Talking Heads’ seminal 1977 album entitled Talking Heads: 77, features a song called, “Don’t Worry About The Government,” which is satire, of course. The message is, when somebody tells you not to worry about the government, that’s when you really need to start worrying.
With the announcement by the FAA that it hopes to start testing pilots for drugs in their system as part of a scientific study, the agency sought to alleviate concerns about the risks to the pilots being tested by saying in essence, come on, don’t worry about it. We take that as a sure sign that it’s time to get really worried.
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The idea is this. The agency wants to have AMEs test pilots at their medical certification exam to see if they’ve got drugs in their system, not to bust them for being on illegal or unapproved drugs, at least they claim for now, but as part of a study to better understand how big a role drugs play in aircraft accidents.
It sounds like a good idea, but it’s not. Here are but a few of the problems with that. First, when a pilot goes into the AME for an exam, they are not flying. They might or might not have grounded themselves because they’ve got a bad cold and are legally and innocently taking over the counter medications to fight it. What would a test that shows the presence of those legal drugs tell anyone? I’m tempted to say, “nothing,” but it’s worse than nothing because the presence of that legal drug would very probably suggest something completely unknown if that pilot is flying while using that medication and how it might have affected them.
The bad science continues with the FAA’s methods for comparison. Because it’s hard to ask a pilot who’s been in a fatal accident to drop a urine sample by their local AME for testing, the FAA would simply use the data it already has, which is based on tissue and blood samples from the deceased pilots. The practice is not only inaccurate and unreliable, but the FAA knows that it is. In previous studies, it’s been found that trying to determine blood alcohol content from tissue samples is very likely to provide false positives because of the nature of chemical bodily decomposition, which can mimic a high blood alcohol content. Moreover, blood tests of deceased individuals are somewhat reliable at showing the presence of substances, but they are not good at showing the amount of that substance, the origin of it or in pinpointing the time that it was taken, never mind being conclusive about whether the person was impaired. All you get is a suggestion of some kind of use at some time in the past.
So the idea would be to compare unreliable and inexact evidence of drug use in pilots who died in aviation accidents with the drug test results of pilots who might or might not have been in an airplane recently and who might or might not be planning to go flying any time soon. And the value of that study would be what exactly?
As far as the risks are concerned, let us count the ways. First, any such study would be worse than informative. It would likely provide bad data that could then be used to develop unnecessary and burdensome new regulations and testing requirements.
The FAA already has a robust, time tested and well-understood program for drug testing for professional pilots and other aviation professionals. While that program is not perfect, it is by all indications working well. Alcohol-related accidents among professional pilots or with air transport providers are beyond rare.
Industry watchdogs have numerous concerns about how such a program might be implemented. What happens with our samples? Are there multi-sample testing protocols, as with Olympic athletes, for instance? Is there a safe chain of custody of that evidence? Are the samples anonymous? (How could they be?) What else would they be used for? Would they be used against pilots in certification revocation actions? I know what the FAA would tell us. “Trust us.”
No thanks. Instead, we’ll go along with AOPA, NBAA, EAA, the Southwest Pilots Association and several others member organizations that are not only saying “no” to this kind of bad science but “hell no.”