Aviation Safety Letter 1/2005

To Drink or Not to Drink

by Michel Treskin, Civil Aviation Safety Inspector, System Safety, Transport Canada, Ontario Region

He looked at the approach and it all seemed right. He had done it so many times that he could have closed is eyes and still made it look easy. The wind was just starting to increase as the sun peeked over the horizon. His nine passengers were mesmerized by the silence and by the gigantic balloon hanging right over them. The noise generated by the twin burner, which had been switched on without warning, was deafening.

The field had been selected from previous flights and all seemed to be normal that day.

As the balloon descended towards the landing area, the pilot saw that there was a slight chance that his approach would bring the balloon dangerously close to some secondary power lines. He decided to continue to see if he could salvage the landing and still stop and deflate the envelope before contacting the power lines. He knew it would be a close call but he also knew that he was a damn good pilot and that he had experienced some close calls in the past.

The basket hit the ground and started to tip over. He instinctively applied full burner to try to recover from tipping the basket. The surge of hot air filled the envelope and the gigantic balloon started to recover and get back into a gentle ascent. During this aggressive recovery, flames made contact with the skirt of the envelope and were seen by the local residents living in the surrounding area. Some resident were so surprised by the early morning sight and sound of the event unfolding in front of their eyes, that they called the local law enforcement to report a balloon on fire in their backyard. In the spur of the excitement, the pilot forgot about the wires that were right on the path of his ascent. The wires made contact with the basket and broke. The balloon traveled another 10 mi. before finally landing safely in a secondary field with only minor damages. During this transition time, the local police maintained a visual contact and were able to meet and confront the pilot.

The first thing they noticed when they questioned him was the smell of alcohol on his breath. Yes, the pilot had been drinking the previous night. He said that his last drink was well before 8 hr prior to his morning flight and that he would gladly submit to a Breathalyzer. Unfortunately for the pilot, he failed the test. Note:  A "FAIL" report from the "road side" screening test equipment indicates the presence of alcohol between 0.049% and 0.099%.

The above flight actually happened and many pilots in Canada may have misconceptions about Canadian Aviation Regulation (CAR) 602.03, the rule that addresses the consumption of alcohol. Here it is:  602.03 No person shall act as a crew member of an aircraft

  1. within eight hours after consuming an alcoholic beverage;

  2. while under the influence of alcohol; or

  3. while using any drug that impairs the person's faculties to the extent that the safety of the aircraft or of the persons on board the aircraft is endangered in any way.

We often refer to this as the "8 hours from bottle to throttle" rule, but if we look at it closely, we see that it is a three-part regulation. What some may be overlooking is the second part that states, "No person shall act as a crew member of an aircraft (b) while under the influence of alcohol." Transport Canada has no tolerance on this rule if you are found with any trace of alcohol in your system. The regulation can actually be misleading; one rule states that you are allowed to drink eight hours before a flight, while the other says you better not get caught with any trace of alcohol in your system even if it has been eight hours since your last drink.

We are all different when it comes to the time required for our body to eliminate all traces of alcohol. For some, eight hours may be long enough, while others might need more time. The amount of liquor consumed is a big factor as well. A single beer consumed eight hours or more before a flight will not yield the same hangover as multiple servings of beer, wine or liquor. What we need to remember is that if we decide to have an alcoholic beverage the night before a flight, we must ensure that we are completely clean before we start that flight. Otherwise, we might find ourselves without a licence.

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