From General Aviation to the left seat of a 747. This recovering pilot has seen it all.
I grew up in a Mom and Pop FBO environment in the 60’s and 70’s watching ,listening, learning and doing anything having to do with general aviation in the upper Midwest. I also learned from Dad that drinking and flying do not mix unless the airplanes are put away and we were done for the day. I soloed a few days after my 16th birthday in 1972 and by that time I was well versed in alcohol consumption, pot smoking and any other mood altering drug that came my way, but never mixing it with airplanes. Those days I would read and study everything I could about aviation to take all the written tests to earn the ratings and licenses. The licenses and ratings came and so did the end of high school. College held little interest but partying did, so I enrolled in a Community College offering an aviation maintenance program. After having years of OJT at the FBO and rebuilding my own J-3 the school held no challenges and left plenty of time to party, flight instruct, wrench, fly some charter and chase girls. I seemed to excel at them all.
By 1980 I left the family FBO and went to work for a commuter airline flying a Navaho Chieftain building valuable multi and instrument time. Soon came the Embraer “Bandits” and turbine time. Long hours, low level IFR and hand flying had my instrument skills honed. My drinking skills were also honed and pushing 8 hrs “bottle to throttle” was a regular occurrence. I soon tired of the “pilot pushing” and felt I had no chance at a major carrier since I did not have a 4 yr degree, so I took a corporate job for a small company as the chief and only pilot/mechanic flying maybe 200 hrs a year.
I made a geographic change accepting a co-pilot/mechanic job flying a Falcon 10 for a large company 2 hrs drive away. Within 4 months the captain seat was mine and I was now a real jet jock! Drugs were pretty much a thing of the past but the drinking continued. A few years earlier I felt privileged to be accepted as a member of “Ye Ancient and Secret Order of Quiet Birdmen”, an old organization with no dues or fees, a social gathering of male pilots, most of these guys drink like gentlemen and I was sure I could too.
1988 found me with a live in girlfriend and we had a rocky relationship. She took my inventory and accused me of being an alcoholic! I had a good job, went to work regularly, rarely was I sick, me an alcoholic? No way! She soon became pregnant and I wanted to do “the right thing” and get married. She said only if I attended an outpatient program. I explained the predicament that would put me in considering my medical. I finally agreed and did it on the sly paying cash and I told my employer it was pre-marriage counseling. I soon learned to drink on the road and never made it more than a couple weeks during treatment without alcohol. I manipulated the new wife into thinking I was in control again and could take it or leave it! Our baby daughter was born December 3rd 1988. I was responsible now and I was going to show her.
By that next year all my old flying buddies said many of the majors were hiring. TWA and United were sent resumes’ and applications came. Women and minorities were filling seniority lists at a rapid pace and my friends told me to use my minority status of being half Asian in my favor. My false pride or lack of pride being Asian prevented me from putting it on the application. They could hire me on my credentials or screw them! I went through both airline’s interview process and was hired by TWA. I was off to STL for indoc and JFK as a newly minted 747 flight engineer. I was now a real airline pilot and could drink with the best of them. I learned to jumpseat in a “wetsuit” as it was called when you had first class and a sport coat to cover the uniform and drink like a gentleman. The crews clued me in to where the “office” was on layovers to enjoy cheap drinks, especially for a B scaler.
My wife was pregnant again and our son was born at 7:47pm as I was jumpseating on the first leg in a 747 during a blizzard in the midwest on December 28,1990. I called crew sked from STL and they let me know I had a healthy baby boy!
January 21st 1991, at home on my birthday and with the Gulf War in full swing, I learned TWA furloughed another 100 plus pilots and I was 60 from the bottom. The company notified me 4 days later claiming an act of war allowed them to furlough without notice. Pour, pour me another one. I went to Evergreen on a 6 month contract supporting the war, then some local corporate flying and was finally recalled and soon furloughed again! This time a furlough bypass fit the bill as I had another corporate job at home and then the opportunity to start a flight department for a computer company. I resigned my TWA seniority.
Drinking continued and some bad blood with the CEO’s wife after almost 4 years and my arrogant attitude found me looking again for a job. My wife filed for divorce, pour me another. Ryan was my next employer and while training at NATCO on the 727, I met up with some Atlas guys in the cafeteria. I was soon back to NATCO, training on the 747 for Atlas as a new FO. Upgrades were rapid and about a year later came the captain’s seat. There was not a hat big enough to fit my head! I had learned now to drink all over the globe.
I met my 2nd wife in the local bar by the airport and her place of employment. Something was real special about this one and I was truly in love this time. She was pretty, smart, responsible. She was also divorced with no kids except previous foster children and my kids loved her. We were married Valentines day 1996. She spent more quality time with my kids while I drank mostly at home since I felt I deserved to be able to do what I wanted since I needed to sync myself up from globetrotting. I had every excuse. When we did go out I would convince her we needed to stop at the local bar for a couple. When she was ready to go after a drink or two I was not, many times she would leave and I would stay until closing and either drive or walk the few blocks home. She was devoted to my children and her work and we began to drift apart emotionally.
New Years Y2K found me in Santiago, Chile and another good reason to party, I remember very little about it except that something must have been wrong with my FO when he told me he didn’t drink.
