Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Troubling Report from Rostov

An interim report on the crash of FZ981 has been released
Reconstruction of the FlyDubai 737-800 wreckage

The Russian Interstate Aviation Committee has published an interim report on their investigation into the crash of FlyDubai FZ981. The report is quite troubling as it suggests that the aircraft did not suffer a low speed event or stall, but rather hit the ground with flying airspeed in an extreme nose down attitude. The report is here.

The report starts with the facts that are already known: the aircraft attempted one approach which was aborted followed by an extended time in a holding pattern. Nearly two hours later, a second approach was attempted and a second go around was initiated at 721 ft above ground level (AGL).

The report states that a possible reason the second go around was initiated was due to a sudden increase in indicated airspeed of 20 knots to 176 knots. This is entirely plausible as a gust of this velocity would cause the flaps to automatically retract to avoid an overspeed. Should this happen while on final approach under 1000 ft AGL, the correct decision would be to go around.


There has been some speculation that windshear might have been the primary cause of the crash. I think it is important to differentiate between the windshear which might be generated due to convective activity (a thunderstorm) as opposed to gusts found in frontal activity. The weather was consistently poor for many hours preceding the crash with gusty winds but no reported thunderstorms.

The winds were reported as 20 degrees off of runway heading at 27 knots gusting to 42 knots. These winds would certainly make for a difficult approach and landing as the plane would be bucking like a bronco, but they would not be a challenge to staying airborne. Windshear found in thunderstorms can threaten an aircraft on approach but there is no indication such conditions existed here.

Anomalies on the Go Around

It was on the second go around that trouble started. The crew set the flaps to 15 and retracted the gear which is normal procedure. At a height of 1900 ft, the pilot flying pushed on the control column which decreased pitch and caused airspeed to increase. It is at this time that the flaps would normally be retracted so as to not overspeed them. The report states that the flaps automatically retracted to position 10 while the speed increased to over 200 knots.

The flaps blow-up protection on the 737-800 is designed to prevent damage to the flaps due to unintentional overspeeds. Called the Flap Load Relief system, it will retract the flaps from 15 to 10 when the airspeed indicates 201 knots. The flaps will automatically re-extend to the selected position of 15 when the airspeed falls below 196 knots.

It was at this time that the thrust was reduced slightly and the flaps auto-extended themselves back to 15. The thrust was then increased back to full power while pitch and airspeed increased. The flaps once again auto-retracted to 10 where they remained until impact.

The aircraft continued on a rather steep climb of 3150 feet/minute until reaching an altitude of nearly 3000 feet. A vertical velocity of 3000 feet/minute on a go around is steep but not necessarily a problem. The aircraft is by now light having burned its holding fuel, and is not carrying a full load. Pilots can choose to use somewhat less than full thrust in these types of situations but using full thrust is not procedurally wrong. It just means you might have a greater likelihood of overshooting an altitude or causing a flap overspeed which is what happened.

Pitch Over

It was at this time that the aircraft pitched over and began its fatal dive. The report states that the FDR recorded a simultaneous push on the control column accompanied by 12 seconds of forward stabilizer movement. Let's take these one at a time.

Pitching over to stop a steep climb is completely normal. Pitching over which results in a -1g acceleration is not. Normal gravity is 1g. Anytime you feel light in your seat, you're at something less than 1g. A zero g pushover would mean everything in the cabin would float. You'd come off your seat slightly. It would be uncomfortable and rarely happens. A negative 1g acceleration is effectively the same as if your seat was upside down and you were hanging from the seat belt. It would be extremely uncomfortable and short of extreme turbulence just doesn't happen. And it appears to have been caused by a combination of flight control and trim input.

Stabilizer trim is designed to compensate for airspeed changes affecting how the airplane flies. As an airplane increases speed, the nose naturally wants to come up to attempt to maintain the same airspeed as before. Pilots would have to keep pushing on the control column when accelerating to maintain level flight. Trim repositions the horizontal stabilizer to relieve this force. It is controlled by a thumb switch on the yoke which activates an electric motor to actually move the entire horizontal stabilizer and align it with the slipstream. 

On the 737 there is a large wheel next to the throttles which also is connected to the trim motor. This wheel allows manual positioning of the trim if the motor fails and also provides visual feedback to the pilots when the trim motor is running. Normal trim technique is to trim in bursts of one or two seconds. The trim motor on the 737 has two speeds for use depending on whether the flaps are extended or not. The high speed setting is active when the flaps are down. 

