Aviators are a special breed, often close to adventure and active socially. When they are not flying, they may be subject to indiscretion and bad choices. A few may be involved in an incident involving alcohol or drug abuse that becomes a police matter.These are very serious situations both for the individual’s health and well-being, family, and aviation certification. The FAA medical application Form 8500 screens for these two issues in item 18 V
if there have been any administrative proceedings, arrests or convictions.
Many times the infraction involves driving a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol. While drug offenses are far less common, they clearly pose a very significant issue for medical certification. Pilots that use narcotics clearly cross a boundary of good judgment. A history of substance dependence is disqualifying and requires review by the Federal Air Surgeon.
The FAA routinely reviews every Medxpress application for alcohol offenses in every state department of motor vehicle databases. This is also true for all criminal arrest and convictions for drug related offenses. Failure of the aviator to disclose these issues on the era medical certification examination also constitutes grounds for administrative and criminal proceedings for falsifying the application.
The FAA says that a single arrest or conviction for driving while intoxicated will not be grounds for denial. However it will trigger the aviation medical examiner (AME) to defer if adequate documentation is not provided to the AME within 14 days of the examination. Necessary documentation includes a number of criteria that must be met to reach the threshold for issuance by the AME.Often the next step will be a review by the Aeromedical Certification Division in Oklahoma City. The pilot will receive a letter from them within a couple of weeks asking for documentation as to the offense:
- the legal proceedings such as court records and arrest reports
- a detailed personal statement as to the history of alcohol use and any legal matters related to it
- a complete copy of the driving record for the last 10 years in any state where the individual has held a motor vehicle license
- a substance abuse evaluation by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or addiction specialist
The FAA has a protocol in assessing the severity of alcohol related motor vehicle offenses. The number of offenses is a crucial factor in the review. Having more than one is an indicator of a pattern of abuse and disregard for the law.
The FAA has a worse view of individuals that refuse to cooperate with authorities to obtain a blood alcohol level. So simply refusing to take the test creates assumptions that are worse for gaining certification.
Another key issue is a blood alcohol level at the time of the arrest. Usually a driver suspected of driving while impaired will be given a field sobriety test or breathalyzer. The next step is a blood specimen which is the gold standard. In most states the threshold for impairment is 0.08 mg/dL of alcohol.
The FAA looks at a blood alcohol level greater than 0.16 mg/dL as indicating a more severe alcohol problem. The FAA views this threshold of double the legal limit more closely for three reasons.
- First, it indicates that the aviator was operating a motor vehicle with enough alcohol to show a significant impairment in judgment.
- Second, that driver probably had some degree of chronic alcoholism such that their level of comfort driving was a practiced behavior.
- Third, this would indicate that the arrest was somewhat random and there were other times that the individual thought they could drive while impaired.
So the blood-alcohol threshold of 0.16 mg/dL will open the FAA investigation to a more thorough review of the potential for chronic alcohol abuse. The in-depth review of legal and medical records and a new psychological profile will be necessary for the recertification.
When I review the medical application with a new DWI offense, I try to counsel the aviator that they need to be cooperative and proactive. They will need to provide the necessary documentation and immediately begin to put together that package of reports and legal forms.
As with other medical issues, the FAA needs to do a thorough review before recertification. However as I said before, a high blood alcohol level indicates a more chronic pattern of abuse or that there is a disregard for the safety of others.
The FAA can also mandate that a pilot go to a recognized expert in the field that they will designate. These examinations are quite comprehensive and go beyond the issue of alcohol use. They are truly global psychological evaluations that encompass underlying motivation, personality, and cognitive function.
Commercial airline pilots can ask their employers and unions to access dedicated counseling and assistance programs. Aviators with alcohol related issues also have programs in the FAA has its own HIMS program.