One July night on a layover I was drinking heavily as usual and decided to take the inventory of one of our schedulers. I laid into this unsuspecting soul in a drunken stupor. Next day was an all expense paid trip to ANC for a carpet dance in front of the Chief Pilot and a recorded playback of my antics. ALPA was just negotiating our first contract but there was no LOA for a HIMS program yet and I was in total denial in any case, even as my union rep Tom C. asked me if I wanted some help (I didn’t know at the time but Tom was in the program). The decision was made, resignation or termination. I chose resignation. I was a whale captain feeling lower than whale sh*t on the ocean bottom. I lied to my wife and told her I quit to spend more time at home. I then found a job flying in the Fractional industry.
2005 was my first and God willing last DUI arrest. Long story short, I bonded out, made my flight the next day and hired a lawyer. I notified the FAA knowing I had 60 days and they would see my driver’s license revoked. I was found not guilty by a jury and the help of a good lawyer. I was running the show again!
February 2006 found me at home while I declined to go with my wife to some event she wanted to attend. A couple drinking buddies were at the house and we finished a half gallon of Jack Daniels and I started drinking the beer I had left while the other two were passed out. I called my wife wondering where she was, she knew I was drunk and hung up on me. I called several times more with no answer working myself up into a rage. She came home finally and from what I vaguely remember, I was screaming, swearing and finally pushing her around. I thought she was having some kind of affair. My one buddy woke up to the commotion; he tried to get me to stop. I threatened my wife that I would shoot myself if she didn’t tell me the truth and got the gun out and shot it through the ceiling! My senses started to come back and I knew this was dangerous and put the gun away. My wife was terrified and crying, she said she felt like calling 911, I told her I would call them! I did! I was cuffed, hauled off and charged with domestic abuse and careless and reckless with a firearm (they found a shell casing).
Fear, bewilderment, frustration and despair were my only friends. Pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization was a perfect summation of my feelings. I would lay in bed sleepless, worrying about what was to come. February 14th Valentines Day, our 10th anniversary and the depression deepened, my head was racing, how could I have done such a thing to my wonderful wife, how stupid could I be? February 18th found me out to the bar with my brother and his friends and the fun of drinking was not there anymore. I lied awake that night crying like a baby thinking of my predicament and what would come, losing my wife, the house, my job, my kids, and my career. The four hideous horsemen appeared again and all I could do was pray, “God, please help me!” I surrendered. Sleep finally came.
The next day my desire to drink left me. I wrote an email and I copied my relatives including my in-laws and ex wife admitting that “I’m an alcoholic” asking not for pity but finally taking responsibility for my actions. I was going to find help. I knew my wife would also see the email. I got myself into this mess but I knew I needed help to get out. I called a retired pilot friend in the program and told him my story and asked if he would take me to an AA meeting when I got home and he quickly said yes and you don’t have to do this alone.
The miracles were now starting to come. I told my wife I was really going to change for me regardless of what would happen with us. As soon as I got home my friend gave me a Big Book and took me to my first meeting. I devoured that book. I went to work and found online meetings in my hotel room and would start to find face to face meetings on the road and read everything I could find about this disease. I attended meetings daily, many times more than one while home. My friend would pick me up since I still did not have a driver’s license from the DUI charge. He became my temporary sponsor. I started working the steps. Another temporary sponsor knew my story and told me you need to read page 60 through 64 of the BB twice a day for 30 days. He knew I was ready for step 3. I went to a psychologist at the suggestion of my lawyer for “anger management issues”. I stepped in his office and he said “it says here you have some anger issues” and I told him that I’m an alcoholic. I told him my story. He told me he was also an alcoholic in recovery!
I was in SEA stuck for 4 days with a broken airplane and wrote my 4th step in the hotel room between online meetings and a local meeting I found. When I got home I was searching for someone to do the 5th with and my sponsor said you’ll find the right person to come along just don’t wait too long and it dawned on me my recovering psychologist would be perfect!
I continued to become teachable and was going to any lengths to stay on the beam. Meetings, anywhere I could, every bit of conference literature, books, and online resources. Soon, 6 months went by then 9 and that first 1 year chip. The GSR position was open at my home group and I accepted. I was reminded of where I was before during District meetings when I would see the batterer’s education class attendees walk by. I would not regret the past nor close the door on it and understood what a grateful alcoholic was because I am one.
My wife said that it’s not all about me anymore, just mostly about me but I’m getting better! She’s a member of Al-Anon now. I call her my Alanoid and she’ll say no I’m just annoyed!
When I start getting too complacent in my recovery I remind myself of Father Ed Dowlings words, “very few of us have come to know how much we need to know in order to know how little we know”. Right or wrong I count Feb 18th the day I surrendered and asked God for help as my birthday. He took away the obsession and He gets the credit.
So many miracles have come true for me and each day is a miracle. And about that FO who didn’t drink in Santiago? We found each other on the net nest and he gave me the number of that scheduler to make a much needed amends to. Rigorous honesty and vigorous action has taught me how to work the program. I learned the meaning of love and tolerance is our code. I have to give this away to keep it and I know it.
Today I continue to work the steps and God willing, always will, especially 3,10,11,12 and when those shortcomings of mine crop up I know 7 works if I ask Him. Service work and meetings are my release from boredom and worry. I even have a sponsee that has taught me so much about this disease. My sponsor tells me we are like pickles, once we were cucumbers and then we got pickled and we can never be cucumbers again. I am so grateful to find another group of pilots with no dues or a fee, that group is Birds of a Feather. Feb 18th 2009 will be 3 years since I asked God for help and if He’s willing and I continue to be teachable we will celebrate with some newfound friends.
My name is JJ.
I’m an alcoholic and always will be
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