A 12 second run of the trim motor, especially in high speed mode, would never be needed during normal operations. This might lead to some speculation that the aircraft suffered what's known as "runaway trim" where the switch might stick and run the trim uncommanded. Boeing has provided several safeguards to prevent this from happening. There is an electric stab trim cutout switch located on the center control stand which removes electric power from the system. 

In addition, power is removed from the system any time pitch inputs don't match the control column inputs. This means the motor cannot trim forward when a pilot is pulling aft and vice versa. Lastly, the trim wheel is designed to be grasped and held when running if all else fails. With these safeguards, a runaway trim problem seems unlikely.

Final Dive

The report states that after the forward control column and trim inputs, the aircraft entered a dive after reaching a peak altitude of just under 3300 ft and subsequently hit the ground in a 50 degree nose low attitude at a speed of over 320 knots. Normally an airliner doesn't see a descending pitch attitude of more than 5 or 10 degrees nose low.

I honestly don't know what to make of this report. The crew flew a somewhat sloppy go around allowing the speed to increase where the flaps blew up, but that by itself wasn't gross or necessarily dangerous. The flap load relief system functioned as designed.

The question to be answered is why the pilots initiated the pushover and simultaneous forward trim? The airplane essentially dove into the ground. I am sure various mechanical or structural failure and other possible scenarios are being considered. The investigators have their work cut out for them.

This is just a preliminary report and the CVR tapes, while referenced in the report, have not been released to the public and may provide more context. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Boeing 737-200 Pilot Report

The Boeing 737 is the world's most popular airliner.
Boeing has now delivered nearly 9000 737s

The Boeing Model 737 is considered one of the most successful airliners ever built. Boeing has built nearly 9000 of these aircraft since its introduction in 1968 with thousands of more orders on the books. Just this month the 737 celebrated the 49th anniversary of her first flight. Currently Boeing's only narrow body aircraft in production, the 737 has been produced in seven variants over the years, the -100 through -700. The next iteration, the Max-8, is currently undergoing flight testing and is scheduled for delivery to launch customer Southwest Airlines next year.

I flew the 737-200 in both the left and right seat from the time I was hired until my airline retired the aircraft from the fleet in the early 2000s. I have many thousands of hours of time in this aircraft and really enjoyed flying her. The 200 was a pilot's airplane meaning that she was responsive and easy to fly. It was easy to put the airplane where you wanted her and once you learned the tricks to make a smooth landing such as the "roll-on", she was a real cream puff.

The 200 had her drawbacks as well. Being underpowered was one of the greatest frustrations. When Boeing introduced this aircraft as the -100 model, it came equipped with Pratt and Whitney JT8D-7 engines producing about 14,000 lbs of thrust. This aircraft was so underpowered that it was not even allowed to use full flaps to land as there was too much drag. The 100 model was quickly replaced by the -200 model which offered the upgraded JT8D-9 engines producing 15,500 lbs of thrust. I only flew the aircraft with the -9 engines. Still, she was kind of a pig.

Don't Shut Off the APU!

Taking off of short runways was always kind of exciting. One procedure with which all -200 pilots had to become intimately familiar was the "bleeds off" takeoff. During normal operations, hot, compressed or "bleed" air is drawn out of the engine to run the air conditioning and to provide pressurization. When taking off from a short runway on a hot day, drawing that bleed air means that it isn't available to produce thrust. So one method to increase thrust from the engines was to turn the bleeds off and to use air from the auxiliary power unit (APU) for air conditioning until getting airborne.

Without the extra thrust from the bleed air being available, there often wasn't enough thrust for a safe takeoff. It was during taxi-out and after takeoff that problems arose. There are six switches controlling the bleed air plumbing on a 737 and they must be positioned correctly. One particular mistake could cause damage if both the engine and APU bleed valves were open at the same time as the engine would overpower the APU. Otherwise, one of the more common mistakes was to forget that the APU was needed and to accidentally shut it off. This usually happened right after being cleared for takeoff meaning an embarrassing call to the tower that you had to delay to start it up again.

Once airborne, forgetting to reconfigure the bleeds back to normal could be a big problem. If you climbed high enough like this, you might get the altitude warning horn as the cabin wouldn't pressurize. Go higher still and you'd get the "rubber jungle" as the masks fell. Besides causing a severe panic in the back, it was a guaranteed trip to see the chief pilot followed by an unpaid vacation as you'd probably get some time off.

