Pilots, Alcohol, Aviation and Addiction

pilot wife life

One Pilot's Alcohol Recovery Story

 In 2017, after a long day on airline eserve, David woke up in an ambulance, unable to remember how he got there, and scared of what was next. That was the day he realized that alcohol was in charge, he was addicted and he had no other choice but to seek help.

His wife, Chelsey was 37 weeks pregnant with their second child, and they faced an uncertain future for what this would mean for his airline pilot and aviation career.

Pilots, Alcohol, Aviation and Addiction

These are not 4 words that we typically want to associate together. Yet, it's a real thing, and somewhat of a hidden epidemic.

Today, David and Chelsey Shaffer step forward to share their story and offer hope and help to other Pilots, Pilot Wives and anyone questioning their own use, or abuse of alcohol. The pandemic not only increased alcohol consumption by 30-40%, but excessive drinking by 21% according to a Harvard study. 



Alcohol use and abuse is not exclusive to careers nor excluded by some, including commercial airline and other pilots. As I have worked with pilot wives and other clients, these stories often come out, cloaked in fear, shame, guilt and a sense that something is wrong with us. 

At his worst, David was drinking 6 "Handles" of alcohol a week, with a mathematical system that allowed him to not feel like his alcohol problem was so bad. A handle of liquor is a 1.75 L bottle of liquor. That means each one has 39 1.5-ounce shots in it. So, we are talking almost 240 shots a week. You do the math.

Today, he is well, recovered and helping others!

David and Chelsey share some key points:


David's Early Story of Alcohol Use

He knew he wanted to be a pilot early on, and grew up in a performance based family, feeling like he never wanted to let anyone down.

David didn't take his first drink until 19, after high school ended, as his parents had bribed him with - no drugs, alcohol or sex and you can have the car of your choice upon graduation.

But after that, his first drinking experience was positive and he quickly realized it relieved anxiety and made life better. In less than 3 years, David entered his first Alcohol Rehab program. He was told he currently had the body of an 80 year old and without change, things were going to end badly.

He reached a point where he didn't want to drink, but it became the only thing that calmed his body down, that stopped the sweating and withdrawals. Otherwise you can't function.

He quickly ended up a young father, and life changed directions.

After getting his life back on track, any reaching and staying sober, he and Chelsey met and married. 

Hired By a Regional Airline

"I was hired and went off to the airlines. Right before I went to the airlines I went on a ski trip with a couple of my friends. We're talking about life, and alcohol was around. I thought I don't know if I had a problem or I was just young. They said there's no better time to try. Let's just have a beer on the ski trip, and so I had a beer with my friends and whatnot. I came back from that, and thought Hey, I think i'm fine. I think I'm normal. I think it might have just been a phase.

Then, after Day 1, the Instructor took eight of us out to a brewery, and everyone partied. On Day two, the next instructor took us all out. We party day three, and it was like, Oh, this is normal, and it just slowly went from having a beer with some friends on a ski trip to, I need a bottle in my my fridge when I get home from class, because I'm starting to shake again. And that happened really quick, like just a few weeks.

I asked how he handled the flying and alcohol 8 hour rule. "I think people would be surprised how many pilots are probably right now flying around with above the legal limit of alcohol in their system. It's a huge problem and people just don't want to talk about it. There were times where I would get off flights and be like, Okay, You just have to wait till it as soon as we land and get the hotel, and you go throw up."


Waking Up in An Ambulance

"I was on a reserve trip when all this happened, back to the airport. This is like nine o'clock at night and so I had finished my day earlier at like and my flight home was supposed to be around 8:30pm. I had had a couple of drinks, and I honestly, I don't remember. I didn't think that I had hardly drink anything and then I was in the parking lot of the Denver airport. And next thing I knew I woke up in an ambulance. I came to in an ambulance, and then I woke up about eight hours later, in a hospital, and I came to an ambulance. I did not where I was, but I remember waking up, seeing lights, someone was talking to me, an EMT or something like that. And I just remember thinking, Okay, I can't hide it anymore. So this is the start of something new, like it was kind of a refreshing experience or not refreshing. I think they said my blood alcohol when I got to the airport was like three point eight."

Seeking Help and Eliminating the Fear and Stigma

From a pilot standpoint, getting over the stigma of "You're never going to fly again." Or sharing mental health issues. 

That's not not the case. That's actually one of the things that they talked to us about was mental health and what we're going to be focused on. It's probably the first step specifically for pilots, is not fearing asking for help.

Surprisingly, our biggest pushback when I was working with HIMS was from the Pilot Union. ALPA Carriers are different as is American Airlines Union, but Skywest has its own union. Probably 4-5 Times the Number of Pilots Actually Need Help Who Are Not in the Program! 


The HIMS Program for Aviation

The first step is to reach out, and it is confidential. Contact HIMS here!

Listen as David shares the Importance of Knowing How to Navigate Help Strategically and Avoid Pitfalls. He shares his story of nearly 3 years to get his medical back, and it wasn't through any fault of his. He fell through the cracks of some obvious errors in the system when you don't know how to navigate it correctly.

"There are HIMS representatives out there that would be happy to talk to you, and just tell you their story and how it helped them. There's a contact list on the Him's website, and all the different companies and representatives and their phone numbers. Even if you don't want to call your own company, You know you're a delta pilot, but you're afraid to call it. Tell to him. Call an American team's representative, or call you a Frontier HIMS representative and just have talk to him because they're they're happy. The reason their phone numbers are out there is."

Pilot Wives and Alcohol

Chelsey shares "I'm in a lot of Pilot Wife Groups and Pages, and it's very evident that it's an issue, whether it's with the pilot wife, or the husband. Because no one's talking about it, they tend to think they're the only one experiencing this with their spouse or with themselves. So I try to just be open, not pass any judgment or comments, but say we're here. This is our situation. We're here for you. I think that it it this lifestyle that we live is not normal, so things can stir up pretty quickly. We just wanna be there for anyone."

No Affect on Future Career or Getting Hired By a Legacy Carrier and Keeping Your Ability to Fly For a Career

David shares his exciting news of being hired by a Legacy Carrier, Delta Airlines and the fabulous career that awaits him. He spent the bulk of his interview with Delta discussing his journey and that it in no way would hinder his future.


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