Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Flight Movie Portrays Addiction Treatment Needs for Pilots

Each human has a moral threshold within, a barrier that they do not cross, no matter what the personal gain is. When recounting their lives in active addiction, many addicts and alcoholics convey how they lost their moral compass along the way, but a point came where they couldn’t go beyond their threshold of what was right and wrong – they had hit their bottom. These stories vary from cheating on spouses, to trouble with the law and in the case of Captain Whip Whitaker in the new movie Flight, it was the loss of his career.

Denzel Washington portrays Captain Whip Whitaker, an irresponsible alcoholic with a pervasive ego. After landing a defective plane safely he became a hero – renowned for doing what no other pilot could have done, flipping the plane to stop it from nose diving into a heavily populated area and coasting it into a field away from houses while saving nearly all the lives on board. A flight crewmember was among those who died, with whom Whitaker had an intimate relationship and partied heavily with the night before the accident. The morning of the accident Whitaker did cocaine to wake up and just before the accident he had consumed vodka from the flight’s beverage service. The captain’s positive blood tests for alcohol and cocaine taken just after the crash were thrown out because of a faulty testing mechanism. Although his intoxication had nothing to do with the crash itself, he was still required to testify in front of FAA officials because, according to his lawyer, when there is death someone has to pay.

During his testimony Captain Whitaker found himself at a moral barrier he couldn’t cross. Faced with a decision to implicate his former co-worker and lover, to dishonor her death caused by her selfless act of helping another passenger, he simply couldn’t cross that moral threshold. In what was the most compelling movie scene to hit Hollywood in years, the captain breaks down, “admits defeat” and says “I am drunk right now, because I am an alcoholic.” For many, that act of admitting one’s condition of powerlessness over alcohol is the most frightening yet freeing feeling in the world and Washington captures this sentiment boldly. He later tells fellow inmates that although he is in prison, he feels free. 

Addiction and alcoholism impacts airline professionals significantly. The National Institute for Alcoholism Research estimates that alcoholism affects five to eight percent of all pilots. Many fail to admit their addiction out of fear of losing their licenses and careers. In response to a growing number of pilots with substance abuse disorders the FAA created a program known as the HIMS Program (Human Intervention Motivation Study), created to incentivize pilots to safely self identify as alcoholics or addicts. It also encourages co-workers, such as flight attendants and co-pilots, to identify pilots with potential substance abuse problems without the pressure that they would be ending their colleagues’ careers. The success rate of pilots after they complete this program, comprised of inpatient addiction rehab and follow up monitoring, is significant. For example, United Airlines reports a 76% recovery rate amongst pilots in their program. Passport to Recovery features such addiction treatment for professionals that can help impaired pilots recover.
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