Other aspects of the low thrust of the aircraft meant that turning on the engine anti-ice would slow your climb rate and turning on the wing anti-ice meant almost no climb capability as it used quite a bit of bleed air. That said, the cooling capability was always great on the 200. It wasn't until the introduction of the -300 that Boeing changed the air conditioning to include a "low flow" setting which made that airplane hot in the summer.

Pilot's Airplane

I loved flying the 200 as it was very responsive to control inputs and easy to trim. Later models for whatever reason never had the tight feel of the flight controls that the -200 did. Think of going from a Triumph to your dad's Buick. She was quite easy to land consistently well once you learned how to do the "roll-on".

The roll-on was accomplished by executing a slightly aggressive flare just before touching down at about 5 feet altitude and then releasing back pressure on the yoke just as the aircraft touches down. Done correctly, there would be nearly no perceivable thump at touchdown, just the appearance of runway rumble. It was quite impressive.

The "science" behind the roll-on was that the landing gear are aft of the center of lift. What this means is that the release of back pressure on the yoke actually caused the landing gear to touch down at less vertical velocity than the aircraft overall as the plane was now rotating forward around the center of lift. The only problem with this technique was that if you screwed it up, you really knew it. Time it wrong and the gear will hit the runway at a vertical speed greater than the aircraft as a whole resulting in a really hard touchdown.

Back in those days you might get a flight attendant to come up who had refastened her bra around her waist to drive home the critique of a hard landing.


As I mentioned, the -200 was a pleasure to fly. The caveat was that this was only on nice or "visual flight rules" (VFR) days. She was not much fun in the weather for many different reasons. As I mentioned above, using the anti-ice tended to kill climb performance, but there were other problems.

The radar was close to useless in many cases due to its inadequate stabilization. The weather radar on an airliner is designed to allow pilots to avoid thunderstorms. It does this by bouncing radio waves off of relatively thick storm clouds. The radar antenna has to be stabilized in relation to the horizon because when the aircraft is in a bank, the radar would only see ground returns. For whatever reason, the stab on those radar just didn't work right which meant a screen filled with red ground returns whenever the airplane was turning. Thankfully that problem was fixed in later models.

Another annoying issue was that only the captain's instruments could be tied into the autopilot in order to fly a "coupled" approach on our models. That meant that first officers had to ask the captain to set up their radios when the first officer was flying an approach. It seems crazy, but some captains would be put out by such a request. That problem went away after I upgraded to the left seat. After that, I always got to fly with my favorite jerk.

One fun feature of the autopilot is that when it was turned off, it would make a small click whenever the controls were moved out of the neutral position. Pilots of course would then use this "scoring" system to bet for beers by who could fly an approach generating the fewest clicks. 

Stupid Pilot Tricks

This next part may have more to do with flying during the era before 9/11 but I associate it with flying the -200. Flight attendants would routinely come up front to chat before armored doors and protocols made it so onerous. We might be flying a 40 minute leg completely full, but the flight attendants would still manage to come up to give us our beverages if not to chat for a minute. It's a rare occurrence today. I'll fly a five hour flight and never see or hear from them. Ah well, at least I got to experience some of the more relaxed times.

One of the favorite tricks was to float a lightbulb on the gasper vent and to then call the girls up front. We had a store of small lightbulbs to be used to replace burnt out bulbs in the cockpit, and also an air vent called the eyeball gasper much like the overhead vents in back only this one pointed up. Well, the airstream would float the bulb in midair as a hairdryer will float a ping pong ball. We'd then explain that it was voice activated. I'd give the command to stop as my F/O would discretely turn off the switch and the bulb would drop. When offered to give it a try, it wouldn't work for the visiting F/A. We then concluded that it must be tuned for male voices only.

Other fun tricks were to explain that the overhead map light was really a telescope and oh, would you like to take a look? This meant having the gullible F/A lean way over to have a glimpse. Great fun.

Time Marches On

The -200 was a fun airplane to fly in a fun era but her day came to an end. What ultimately killed off the -200 was economics. The new -300s launched in the early '80s were much more fuel efficient and much more capable than their older siblings. It became rare that we had to accomplish a bleeds off takeoff and the aircraft burned significantly less fuel.

The last of the -300s are themselves being replaced by the "next generation" or NG series 737s, introduced in the late '90s, which themselves will eventually be replaced by the Max series aircraft now undergoing flight testing in Seattle. The airplanes I fly today all have large flat screen digital displays, integrated flight management systems and all the geegaws you expect to find on the most modern airliners.

