A Sickness and Its Cure: The crash of Trans-Colorado Airlines flight 2286
On the 19th of January 1988, a commuter plane inbound from Denver was minutes away from landing in Durango, Colorado when it suddenly slammed into a snow-covered ridge. For those on board, seating position determined who lived and who died: forward of the wings, 9 people perished, but aft of the wings, 8 others survived, emerging into a wintry wilderness on a dark, moonless night. Unsure where they were, the survivors trudged for more than an hour through deep snow and biting cold, until, by good fortune, they found help and were saved.
The crash of Trans-Colorado flight 2286 was, on the surface, little more than the latest tragedy in a long series of “controlled flight into terrain” accidents involving small, poorly equipped commuter planes. These aircraft, which were not required to have ground proximity warning devices, all too often descended too low on approach and crashed into the ground. But as the National Transportation Safety Board began to put together the pieces of this latest accident, they came across an unbelievable bombshell: the captain of the ill-fated flight had used cocaine the night before he died. This disturbing revelation during a period of heightened public concern about illicit drugs added momentum to a federal effort to introduce random drug testing for pilots — a topic which was controversial when it was proposed, and in fact remains controversial today, for reasons that are worth a deeper examination.
Founded in December 1980 with a single 19-passenger Fairchild Swearingen Metro II, Trans-Colorado Airlines was a commuter carrier specializing in short-range flights within the US state of Colorado and to the neighboring states of New Mexico and Wyoming. Headquartered in Colorado Springs and with a hub at the now-defunct Stapleton Airport in Denver, the airline offered connections to and from smaller communities not served by major airlines, allowing passengers to avoid lengthy (and at some times of year, potentially treacherous) overland trips to catch flights in the big cities. For most of its existence, Trans-Colorado did so under Continental Express branding as part of a feeder agreement with Continental Airlines, a contract which became responsible for much of the company’s passenger turnover.
In 1987, Continental Airlines bought out rival Colorado-based commuter airline Rocky Mountain Airways, as a result of which Trans-Colorado Airlines was able to enter an agreement under which it provided planes and crews to fly Rocky Mountain Airways routes at a rate of $400 per block hour. Among these routes was a regular service from Denver’s Stapleton Airport to Durango, a southern Colorado town of about 12,000 (in 1990), and thence to Cortez, a town of about 7,000 in the extreme southwestern part of the state, near Mesa Verde National Park. Designated flight 2286, the route was operated using Trans-Colorado’s newer fleet of Fairchild-Swearingen Metro III twin-engine commuter planes — a small, cramped model also known as the Metroliner, which tended to terrify pilots and passengers alike.
Among the Metroliner pilots employed by Trans-Colorado was 36-year-old Captain Stephen Silver, an up-and-coming airman with a little over 4,000 hours of flying time. Silver was known for his intelligence and his stick-and-rudder piloting skills, but many who flew with him were aware that he was also a risk-taker — a bit of a hot dog, if you will. He liked to rush to keep the schedule, and he had a reputation for making up lost time, a trait that had earned him a commendation on his personnel file for a record seven-minute turnaround in Gunnison, Colorado. “My compliments to the crew… into GUC at 11:32 and out at 11:39… gotta like it,” an anonymous manager wrote.
But Silver’s need for speed and loose adherence to rules also had a dark side. On one occasion, he berated a baggage agent whom he thought had lost his bag, and on that same flight, he violated company procedures in order to secure a free seat for a woman who was not his wife. On another occasion, he boarded a late passenger with one of the engines running, which is not allowed. And his driving history was no better: in 1980, his driver’s license was suspended in the state of Florida, and when he moved to Colorado, he acquired a new license without informing the state of the prior suspension. Now back behind the wheel in Colorado, he racked up five traffic convictions between 1983 and 1986, including two for failure to yield, two for disobeying a traffic signal, and one for speeding, of which two violations were associated with accidents.
Unlike many pilots profiled in these articles, Captain Silver was also no stranger to plane crashes, and he had history with the NTSB. In 1983, he crashed a Cessna 182 on approach to Burlington, Colorado, causing minor injuries to a passenger; the NTSB determined that the accident was the result of improper runway selection, improper compensation for wind, misjudging distance, and failure to go around in a timely manner. As a result of the crash, Silver had to undergo re-examination by an FAA inspector.
On the afternoon of January 19th, 1988, Silver was rostered on a series of flights with another Trans-Colorado pilot, 42-year-old First Officer Ralph Harvey. Harvey had about 8,500 flying hours, but his history as an airman was rather checkered. He first joined Colorado-based Pioneer Airways in 1980, but was fired in 1981 after he failed to demonstrate proficiency during an attempt to upgrade to captain — disturbingly, the instructor found that he failed to take action during periods which required changes to the aircraft’s configuration, attitude, or flight path. Following his dismissal, Harvey became a flight instructor at a small company in Colorado, then scored a position as a combined flight instructor and charter pilot at an outfit in Alaska. This job didn’t last long either, however, as he failed a proficiency check in February 1986 due to difficulty performing instrument approaches. As a result of the failure, he was stripped of his instrument rating and was only allowed to fly in visual conditions, although he later got his rating back.
