Alcohol and Aviation: They Don't Mix

 

December 1, 2020

Graphic courtesy of V. Jones

OK, "tis the season to be jolly." Don't get me wrong. I'm really big on jolly. Problem is I'm also really big on making it through the holiday season alive and with my pilot's license intact. An important part of achieving that noble goal is knowing where, when and how much of Christmas cheer to consume. You know as well as I do that the successful outcome of any flight depends upon the ability of the pilot to make myriad decisions rapidly and correctly, to see and avoid, to communicate precisely and succinctly. A surprisingly small amount of alcohol can compromise all of these critical functions. One ounce of alcohol can impair reflex responses, constrict visual fields, and increase the frequency with which errors are committed. Alcohol owing to its chemical nature is very efficient in getting into your system. From 80% to 90% of a drink is absorbed by the gut in 30 minutes. The body requires about three hours to eliminate the alcohol from one mixed drink or one beer. The FAA has publishes a very interesting chart comparing alcohol doses from various drinks and effect of alcohol blood levels on the pilot's physiology:



Type Beverage Typical Serving Pure Alcohol Content (oz)

Table wine 4.0 0.48

Light beer 12.0 0.48

Aperitif liquor 1.5 0.38

Champagne 4.0 0.48

Vodka 1.0 0.50

Whiskey 1.25 0.50

0.01–0.05% average individual appears normal

0.03–0.12%* mild euphoria, talkativeness, decreased inhibitions, decreased attention, impaired judgment, increased

reaction time

0.18–0.30% confusion, dizziness, exaggerated emotions

(anger, fear, grief), impaired visual perception, decreased pain sensation, impaired balance, staggering gait, slurred speech, moderate muscular incoordination

0.27–0.40% apathy, impaired consciousness, stupor,

significantly decreased response to stimulation, severe muscular incoordination, inability to stand or walk, vomiting, incontinence

of urine and feces

0.35–0.50% unconsciousness, depressed or abolished

reflexes, abnormal body temperature, coma, possible death from

respiratory paralysis (450 mg or above)

* Legal limit for motor vehicle operation in most states is 0.08 or

0.10% (80–100 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood).

OK, "tis the season to be jolly." Don't get me wrong. I'm really big on jolly. Problem is I'm also really big on making it through the holiday season alive and with my pilot's license intact. An important part of achieving that noble goal is knowing where, when and how much of Christmas cheer to consume. You know as well as I do that the successful outcome of any flight depends upon the ability of the pilot to make myriad decisions rapidly and correctly, to see and avoid, to communicate precisely and succinctly. A surprisingly small amount of alcohol can compromise all of these critical functions. One ounce of alcohol can impair reflex responses, constrict visual fields, and increase the frequency with which errors are committed. Alcohol owing to its chemical nature is very efficient in getting into your system. From 80% to 90% of a drink is absorbed by the gut in 30 minutes. The body requires about three hours to eliminate the alcohol from one mixed drink or one beer. The FAA has publishes a very interesting chart comparing alcohol doses from various drinks and effect of alcohol blood levels on the pilot's physiology:

As you might imagine, altitude magnifies the effect of alcohol on the brain. Decreased atmospheric pressure and oxygen partial pressure combine to magnify the impairment of one or two drinks to that of three or four. The regulations state eight hours "from bottle to throttle" i.e. eight hours must elapse from last drink to flying. Even that may be marginal. If you really tied one on and are hung over you are definitely impaired and you may still have significant alcohol levels in your bloodstream. Federal Aviation Regulations state that blood alcohol level must be below 0.04%. Better yet, get that level down to zero before hopping into the cockpit. Bottom line...if you feel a little dodgy after a night of partying, don't think that two aspirins and a shot of coffee will do the trick. Postpone that flight. Be conservative with your Holiday Cheer so you may greet the new year!


Fly wisely. See you next month.

 

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