26 Jul 2017

Dozens of pilots overcome alcoholism to return to work

6:42 am on 26 July 2017

About 50 pilots and other aviation professionals have been successfully steered away from alcohol addiction in the past seven years.

This message was given to a conference in Hamilton organised by Aviation New Zealand, a leading industry body.

A teenager drinking beer.

Alcoholics used to have to hide their addiction, but things are changing in the industry and pilots are now able to receive support and get help, an Air New Zealand pilot says. Photo: 123RF

Two senior pilots told the conference about a scheme in New Zealand designed to treat alcoholism as an easily treatable medical condition.

It is called the HIMS programme, and has got 6000 pilots back into the cockpit in the US since it was set up there in the 1970s.

The scheme was described by Simon Nicholson, a pilot and former alcoholic who has been with Air New Zealand for 17 years and currently captains A320s.

Alcoholism used to be treated as a sackable offence, he said. As a result, people would hide their conditions to preserve their careers, and their friends would cover up for them, so as not to be seen as snitches.

But he said airlines were now getting a very different message.

"We are saying to the company 'please help this person, don't sack him, pay him please if you can while he is going through rehab, and hold his job for him'," Captain Nicholson said.

"Trust him with your aeroplane again when he comes out the other side."

Captain Nicholson said the main airlines as well as groups like Civil Aviation and the Airways Corporation supported the scheme.

Another pilot, Chris Melhopt, said he believed the effect of this would be to make flying safer, not more dangerous.

He had figured this out after spending five years as the medical welfare officer for the Air Line Pilots' Association.

"When I started in that job I became aware we had pilots who were suffering from addiction and I knew nothing about it," he said.

To help get the programme started in this country, Captain Melhopt studied at the Betty Ford treatment clinic in the US. He helped develop a scheme that would put an alcoholic pilot into rehab, usually here but sometimes in the US.

Captain Nicholson told his audience dealing with his own addiction had been very hard.

"I thought that if I had a problem with drinking, it was the end of my career," he said.

"I had a lot of pride tied up in my role as a pilot, I had invested a lot of time and money and other resources in getting where I was and I would defend that at all costs."

Despite the success of the programme in the airline industry, Captain Nicholson said there had been little take-up in general aviation - such as helicopter and agricultural flying - and this needed to change.

Having an illness stay undiagnosed did not lessen its potential impact, he said.

The Ministry of Health has estimated that one in five New Zealanders has a potentially hazardous drinking problem and a smaller number are compulsively addicted to alcohol.

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