What became of all those old airplanes? Well some of them went to Eastern Europe or Africa to fly around before being retired. I remember one of our airplanes which had flown for us for decades was wrecked by some fly-by-night outfit perhaps months after leaving our fleet. Most of those airplanes, though, were probably made into soda cans.

An ignominious end to a glorious flying machine, but the memories of that time still remain. And while the gig isn't perhaps as good as it once was, it's still pretty good. And as I always say, it still beats working for a living.

Update: Do you have any good old-school war stories about the -200 (or three holer, or DC-9)? I'd love to hear them. Leave a comment here or on the FB page!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Big Airlines buy Smaller Jets: Should Regional Airlines Worry?

Delta is close to purchasing the new C-Series aircraft
Bombardier C-Series Regional Aircraft

The airline business model for the past decade or so has depended on the big six (now three) network carriers flying larger narrow and widebody aircraft to and from fortress hubs while outsourcing regional flying to lower cost regional partner airlines through capacity purchase agreements (CPAs). This model was driven by both the introduction of new and capable 50 to 70 seat regional jets (RJs), and also the need to compete with low cost competitors such as Southwest and America West.

By the late 90s, network carriers had found themselves hamstrung by union pay scales and work rules when attempting to compete with the fast growing low cost carriers (LCCs) unleashed by deregulation. Competitive responses such as United's Shuttle by United and Ted, Delta's Delta Express and Song, and Continental's Continental Lite were all terminated after lackluster economic results.

As I detailed in an earlier post, partnerships with regional airlines who operate under the brand of the mainline carriers allowed a competitive response to LCC incursion by circumventing high labor costs and work rules. Loopholes in union contracts at the mainline carriers allowed for the outsourcing of this flying.

This model, however, may no longer be working.

Mainline Carriers Seek Regional Jets

In the past year or two we've seen increased interest in regional aircraft by mainline carriers which suggests that the mainline carriers wish to bring at least some of their regional flying back in-house. One of the first accessions was by Delta of all the Boeing 717 aircraft that Southwest had acquired in its merger with AirTran. The 717 is a smaller, 100 seat variant of the MD-80 line and a highly desired aircraft as it fills the niche between RJ aircraft and larger narrowbody jets like the 737.

The next move by Delta was its attempt to reach a contract with its pilots last summer that included the purchase of 20 Embraer E-190 regional jets. This would have been the first time that Delta operated regional aircraft in its mainline operation using its own pilots and not a regional partner. That contract was rejected by the pilots for reasons mostly unrelated to the RJ purchase, but it could be assumed that Delta was still interested in those aircraft. And as we shall see, they were.

Next up was United who last fall made an unsolicited offer to their pilot's union to reopen their recently negotiated contract. In a letter to the union, a senior vice-president mentioned that a successful conclusion of the negotiations would result in the acquisition of new small narrowbody (NSNB) aircraft to be flown by United mainline pilots. That contract extension was passed by the union.

Here Come the Jets

In recent weeks we've seen a flurry of smaller jet purchases by both Delta and United. Delta is reportedly very close to a deal with Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier for 75 of their new C-Series regional aircraft. These new and highly efficient aircraft come in two variants which will seat between 100-160 passengers depending upon model and interior configuration. This aircraft will fit nicely with their already existing 717s for the 100 seat market.

And back in January United announced an order for 40 Boeing 737-700 aircraft. While the 737-700 is not considered a regional aircraft, United's configuration for its existing -700s is for 118 seats which puts it right in the middle of the pack for regional flying. They reportedly got the airplanes for a screaming deal of $20-25 million per plane which Bombardier, the other choice under consideration, simply couldn't match. Boeing has just launched the newer variant 737-Max and is giving United a deal to clear the last of the -700s off the lot as it were.

American Airlines is in a somewhat different situation as they've owned their own regional airline, American Eagle (now Envoy) since buying out all their regional partners back in 1987. Apparently American was able to wrangle exceptions to the scope clauses in their union contracts allowing this arrangement. Already being the owner of their regional would seem to reduce the need for bringing that flying in-house. After American's bankruptcy and merger with USAir though, they have resumed American Eagle branded flights with a number of outside regional partners under capacity purchase agreements.

Why Change Now?

The current model has worked for some time so why rock the boat and change things around now? There may be a few things going on here. The first one may have something to do with the cost of fuel. Let me explain. 

