What do alcoholic pilots and hackers have in common?

Posted on by Ben Rothke

What do alcoholic pilots and hackers have in common?   Perhaps, more than you imagine.  But the big question is, do they deserve a second chance?  While this is a book about a pilot, the parallels to hackers are many. 

Flying Drunk: The True Story of a Northwest Airlines Flight, Three Drunk Pilots, and One Man's Fight for Redemption, is the autobiography of pilot Joseph Balzer.  And Balzer is one lucky man. This is a guy who was convicted of flying a commercial airplane under the influence of alcohol, spent time in federal prison, got released, got and quit a few low-paying flying jobs, and then ended up with a great piloting job at American Airlines. In fact, the former Chief Pilot at American states hiring Balzer was his greatest success. With that, the story of Joe Balzer is a compelling read. 

Flying Drunk is Balzer's firsthand story. He is one of the infamous three Northwest Airlines crew who flew a Boeing 727 while under the influence of alcohol in 1990. Arrested when the flight landed in Fargo, ND, the captain, first officer and Balzer as flight engineer all ultimately served prison time. 

The theme of Flying Drunk is redemption and how to deal with people wanting a second chance. This is a current topic with the reinstatement of Michael Vick into the NFL. While Vick served his prison sentence and has shown penitence, some opine that since the animals did not get a second chance, neither should he.  

Within information security, a similar issue is if hackers who have been convicted deserve a similar second chance.  There are no simply answers. 

The book also raises the topic of the serious problem of alcoholism amongst commercial pilots. How big of a problem drunken pilots are is not fully known, but there is no evidence that any US commercial airline accidents have occurred due to drunken pilots. 

The books 37 chapters detail Balzer's life from his birth to his reinstatement and employment with American Airlines. The book ends with Balzer happily at American Airlines. It would have been interesting had the author continued his story as to how he related to life and alcohol once back in the cockpit. 

In numerous chapters, Balzer notes the support and encouragement he received from his wife (to whom he dedicated the book), friends and family. They played a significant part in his redemption process.

The book raises many difficulty questions, many of them ethical. What do we as a society do about alcoholics? Should they be given a second chance? Should alcoholic pilots, such as 2 of the Northwest 3 be given a second chance? Or should a first chance be given to the tens of thousands of pilots who are applying for the same position? 

As Balzer writes, alcoholism for the individual is a lifelong struggle. For society, alcoholism is a major problem, and within aviation, private pilots do die from alcohol related injuries. Often these pilots, many of them newbie's, do not realize the combined effects of elevation and alcohol. While a pilot on the ground may think they are fine after a drink or two; when they find themselves in an unpressurized cabin at 10,000 above sea level, the thin air exacerbates the problem. Death to the pilot and passengers sometimes happens in such a circumstance, and often to people on the ground. 

On the ground, drunk driving is something that society seems to tolerate. Over 15,000 annual alcohol related automobile deaths shows that society as a whole seems to have a very high tolerance for alcoholics and alcoholic drivers. First offender DWI offenders who kill people under the influence regularly get off without jail time. Since we rarely jail automobile DWI offenders, why not extend that same courtesy to drunken pilots? 

The book tells the story of Balzar, from the innocence of his youth, to finding himself a magnet for other alcoholics. Like a classic alcoholic, Balzar went on long stretches of soberness, only to find himself in another blackout. Eventually his alcoholism caught up with him when he was arrested in Fargo. Blazer claims that since his arrest in 1990, he has not touched alcohol. 

At the beginning of the book, Balzer claims to remember his first birthday. That is someone hard to fathom, and it is likely that he is remembering these event with post development and greater cognizance and retrofitting those memories to his childhood. 

The book goes into detail in the author's childhood and growing up with an alcoholic father. A few times, the author goes off on a tangent into details not truly relevant to the story. The narratives of the time he spent in prison are chilling. Had he not found an aviation job, it is likely Balzer would have become an advocate for prisoners and prisoner abuse.

After his prison release, the book recounts how Balzer found a number of very junior piloting jobs. His ultimate goal was to get back to be an airline transport pilot, a goal he thought unattainable. In the past, once a commercial pilot lost their license due to alcohol, they could never regain their license. That changed once the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS) recovery program was started.

Balzer connected with HIMS, which is for pilots supported by major airlines and pilot unions, of which more than 4,000 pilots have undergone treatment for alcohol abuse or dependency since 1974 and have been returned to the cockpit in the process. HIMS is a prototype alcohol and drug assistance program, developed specifically for commercial pilots, that coordinates the identification, assessment, treatment and medical re-certification of flight officers in need of such help. It is an industry-wide effort in which companies, pilot unions, and FAA work together to preserve careers and further air safety. 

Through that and other fortunate circumstances, Balzer was able to get an interview with Captain Cecil Ewell, American Airlines Chief Pilot and Vice President of Flight. That ultimately led to a job with the airline. 

While Flying Drunk ends on a happy note, with Balzer being able to fully reintegrate into commercial aviation; many with similar stories do not have such a happy ending. 

Flying Drunk is a gripping book and raises many more questions than it answers. The prevalence of alcoholism amongst airline pilots is not a topic that is readily discussed, but is a significant predicament. While not flying, Balzer travels and gives talks on the dangers of alcohol and piloting. Balzer's story is one that should be heard.

As to hackers, there are many variables as to if they should be given a second chance.  Whatever the answer is, it clearly is an option. 

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

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