center in Tucson. Thirty days after that I came out feeling pretty good, but deep down I was still angry. I resented their power over me. I resented their threats to tell my AME if I didn’t comply with their seemingly unreasonable demands. I resented my career being held over my head. I resented the things they made me do and say. I resented everything. But, I was determined to “jump through the hoops” anyway. So, after the treatment center I went to aftercare, did the meetings and did the psych evals. I did everything I was asked to do. I just didn’t believe it.
Still angry after a couple of months, I eventually alienated my FAA psychiatrist. A few months later, my girlfriend had enough, and left. I was devastated. It took more than a year to get my Special Issuance. I went back to work for the same company (I guess my doc told them that I was to be un-fired). And, much to the dismay of some pilots who felt my return only slowed their upgrades, and to the displeasure of management who now had to monitor me, I started flying trips again. This was an uncomfortable time. There were no more wild Aspen trips, no more inebriated sunburns in Cabo, and no more sucking on the oxygen masks all the way home. In short, it just didn’t seem all that fun anymore. After eight months of what can only be described as controlled, dry, discomfort, I got myself fired, again.
There was no going back this time. My Special Issuance was tied to the company, and they didn’t want me back. I no longer had a medical, and I was convinced there was little chance of getting it reissued. It really didn’t matter anymore anyway, and now there was no reason not to drink. If it wasn’t for the fact that my new girlfriend was expecting the birth of our daughter in the next several months, I probably would have immediately started drinking heavily, but I started out slow.
I kept it together enough to get a cab-driving job, and that barely paid part of the bills. Six months after my daughter was born, we moved to another city, and I started thinking about flying again. It was 1993. I found an outpatient program, and eventually the local BOAF group. After a few months of doing okay I submitted my “program” to the FAA in an attempt to regain my medical. They denied it. They said that unless I was working for an airline or other commercial operator I couldn’t get my 1st Class Medical back. I was screwed, and I knew it. I couldn’t get a medical without a job, and I couldn’t get a job without a medical. At that point I knew I would probably never fly again.
Things went downhill from there. I started drinking, again. We finally got married, but it lasted less than a year, ending with a nasty separation and eventual divorce. I did odd jobs - more taxi driving, auto maintenance, delivery driving, waiting tables, restaurant managing, and finally bartending (that one sped things up pretty quickly). I’d eventually get fired, and move on to the next job. I often couldn’t pay my rent, got evicted from several places, and moved five or six times in as many years. The only time I was sober was when my daughter was with me on the weekends. This went on for years.
Finally, in 2003 I simply gave up going to work. I was on unemployment, had no money, and was about to be evicted again. A few days later, after fending off the landlord, I found out that my father had suffered a heart attack, and was in a hospital in Southern California. I had just finished the agony of detoxing on my own, again, and I flew down to take care of him. A month and half later, he died in the hospital. This was the longest I had been sober in several years, and it ended quickly.
The next few weeks were a hellish blur. Then I found myself staring up at that open beamed ceiling. I knew I needed water, but I kept falling down when I’d try to walk. I had full-on DT’s. I was in serious alcohol withdrawal, and was in and out of delirium. After slamming my face into the floor a second time, I began crawling to the sink, and slowly began re-hydrating. I felt I was close to dying. I could feel my breathing stop, and it seemed I had to consciously choose to take another breath. I was hearing and seeing things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
In that moment I finally realized that I wanted to live. There were more things I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to experience more of the world. I wanted to feel those experiences. I wanted to be there for my daughter. I wanted to watch her grow up. And, I knew that if I didn’t stop drinking, I was going to die, that is, if I didn’t die in the next few hours. Amazingly, it wasn’t until that moment that I knew I could never drink again; that for me alcohol equaled incredible pain and suffering. It was in that moment that the world changed. Two days later my brother in law, who soon became my best friend, walked in the door and asked if I wanted help. I said yes.