When regional airlines first started flying RJs, the 50 seat RJs were very popular and allowed network airlines to raid each other's hubs with these fast and relatively long range aircraft. Later, though, as the price of oil climbed through $100 a barrel, the aircraft became uneconomical to operate. The reason for this is that they cost just slightly less to purchase and operate as larger aircraft, but generate only a fraction of the revenue putting them at a disadvantage. Fuel is cheap now but airline managers realize it may not stay that way for long.

This is one of the reasons regional airlines are retiring their fleets of 50 seaters and moving to aircraft with larger seating capacities.

A second reason for the declining popularity of smaller regional airliners may have to do with limits on the capacity of the nation's airspace system. Slot limited airports such as Laguardia or Newark can only handle so many arrivals per hour. In order for an airline to increase revenue in a particular market like this, the only feasible means is by using higher capacity aircraft.

Even at non slot restricted airports, a particular market may not support additional departures as most business travellers like to travel early in the morning or at the end of their day. Again, the only way to boost capacity in such a market without doubling costs by deploying a second aircraft is to use a larger aircraft.

Lastly, there is an ongoing shortage of pilots to fly regional aircraft. Regional airline jobs are entry level jobs into the industry, and as the major airlines are on a hiring binge to replace retiring Baby Boom era pilots, the regionals are having trouble replacing their departing pilots with new hires. 

Also, by bringing their regional flying in-house, the network carriers may be attempting to gain control of their pilot pipelines. Once a pilot is on a seniority list, they are not likely to leave a particular airline as they have to start over at the bottom of the list. If one corporate entity controls both the regional and mainline flying and keeps their pilots on one seniority list, there will likely be less draw for them to jump ship to another carrier.

There are many reasons for this dearth of pilots which I addressed here. The upshot is that regional airlines are having to make hefty boosts in pay and benefits to attract the diminishing pool of new pilots. This negates their cost advantage in comparison to the network carriers which is really their reason for existing in the first place. 

As regional aircraft size and capacity grows, the mainline network carriers will find themselves bumping up against their union contracts which require larger aircraft to be flown by mainline pilots. With no cost advantage and control of their pilot pipelines to be gained, it may be advantageous for the mainline network carriers to bring their regional flying back in-house thereby ending the era of outsourced regional flying.

This may be a perfect storm of bad news for the operators of regional airlines, and one that they probably knew would eventually come. 

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Another Drunk Pilot?

Pilots are routinely tested for drugs and alcohol
All airline pilots are randomly tested for both drugs and alcohol.

Last week another pilot was pulled out of his cockpit and arrested for being under the influence. So what's up with these guys? It seems like you can hardly turn on the news without hearing about another drunk pilot, right? They're even making movies about them. Why is this even a thing?

Well it's easy to explain why the furor over alcohol abuse by pilots is a "thing". And by that I mean something which garners immediate headlines and watercooler talk. This is because short of nuclear power station operators or cruise ship captains, few other professions leave so many lives in the direct immediate control of another human as does aviation. And for all the oft-stated reasons that riding in an aluminum tube at 30,000 ft is already nerve wracking enough, the thought of having a tipsy pilot up front is something that no one needs or wants. And that is completely reasonable.

If your lawyer is sloshed on the job, maybe it'll cost you some money if you lose a suit. And perhaps after a few martinis your doctor might prescribe a Tylenol when what you needed was an Advil. Even if a hammered surgeon nicks an artery and the patient bleeds out on the table, it's just one person. But a pilot can kill hundreds, which is especially bad if you happen to be one of the ones riding along.

As an aside, I admit to being amused by passengers who will say something like: "Well, you know, pilots really only fly the plane for an average of 30 seconds during any given flight. It's the computers which really fly the plane." And then quickly follow it with "Did you hear about that drunk pilot? He could've killed everybody!"

Alcohol Abuse Among Pilots is Actually Rare

So is there actually an alcohol abuse problem among pilots or is this something which just tends to make the headlines? In actuality, airline pilots are nowhere near the top of the list of professions with high degrees of alcoholism. Ironically, doctors and lawyers are high up on the list. But a study conducted by NIH found a total of 13 alcohol related incidents involving airline pilots over a 16 year period between 1990 and 2006 which would indicate that this "problem" is actually quite rare.

Additionally, there has never been an aviation accident attributed to substance abuse by airline pilots. Government data suggest that about 12 pilots annually are found in violation of FAA standards for blood alcohol content out of over 11,000 tested. But overall, the incidence of alcoholism among airline pilots is below that of the general population.

