The justice system has become a lot more just lately when it comes to people suffering from substance use disorders by offering diversion programs that allow people who abuse drugs and commit crimes to avoid jail time by attending treatment and engaging in long-term monitoring. Certain professionals such as police, doctors, and lawyers have their own way of offering support to those willing to accept help.
Pilots in the throes of addiction are another group that has benefitted immensely from caring colleagues. Larry Smith, a former commercial pilot for Braniff and United Airlines who was addicted to several substances received incredible support from United Airlines, the FAA Medical Division, and the program for pilots called HIMS (more about that later). Today he is CEO of Get Real Recovery in San Juan Capistrano, CA, an FAA-approved treatment center he co-founded with his wife Lori in 2011.
In 2008, the Office of Aerospace Medicine of the FAA produced a report titled Drug Usage in Pilots Involved in Aviation Accidents Compared With Drug Usage in the General Population: From 1990 to 2005. It mentions a long list of drugs that pilots were using during that time, but what’s also scary is knowing that the report deals only with pilots involved in accidents. You wonder how many other pilots flew under the influence that weren’t involved in accidents.
Larry’s story is mesmerizing. In 1983 he received a DUI, although he was a furloughed pilot at the time. He received a second one that was reduced to a charge of reckless operation without alcohol. Larry now openly admits it should have been a DUI. He thought it was clever how he was able to duck under the radar for so long. Most alcoholics and addicts suffer from extreme denial, he says, and he was no different. Larry teaches that denial is the brain’s defense mechanism to protect the perceived right to use, not a character defect. Addicted people will use every type of denial possible to avoid being detected. They hide their pain and self-disgust with charm or anger, whatever is necessary. Larry sees himself in others at every intervention, counseling session, and group that he facilitates.
Larry’s addiction to alcohol started in 1965 at 14 years old. He started using cocaine occasionally in the 1980’s, and by 1998 he advanced to smoking crack. “I recognized I had a serious problem then, but I didn’t know what to do,” he recalls. He was afraid to turn himself in to the EAP or HIMS programs as he mistakenly thought he would be immediately fired if the truth about his chemical dependencies was exposed.
On February 3rd, 1999, a vice squad of 12 masked men with shotguns and riot batons used a battering ram to invade his home in Ohio. His arrest quickly made the national news. Smith was released from jail on February 5th and received a call from his chief pilot. He thought he was going to be fired, but instead, his boss offered him treatment. His first treatment center was too lenient with clients, so United’s EAP transferred him to Cornerstone of Southern California. He admits now, “I wasn’t a model patient; nevertheless, I fell in love with recovery!”
Nine months later Smith flew a 747 from SFO to Kona with 400 passengers on board. He gives all the credit to God and a forward-thinking airline. The FAA, United’s EAP and Management, an Aviation Medical Examiner, a psychiatrist and the Pilot’s Union (ALPA) all closely monitored Captain Smith’s progress for 5 ½ years. During this time, Larry became a licensed counselor and started speaking on addiction and the hi-jacked brain. Immediately after being released from FAA Monitoring, he spent eight years as a volunteer Union Rep to United Airlines EAP. Then and now, he guides and counsel pilots who abuse alcohol and drugs.
As the HIMS website explains: “The HIMS program was established to provide a system whereby afflicted individuals are treated and successfully returned to the cockpit under the FAA Special Issuance Regulations (14 CFR 67.401).”
“The purpose of the HIMS program is to effectively treat the disease of chemical dependency in pilot populations in order to save lives and careers while enhancing flight safety. The HIMS concept is based on a cooperative and mutually supportive relationship between pilots, their management, and the FAA. Trained managers and peer pilots interact to identify and, in many cases, conduct an intervention to direct the troubled individual to a substance abuse professional for a diagnostic evaluation. If deemed medically necessary, treatment is then initiated. Following successful treatment and comprehensive continuing care, the pilot is eligible to seek FAA medical re-certification.
The FAA requires the pilot to be further evaluated by a specially trained FAA Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) who then acts as the Independent Medical Sponsor (IMS) to coordinate the FAA re-certification process. The medical sponsor provides oversight of the pilot’s continuing care. This care includes a monthly interview by a trained flight manager and by a pilot peer committee member, as well as periodic follow-up observations. Because of the relapse potential of chemical dependency, the monitoring will typically continue for several years after the pilot resumes his duties. The HIMS program is designed to ensure the pilot maintains total abstinence and to protect flight safety.”
Larry explains some of the challenges pilots face this way: “Pilots are great at following directions, like the checklist we give them in recovery, but they’re not so great at processing what’s within. We find that some had trauma in their early life. For example, some were at war, and some grew up with rigid fathers and co-dependent mothers and so forth, and counseling helps them see what may have caused them to drink and help them get out of their own minds.”
In 2010 he wrote The Daily Life Plan Journal, a goal-setting journaling guide for people in recovery to be able to simply draw lines on airplane-like gauges to assess their feelings and emotions. For example, instead of asking them to mark their flight level, they’re asked, What is your motivation level “right at this moment?” It’s an effective way to journal for people who don’t like to write or have difficulty expressing themselves in writing. This journal allows a person to simply put pen to paper and measure their feelings by drawing a line.
In addition, he wrote a book about overcoming addiction called Flight to Transformation. The book is part memoir and part a strongly spiritual walk through recovery. He’s also expanding his treatment knowledge to include MAT–Medically Assisted Treatment, and the use of Stem Cells in recovery.