Even if you choose to ignore the signs, you probably have a good idea when it is not safe for you to get behind the wheel of a car. In fact, you can probably remember times when you drove despite the fact that you were not in the best condition for doing so safely. Would you be shocked to learn that some pilots behave the same way?

Before a flight, pilots are encouraged to assess their own fitness to fly. By using a checklist of physical and mental wellness, a pilot alone determines if he or she is ready to take the plane and all its passengers into flight. There is no data to tell you how often a pilot ignores that checklist and climbs into the cockpit.

Alcohol and your pilot

Probably the last thing you want to think about when you board a plane at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport is whether the pilot is well enough to maneuver the plane or handle any unforeseen circumstances at 36,000 feet. Nevertheless, those factors you block from your mind may be the ones that place your life in danger.

For example, federal aviation regulations require eight hours to pass between the time a pilot drinks alcohol and the time the pilot takes control of the aircraft. However, unlike the .08 blood alcohol content that is the limit when driving a car, your pilot’s BAC limit is .04. Despite these regulations and the recommendation from the Federal Aviation Administration that a pilot wait 24 hours to fly after consuming alcohol, pilots may still fly with alcohol in their systems or while struggling through the equally dangerous effects of a hangover.

Other factors on the checklist

Alcohol use is just one element about which a pilot must make an honest self-assessment before flying. Other factors include the following:

  • Is the pilot feeling ill to the point where he or she is a flight risk?
  • Is the pilot taking prescription or over-the-counter medication that could produce physical, mental or even residual side effects that would impair the ability to fly?
  • Is the pilot under emotional stress, for example family issues, money trouble or an exhausting schedule?
  • Has the pilot had adequate, restful sleep?

Any of these factors, or a combination of several, can be a recipe for disaster, placing your life and the lives of your fellow passengers in danger. It may be difficult for someone under any of these conditions to fairly and objectively evaluate his or her fitness to fly. Nevertheless, this self-assessment may mean the difference between a doomed flight and a happy landing.