David T. Courtwright: Booze and Pilots: "Flight"

Roundup: Historians' Take

David T. Courtwright is a medical, social, and legal historian at the University of North Florida.

Some movie scenes, like Jack Nicholson smashing through the bathroom door in The Shining, enter popular lore from the moment they appear on the screen. Flight has two such scenes: the crash landing of a packed Boeing 727 and, no less harrowing, its alcoholic pilot contemplating a mini-bar. If you don’t like to fly, don’t see this movie.

Flight rips the scab off an old wound: fear of the intoxicated pilot. Back in aviation’s frontier days, drunken fliers mostly menaced themselves and their stunt men. One young wing-walker, Charles Lindbergh, noted the drinking habits of prospective pilots before he agreed to perform with them. When Lindbergh’s own epochal 1927 transatlantic flight, undertaken with water and ham sandwiches, opened new commercial possibilities for aviation, pilots’ sobriety assumed greater importance. Fear of flying was one of two critical problems, the other being cost, that held back the industry. Some airlines advertised that they hired only abstemious pilots, a claim for which the historical record offers scant support.

Why did early commercial pilots drink? To unwind. To cope with stress. To ward off cold. The most fundamental reason, though, was that they came out of a military subculture where smoking and drinking were accepted, even expected, off-duty pastimes.  Changing uniforms to fly mail and passengers did not mean changing their habits.

Both the airlines and the pilots’ union understood the explosiveness of the issue. They pressured pilots to rein in their drinking. Some pilots developed tricks, like alternate weeks of abstinence, to keep their consumption in bounds. Those who didn’t ran the risk of being fired or, in later years, being quietly referred to the airlines’ in-house employee assistance programs....

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