By Allan Dare (aviator)
Addiction is a complex beast, a siren call that beckons even as it betrays. Throughout my life, I've danced with many potential vices - alcohol, narcotics, caffeine and the digital-age demons of screen time and social media. I've indulged, certainly, but addiction? I stop short of labelling myself an addict. Rather, as I see it, each vice, in moderation, has added a certain spice to life's rich tapestry.
There's an Australian tradition of unwinding with an ice-cold drink, especially after a day of aviation under the fierce sun, in our case, around the unforgiving expanse of an aerodrome. Bloody hell, this ritual, I would argue, is as quintessentially ‘Aussie’ as a Bunnings sausage sizzle, revealing swimwear at the beach, or a hearty "g'day" to passing acquaintances. It's cultural tapestry, a communal exhale.
A Bridge and a Bulldozer
When Doug Flockhart of Gliding Australia invited me to weigh in on the delicate interplay between alcohol and aviation, I felt a tightrope tension and briefly considered a “stuff that!” Although I'm known for my unfiltered candour, a trait that has served both as a bridge and a bulldozer in my relationships, alcohol and its consumption is an increasingly delicate subject in Australia. But decline the invitation? That was never on the cards, given my long-standing rapport with Flockhart.
Let's be clear: this wasn’t to be a sobriety tirade. Flockhart is a staunch advocate for the Australian spirit of joviality and jousting with fate, albeit within the bounds of reason. He's as far from a fun-sucking bureaucrat as one can be, and our camaraderie is built on respect, not romanticism.
Fundamentally, this article is really a tale of mates looking out for mates, with my reference to ‘mates’ being non gender and ethnicity non-specific, for those of you in the audience who might be a little precious.
For the record, I’m a drinker, a BIG drinker at times, and I've been a pilot for four decades, threading the sky on wings and whimsy. I'm also a biker, a swearer, a learner (twice over, university-wise), a father, a divorcee and a helping hand. But this wasn’t to be my life story as much as a reflection on accountability among mates and people we respect.
In aviation, we're taught the sacred rule of ‘8-hours from bottle to throttle’.
But I’m here to state that that rule stands only as a baseline: where it ends is where good judgement takes over. For instance, a blinder of a booze session at day’s end demands a longer grounding. And what about the beer handed to a pilot fresh from a triumphant flight at the cessation of the ground roll, or changing a flat tyre in the hangar after a couple of beers, or scheduled maintenance the morning after? To be clear, I am talking about almost anything that you do in relation to the preparation for, or the operation of, an aircraft or equipment used to launch an aircraft.
The science is evident – alcohol may be a temporary salve for our miseries and lubricant for our triumphs, but it is also a pathway to poor mental health. There’s the famous ‘Harvard Grant’ study for example, which tracked men over a period of 75 years, with the conclusion that alcohol was one consistent predictor of unhappiness. It often leads to broken relationships, poor physical/mental health and derailed careers. Shittay, you might be thinking, given it took 75 years of research to confirm what many had known innately.
Though we have become more attuned to mental health, sadly, a stoic silence among men remains. In some settings we're losing the art of real, live connection, replaced by digital interactions that often leave us more isolated. There’s also a line of thought from behavioural experts (people way smarter than yours truly), that if I spend 5% of my waking hours getting angry on Twitter for example, I become a 5% angrier individual. The same is true if I spend more time with my children expressing and receiving love. We become where we spend our time, so think about that next time you raise your elbow!
Another question lingers: does an esky in the hangar or car boot, or the conviviality of a clubhouse bar with cheap booze, contribute to our sport's alcohol quandaries? Could these spaces, some unmonitored by the normal principles of responsible service of alcohol in a public space, be inadvertently laying the groundwork for poor decisions? Conversely, some clubs have no bar, or just tea, coffee and softies, with recreational facilities for members to enjoy their own private tipples when the hangar doors are closed. Which is the better model? Check out the local bottle shop. Have you tried the new ranges of (tastier) zero or low alcohol offerings? There are some acceptable drops now!
It's a no-brainer that aviation and alcohol are a lethal cocktail. The rules are black and white, but our responsibility doesn't end with our own adherence to the regulations. Gliding demands clarity of mind and a sober grasp on reality. When someone (a mate) in our circle falters, a supportive chat or intervention can be life-altering. Yet, if subtlety fails (noting also, that a clip in the ear ‘out the back’, is no longer politically correct), we must turn to formal channels, guided by club protocols and regulatory bodies. The responsibility lies with all of us, not just those that are consuming the alcohol.
Hell yes, we can still enjoy the camaraderie of a shared drink or two, but when it comes to aviation, the lines are unequivocally drawn. So, for the record, in a no bullshit blokey way, look after your mates and partners, and people you respect, with the same vigilance you'd give to your aircraft. After all, safety is the truest form of care we can offer.