A Chief Pilot I worked for many years ago had developed an obvious problem with alcohol consumption. In those days the stereo typical bush pilot and helicopter pilot was a hard flying,drinking,living, rugged individual or so the myth was sold.I have seen many an aviation career both on the flying and maintenance side ruined by alcoholism.
On this particular day, I had as tactfully as possible, suggested to my Chief Pilot that he may have a problem with alcohol. He answered that he used to have a problem,but now that he was making a lot more money, he could afford all the booze he wanted. His response was supposed to be a joke but I wasn’t laughing.
Our company had booked us into a Hotel that was supposedly short on rooms and so we had been forced to double up. Sharing a room was never anybodies idea of a good time and sharing a room with the Chief Pilot was going to be worse.
My night spent with the Chief Pilot was a study in the beginning stages of sleep deprivation. My sleep deprivation,not his. Morning arrived when the boss began choking on the phlem he had been building while snoring between apnea gaps in his breathing. I had considered a mercy killing several times during the night but the old son of gun was half tough and I couldn’t be sure I could hold the pillow down long enough to do the job.
Coughing and rolling out of bed the boss opened the mini fridge, grabbed a jug of orange juice and sloshed a meager couple of ounces into the Hotels monogrammed tumbler. My curiosity was aroused momentarily but then came the topping of the tumbler with vodka.Spinning around and taking a gulp that would have gagged most folks he bee lined for the bathroom.
“You need in here,before I shower” he asked?
“Nope I was up earlier” I said.
“I never heard a thing”, he answered as he slammed the bathroom door.
Yeah, I thought,imagine that. Later that morning I tried my tactful intervention mentioned earlier.
I have had similar talks with at least a dozen pilots and mechanics over my 30 some years as a pilot. I suppose there are countless reasons why men and women in our profession develop unhealthy associations with alcohol.
I am always disappointed when coworkers and managers knowingly let this dangerous behavior persist. I say something when I think I should but I admit that I have been guilty in the past of both over consumption and ignoring problem behavior in others.We owe the public ,ourselves and our coworkers our best sober efforts to perform our jobs to the best of our abilities.
The Chief Pilot, Larry, is long dead now. Alcohol related diseases finished him and even though he managed to stay sober for periods of time he eventually succumbed to his disease. I remember an incident just before Larry had a serious crash that really struck home for me.
It was a slow afternoon in the hangar and Larry had returned from a late lunch where quite obviously the only solid food consumed was the mouth full of mints he was chomping on as he stiff stepped across the hangar floor.The owner upon spying Larry, told him that a call had come in from the International Airport Helipad. Five executives from Shell Oil had arrived earlier than expected and Larry would need to get in the Long Ranger that had been rolled outside and fly the Shell execs back to our hangar.
I shared a nervous look with one of the other junior pilots as Larry stepped out the door and without preflight or further ado got in the Long Ranger. The owner caught me shaking my head and gave me the eyebrows raised look.
“What”? he said.
“You know what, better than I do, Ted”, I responded
I was angry and the owner knew it. I walked back to the helicopter I had been cleaning and I listened to the Long Ranger start up. The start sounded fine and before long the helicopter was at flight idle. Clearance was taking a while and after a couple of minutes I joined the owner and a few others as we peered out the hangar door windows at Larry.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. Larry was clearly keying the microphone and saying something,but he was never going to hear the tower answer. The owner disgustedly turned to the mechanic gawking out the window beside him and barked, “Go get Larry a F#+*ing headset” !
“And you are still going to let him do the flight” I said loud enough for the owner to hear.
I walked out the back door to the parking lot and walked around in circles upset and frustrated. I was angry at myself for not doing something, angry at the owner for his negligence and angry at Larry for risking the lives of people who placed their trust in him.
Larry was a talented pilot who from what I had just determined from the owners actions, could probably fly better drunk than I and the other pilots could sober.
Four years later Larry was dead and if nothing else he served as an example of what I knew I never wanted to be; a tragic waste of talent and a life cut short in its prime. Larry finished his career never hurting anyone except himself.