I found a house to rent near my sister and family, and with their help over the next couple of years I devoted myself to rebuilding my life. I reconnected with my daughter, then 11, and she started flying down to California to spend vacations and summers with me. I built an amicable relationship with my ex-wife, and we soon began to equally share decision-making regarding my daughter. I paid off old debts, starting fixing my destroyed credit, and invested time and money into remodeling and selling my father’s home, which gave me financial breathing room.
I began to experience that familiar sense of self-confidence and self-esteem that had all but disappeared years before. I worked with a therapist, and started to allow myself to experience emotions that I’d been numbing with alcohol for years. The difference was that now I was sober, not just abstaining. I was doing this for me, not someone else, and not for a career. I was no longer “jumping through hoops.” This was real work. It took daily, sometimes hourly attention and determination. I had to continually remind myself of the pain (this seems to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to sobriety) but it gradually became easier, and I quickly settled into a life different than I had ever known. In the past I had quit drinking several times, but sobriety was a concept I couldn’t comprehend. At that time, life not related to alcohol was unimaginable. Then, after about six months of being sober I realized that I missed flying.
I talked with my AME, and began to tackle the problem of getting my First Class Medical back. I knew this was going to take years, if I could do it at all. I also knew that there was little or no precedent for getting a Special Issuance outside of the airline sponsored H.I.M.S. program, or through a commercial operator’s EAP. After the first FAA denial, I started putting together a program of treatment and monitoring that involved multiple layers of verification. Eventually, I had what I felt exceeded the FAA sanctioned airline program. I went down to see Joe Pursch for a psych evaluation, and we talked many times over the next few months. With his help and recommendation, with my AME as an advocate willing to act as my Medical Sponsor, as well as with multiple iterations, suggestions, and denials from FAA, I finally came up with a plan that everyone felt would work.
In addition to several ongoing independent monitoring reports, regular evaluations, and random monthly testing, part of that plan involved BOAF. I called Beth C. of the PDX nest, and she agreed to contact the local members to see if everyone could get together for regular meetings again. Of course, being who they are, they all said yes, and we began to meet weekly. That was the missing piece. With their years of experience, their acceptance of my previous disinterest in AA, their hope, honesty, and shared strength, BOAF became an integral part of my program.
During this process I became increasingly interested in helping others to recover before they got to the point I did. I went back to school. I began work toward an Alcohol and Drug Counselor Certificate. I began to volunteer as a Crisis Intervention Counselor on alcohol and drug hotlines and national Lifelines, and I was eventually asked to serve on their advisory board.
My relationship with my daughter continued to grow, and she was now spending at least half of her time with me. I had moved back up north, bought a house, and we worked on the remodel together, giving her a home she could count on staying in. I finally began to understand and love parenthood.
With three years of sobriety, a solid program, and the support of many friends and professionals willing to put their asses on the line for me, in December of 2006 I received a rare Special Issuance First Class Medical from the FAA, while not employed by an airline or commercial operator. I immediately started working on aircraft re-currency. After a few hours of flying, I did my BFR, my Instrument Proficiency check, got current in several aircraft, and put together a resume.
I was pretty nervous about cold-calling companies after all this time, so I contacted my old employer to see if I could get part-time flying work. No luck. Finally, I dusted off my old approach of sneaking over fences and going in back doors to get face to face with Chief Pilots - a much different task at age 48, in the post 9/11 security world. After some consideration (I actually didn't climb over fences this time for fear of being arrested or shot) I used the tried-and-true method of waiting outside of gates, and then just driving in when they opened for someone else. Anyway, I caught the first Chief Pilot on his way out for a flight. He looked over the resume while I waited for the inevitable, "Uh, what's up with the missing 15 years?" Knowing that the only way to approach this was directly and honestly, I briefly explained everything. He paused, looked at me closely for a moment, went back to the resume, and said, "Okay, sounds good, let's move on." I got the same response from almost everyone I talked to. Within a week I accepted a job offer for a Learjet Captain’s position. I went through re-currency training, and started flying trips. I was nervous, scared, worried, elated, confident, and proud - all those feelings I didn’t used to like, and couldn’t stand to experience, but which are now just a normal part of a grateful life.
Recently I became Chief Pilot. Sobriety is a wonderful thing.
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