Inside The FAA's Rehab Program For Pilots With Addiction

By Victoria Kim 12/12/17

The program, which has been around since the 1970s, has helped rehabilitate thousands of pilots.

Two pilots wheeling their luggage away in the airport.

When airline pilots struggle with addictions, they have a support system they can turn to—a rehabilitation program for pilots that aims to keep them flying. 

The program, called the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS), is operated under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—CBS News calls it “one of the most successful rehab programs ever.”

HIMS has been running for decades since the 1970s, rehabilitating 6,000 pilots and giving them a second chance at manning the cockpit. 

CBS reported that “80% of pilots who enter the program do not relapse at all.” And among those who do, “most relapse only once.”

HIMS’s philosophy is that addiction should not define the end of a pilot’s career. Peggy Gilligan, former FAA administrator in charge of safety, says it’s better to be open about pilots with addictions than to make them feel like they have to keep it a secret. 

“Our pilots are just like all people; they have some of the same shortcomings that any of us could have,” Gilligan told CBS. “There are lots of things that initially might disqualify you from being a pilot, but with proper care and treatment, with proper rehabilitation, you can return to the flight deck.”

“What we don’t want, to this day, are pilots who hide something that could present a risk,” she added.

Under the HIMS program, pilots spend about a month in a treatment center approved by the FAA. If they are cleared to fly again, they stay in a recovery program for at least three years.

Dr. Lynn Hankes, who ran a South Miami addiction treatment center, says this pilot-specific program works especially well because there’s a lot on the line for the pilots—their jobs and their livelihoods. Hankes says this is what differentiates the success of HIMS compared with the success of programs tailored to the general population.

Captain Lyle Prouse is among the most notable HIMS graduates. Prouse, now retired, was one of the first commercial airline pilots convicted of flying while intoxicated during a flight from Fargo, North Dakota to Minneapolis, Minnesota in March 1990. His blood-alcohol content on the morning of the flight was at least 0.13%, CBS said, which is more than triple the limit for pilots. Prouse said he had been drinking heavily the night before. 

He served 16 months in federal prison. His arrest brought him great shame and he said he “lost the will to live.” His parents also struggled with alcohol addiction. “No other pilot in all of American commercial aviation damaged the profession like I did,” said Prouse. “That was a knife in my heart. That hurt.”

But upon his release from prison, Prouse was placed in the HIMS program. He was eventually cleared to fly again and in 1993 he was re-hired by Northwest Airlines.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr