Expert Commentary

Forget Drugs: Consider Alcohol

Let's talk about something that is everywhere; is legal; and frankly, makes a great way to punctuate most days, flights, and celebrations—alcohol. Sure, you don’t want this to be a habit, a regular thing, or a necessary tool to unwind. Alas, in many places, and with many people, it just is.

Corporate Aviation
July 2016

Alcohol is everywhere, and it has been for thousands of years. Let's look at the history.


The reality is that humans and alcohol have been together for a long time. Even elephants sometimes ferment food in their bellies and then do stupid things they can sometimes regret. This is the magic of anaerobic digestion—booze. Find some yeast, get some fruity sugar source, and lock them away in an airtight container for a month or more, and any caveman will tell you good times await.

But booze and flying is a serious subject, and since we are in the serious subject business and in the "well, no one has really talked about it this way before" space, it is squarely in the wheelhouse of our safety articles.

The history of aviators and booze is also old and full of lore. Adolf Galland, one of Germany's World War II aces, was known to regularly tank up on red wine with raw eggs beaten into his glass.1 How else do you face another day at the office charging off to duel with Spitfires? If you had faced the losses, morale, and other problems that beset the young people of that era, you'd be looking for something soothing, boozy, and creamy.

The Reality Today

As more evolved creatures, we may not inoculate our nerves and guts so easily, but the desire to drink to numb the pain comes from the same anxiety-fueled space. Alcohol use and abuse, almost universally, is a symptom of something else, not the problem per se. It merely points to the evidence of some much larger, deeper problem.

In North America, alcohol also comes coupled with a strong puritan association that leads to vice, shame, confusion, and abuse when we choose to drink. You don't hear Europeans say "we're going out drinking" as if it were a sport. The reality today is that in the high-stress, high-anxiety, and "go go go" lives of the society that we have, alcohol provides a gentle way to check out (mentally and physically) at the end of the day when the brain gets permission to be calm. The problem becomes how we maintain that calm and whether we can do it without drinking all the time.

Telling the Truth

All professional aviators must endure medical screening at least once per year (the young ones), or every 6 months for those of us north of 40. During this medical screening, pilots are asked a key question: How many units of alcohol do you consume per week? The answer is 14. That's two units per day, and anything beyond that will trigger all kinds of questions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the doctor, and others. (Two units of alcohol equals two shots, two 12-ounce 5-percent beers, or two glasses of wine.) Admitting to drinking more than that per day will result in red flags.

The reality is that for those who drink habitually, 14 is an easy number to blow past. And odds are work performance doesn't suffer if you have two drinks every night like clockwork. But many doctors know something else. It can be assumed that many of the 14-and-under drinkers are lying about their consumption—either intentionally or not. As a widely known number where your health begins to deteriorate, 14 is an easy place to say "Oh, what's the maximum allowable, 14? Oh yeah, then that's me. I'm about 14."

When your life is stressful, feels empty, or just isn't unfurling as you hoped, odds are you'd rather not think about how much you are drinking, when you drink, and why. And here is the most important part: alcohol is typically not the problem, it is just the symptom. Sometimes, when faced with questions (that they answer honestly) about drinking, heavy drinkers realize that there are other things they'd rather be doing with their time, but the motivation to do those things is lacking when drinking has become a habit.

Pilots: What To Do and Why

In aviation, we can't really hide from this problem. We all have or know of colleagues who have faced "operating while under the influence" when it comes to driving a car. The FAA and society know that such a charge is a clue that there is a problem. Then there's blood pressure, weight gain, and mental acuity. We need to be honest about our habit for one big reason—alcohol may kill you faster than any other habit you have.

The reasons why many aviation and other professionals tend to rely on alcohol are simple, and they can help us dismantle our habit and look at it objectively. 

  • Ritual: Drinking alcohol may become a ritual with colleagues. Who can deny that this is fun? We complete the trip together, we are away from home together, and those umbrella things are screaming to be put into some rum and fruit. And hey, you deserve it!
  • Downtime: The pilot's job often has stretches of downtime, leaving pilots on the road alone, watching others having drinks with their dinner, etc. When a pilot is staying overnight in a vacation spot, he or she has a 5 a.m. flight time the next day, and drinking is amped up for the partygoers, having one drink doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
  • Sleep: Alcohol may settle the nerves and can help you start to sleep, but it has the annoying tendency of not only making you the world's most annoying snoring machine, but also waking you up to use the bathroom and making you dehydrated.

Other Options

So you need an alcohol policy because you know your pilots or your colleagues are struggling, but you don't know what to do, because on paper, they are not only legal, but they even pass a Class I physical and easily pass the random alcohol screenings your current drug program provides.2 Here's some options to do yourself or encourage others to do to avoid the alcohol habit.


How much exercise do pilots get? How can you encourage them to try to exercise once finished with a trip or during downtime without being an overbearing employer, chief pilot, or wellness promoter? The typical FAA Class I pilot's physical condition is a pretty scary site when you compare it with, for example, a UPS driver's. But the UPS driver isn't flying an airplane. Exercise should not be torture—it is just something that is good for your health and can be pleasurable.


By "activities," I mean ones that don't involve the television, like chess, museums, leisurely walking, yoga (yes, yoga!), and time in the local library or bookstore. Try anything that stimulates and occupies the mind without involving a bar and/or a large flat-screen television. Sports are great, but play them, don't just watch them.


Getting enough good fats, cruciferous vegetables, and even fermented foods (kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut, kim chi, you name it) are good for you. Acidic foods are good for our health by way of our intestinal health. Throw in things like adding dietary fiber (eat your greens) and paying attention to how you feel, and you'll see a quick turnaround in health. As challenging as it might be to eat well on the road, consider this: Do you like how you feel after that Arby's meal that seems to always precede a big nap? The hypoglycemic yo-yo of our North American diet is no friend to a pilot who is trying to stay awake and trying not to have the brain scream for more sugar at check-in time. In many cases, this glycemic roller coaster is quickly satiated with a cocktail that is just begging to be ordered. Plan ahead; eat well; and reduce the alcohol temptation, habit, and physiological needs. 


This is a tough one, but well worth the effort. Hobbies are things that dwindle in an age of smartphones, large-screen televisions, constant information bombardment, and busy schedules that keep you away from home. A hobby that you genuinely enjoy is a natural antidote to needing a mind-numbing solution, like a cocktail.


To be clear, I'm no teetotaler. I'm a craft brewer, and I occasionally enjoy some vodka hiding in my glass of kombucha. But I also know this: I'm 45 years old, and most major studies on the long-term effects of alcohol show that it is a contributing factor to disease of many kinds as we age. Never mind the fact that it is robbing you of valuable hours of sobriety, focus, and enjoyment on this planet for the years you have left on it.

If best practices, wellness, and human factors interest you as much as they interest me, don't hesitate to contact me via or text me at (617) 901–3245. If you believe you can never stop learning about safety, give us a shout.

1 Mike Spick, Aces of the Reich: The Making of a Luftwaffe Pilot (South Yorkshire, UK: Frontline Books, 2013) p. 195.

2 A large segment of the drinking population simply won't drink outside of designated times where it is forbidden. The purpose of this article is not to out the serious and serial alcohol user, who may sneak it during work, but rather to work with the rest of the heavy drinkers, who may consume far more than is healthy and do it legally.

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