New Movie Portrays a Pilot Facing Alcoholism and Criminal Charges

Flight, a movie about an alcoholic airline pilot premiered in Los Angeles last night. Denzel Washington plays the main character who is a manipulative and dishonest alcoholic pilot. Despite this, he is able to land a plane in the midst of a brutal storm successfully and is coined a hero until later when the media gets wind that he was drunk while landing the plane.

In an interview, Denzel Washington explains that his character attempts to be abstinent from alcohol but then ends up drinking after he learns he may face prison time. Denzel says he hopes that the film will touch anyone who has been impacted by alcoholism or addiction.

The choice of an airline pilot struggling with alcoholism and addiction is a stark reality for thousands of US airline pilots, as the most common mental health problem amongst pilots is alcoholism. By 2004, there were 2700 reported incidences of pilots in the US seeking treatment for alcoholism, a relatively low number considering there are nearly 150,000 pilots in the US and The National Institute for Alcoholism Research estimates that alcoholism affects five to eight percent of all pilots.

However, the number of pilots seeking alcoholism treatment have increased since the creation of a special FAA program known as the HIMS Program (Human Intervention Motivation Study). This program was created because few pilots would self identify as alcoholics out of fear of losing their licenses and ultimately their careers. In order to fix this significant safety problem for the airlines industry, the FAA prompted co-workers, flight attendants and co-pilots to identify flight crewmembers with potential substance abuse problems without fearing that they would be ending their colleagues’ careers. It also incentivized pilots to seek help without fear of losing their licenses or jobs. Without a program that allows pilots to seek inpatient addiction treatment and holds their positions until they can return to work, their substance abuse would likely remain hidden and impede upon the safety of airlines.

Once pilots are identified or self-identify as having substance abuse problems, they take a medical leave of absence and spend a minimum of 28 days in an inpatient residential facility. An intensive outpatient program follows inpatient treatment along with daily participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), an AA sponsor and a pilot peer sponsor. The pilot may return to flying after the FAA medical division has issued a special medical certificate verifying treatment and evaluation.

This program has had high success rates. For example, United Airlines reports a 76% recovery rate amongst their recovering pilots. In 2004, 1,875 special certificates were approved for pilots treated for alcoholism in the HISM Program and the relapse rate among program participants was approximately 10 percent over a three-year period – far lower than average relapse rates, which are 40-60% According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Harmony Foundation in Colorado offers specialized addiction programs for professionals seeking treatment. Our alcoholism treatment program and drug addiction programs can help airline pilots, among other professionals seeking addiction treatment, begin their journey into recovery.