Where There are Humans, There are Human Frailties

Because the "Drunk Airline Pilot" headline makes such excellent clickbait and draws so many eyeballs (see the title I chose), there's little incentive to tone down the story to something like "Airline Pilot Only Half as Drunk as You Driving Home". That's because the legal limit imposed by the FAA is a BAC of .04% whereas a DUI in most states is defined as a BAC of .08%. Furthermore, a test result of .02 to .04% will result in a pilot being removed from duty though it doesn't carry a criminal penalty.

Now this guy may have really tied one on and was actually blotto, I don't know. But most of the cases I'm familiar with resulted from one too many drinks the night before followed by too short of an overnight for the alcohol to wear off. If this was the case, our hero was probably not ripped but rather just across the line of .04%. Obviously he was displaying some signs of inebriation or perhaps odor as he was identified at the security checkpoint.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not defending this guy's actions. He screwed up big time and betrayed the trust placed in him. He will also pay an extremely heavy price. My point is that this guy was most likely not as stumble drunk as the headlines usually suggest, but he certainly was impaired.

So What Happens to Him Now?

To use a technical term, this guy is royally screwed...and he has nobody to blame but himself. The use of alcohol by airline pilots is governed by federal aviation regulation (FAR) 91.17 and stipulates:

(b) Committing an act prohibited by §91.17(a) or §91.19(a) of this chapter
is grounds for: 
(1) Denial of an application for a certificate, rating, or authorization
issued under this part for a period of up to 1 year after the date of that
act; or 
(2) Suspension or revocation of any certificate, rating, or authorization
issued under this part.

The mechanism that the FAA uses to get problem pilots out of the cockpit is through the denial of a medical certificate, which is needed to fly. Furthermore, the FAA defines a history of alcohol abuse as a disqualifying medical condition. Using a bit of circular logic, being cited for attempting to operate an aircraft while having a BAC in excess of the limit can be considered as evidence of a history alcohol abuse and therefore disqualifying for holding a medical certificate.

Getting past all the legalese, this means the guy is quite possibly grounded for good. But that's just the Feds. Most airlines have very severe sanctions for alcohol use by employees in safety sensitive functions which includes pilots. If this guy tested at more than .04% BAC, he will most likely be canned. And that likely means termination with prejudice as it is unlikely that he'll find another flying job.

There is a pathway back to the cockpit, but it is long and expensive often taking years to regain ratings and certifications from scratch. In the meantime he'll be busy selling his house, finding new schools for his kids and explaining to friends and family why he's no longer an airline pilot.

But I Thought Alcoholism was a Disease

Alcohol abuse has always carried the stigma of being a moral failing but that perception has faded over the years. The American Psychiatric Association describes the conditions which define both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM). The recently published DSM-5 is moving away from treating both abuse and dependency as separate conditions though the criteria used by the FAA in defining alcohol abuse is significantly different than that described in the DSM.

It is generally recognized though, that a problem with alcohol should not be faced alone. To that end, the Human Intervention and Motivation Study (HIMS), a program funded by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) has resulted in resources being made available for pilots who have alcohol problems. The idea here is that a program which concentrates on the rehabilitation and return of pilots to the cockpit would encourage others to come forward for treatment.

The caveat of this program is that it does not protect pilots who operate or attempt to operate an aircraft under the influence from sanction. So what should this guy have done? How could he have avoided all this bother?

Well, short of not drinking so much the previous evening, he should have called in sick and not gotten on the aircraft. In fact any time up until a predetermined point a pilot can refuse to operate the aircraft and not be in violation. At my airline that point is the threshold of the aircraft door though it may be different for other carriers. That is the point of no return when determining intent.

Are You Drunk?

One of the more enervating aspects of being an airline pilot most likely not enjoyed by other professionals is having complete strangers come up to you and ask if you're drunk. This just happened a few weeks ago to me as I was in the gate area waiting to board a deadhead flight. The guy came up and asked, "Hey, you look sober. Are you our pilot?" I told him I was not (his pilot) but must confess to being a bit annoyed. 

He should ask his doctor that question on his next visit. The odds are statistically higher that the answer is yes.

But I get it. People getting on an airplane are nervous and see a guy in uniform so they open their mouth and something stupid comes out. One reply which I always long to make (but never would) is "not as far as you know."

So rest assured, nervous flyer, your pilot is not drunk. But you might want to ask yourself who would you honestly rather have flying your plane given the choice: The alcohol and drug abusing pilot played by Denzel Washington in Flight who saved everyone's life, or the stone cold sober Asiana pilots who crashed their 777 into a seawall in San Francisco on a clear day? Take your time answering. I'll wait.