Following these events, Harvey left Alaska and returned to Colorado, where he worked odd jobs until he landed a position at Trans-Colorado Airlines, which trained him to fly the Metroliner. Instructors assessed his skills as “average” to “weak,” and commented on his difficulty with instrument approaches — apparently unaware that this had been a problem area since the beginning, as at that time Harvey was not required to disclose (and did not disclose) his history with Pioneer Airways. What he did disclose was a drunk driving conviction from 1983, the culmination of a long struggle with alcohol that threatened to derail his already beleaguered career. However, by all accounts the conviction prompted him to sober up, and Harvey was said to have been free from alcohol abuse after 1983, which is why he was hirable in the first place. Even so, he was a bottom of the barrel pick, which may have had something to do with the $12,500 annual salary that Trans-Colorado offered its Metroliner first officers.
This sordid pilot pairing first departed Stapleton Airport for a round trip flight to the town of Casper, the second largest city in Wyoming, at 14:25 that afternoon. Much of Colorado was consumed by a snowstorm, and the flight’s departure was delayed by over an hour, a fact which would not have sat well with the notoriously schedule-oriented Captain Silver. The flight to Casper and back proceeded without incident, but the plane and its crew were still 42 minutes late by the time they returned to operate flight 2286, the evening service to Durango and Cortez.
In addition to the two pilots, 15 passengers boarded, squeezing down the extremely narrow aisle to fill seats whose headrests almost touched the ceiling, one on each side, without room even to stand up in between them.
With First Officer Harvey at the controls, flight 2286 departed Denver at 18:20 local time and climbed to its cruising altitude of 23,000 feet, heading southwest across Colorado’s rugged interior. Beneath them, mountains rose to heights in excess of 14,000 feet, among the highest in the United States, restricting air traffic to altitudes above 15,100 feet. At 6,685 feet above sea level, Durango-La Plata County Airport, the flight’s destination, was also relatively high, and the descent promised to be quick.
At 19:00, as the flight drew closer to Durango, controllers in Denver contacted the crew to inquire about their intention to approach the airport. Durango did not have a control tower, so controllers in Denver would issue the approach clearance, and landing would be at the pilot’s discretion, but first they needed to know which published approach the crew wanted to use. “Trans-Colorado twenty two eighty six,” the controller asked, “for your approach into Durango would you rather shoot the ILS or will the DME approach to runway two zero be sufficient?”
“Center, twenty two eighty six, we’ll plan on a DME to two zero,” Captain Silver replied.
“Trans-Colorado twenty two eighty six… if you want to proceed direct to the zero two three radial eleven mile fix that’s approved,” the controller added.
Since it was nighttime and the weather was cloudy, the pilots needed to use one of the published instrument approaches to Durango-La Plata County Airport. One of these was an instrument landing system, or ILS, approach to runway 02, oriented southwest to northeast. The ILS equipment would provide guidance in both the lateral and vertical planes, but it meant flying well beyond the airport and doubling back. Since they were already behind schedule, Captain Silver preferred to land on runway 20, the same runway from the opposite direction, which would be more direct given their present location northeast of the airport. Furthermore, had he inquired, he would have learned that the ILS was out of service that night due to deep snow, and could not have been used anyway.
The only instrument approach to runway 20 was a non-precision VOR/DME approach. In a VOR/DME approach, the pilot aligns with the runway by tracking along a specified “radial” of a VOR radio beacon, or Very high frequency (VHF) Omnidirectional Range, located at the airport. A VOR radial is an imaginary line extending from the VOR along a particular compass heading: hence, the “090 radial” runs due east from the VOR, the “180 radial” runs due south, and so on. At Durango, runway 20 pointed toward a compass heading of 203 degrees, so a VOR approach would involve flying along the 023 radial of the Durango VOR, known as DRO.
Therefore, when the controller cleared flight 2286 “direct to the 023 radial 11 mile fix,” they meant that the flight could proceed to a point on the 023 radial located 11 nautical miles from DRO (the Durango VOR). From there, the pilots would need to descend on their own without vertical guidance, which is part of what differentiates a VOR/DME approach from an ILS approach. Instead of tracking a glideslope, the pilots would need to ensure that they reached certain altitudes at certain distances from DRO, as indicated by the VOR’s built-in Distance Measuring Equipment, or DME.
The VOR/DME approach to runway 20 at Durango was complicated by the presence of high mountains northeast of the runway. The approach called for the aircraft to be at a height of 10,400 feet when crossing the 11 mile fix (henceforth, “11 DME”) on the 023 radial, but with a minimum sector altitude of 15,100 feet immediately to the north, getting down to 10,400 feet by the 11 DME fix was impossible. Therefore, the approach had been designed to give pilots extra time to descend by first routing planes all the way to the DRO VOR, where they would overfly the airport, then turn outbound on the 096 radial of the VOR (heading east away from the airport), before proceeding back to the 11 DME fix along what is known as a DME arc, maintaining a constant 11 nautical miles from the VOR, as shown above. While in the DME arc, a descent to 10,400 feet could easily be accomplished.
However, Captain Silver probably never had any intention of flying the approach as published. The company had only allotted 70 minutes for the flight — any longer and it would fall behind schedule — and it would have been difficult to stay within that time limit while completing the full VOR/DME approach procedure. Instead, some Trans-Colorado pilots had developed a habit of descending extremely steeply from 15,000 feet to fly the approach straight in from the 11 DME fix, without overflying DRO or completing the DME arc. This usually resulted in inbound aircraft arriving over the 11 DME fix at about 14,000 feet instead of the prescribed 10,400 feet — almost twice as high above the ground as they should be at that point. With only 11 nautical miles to make up this difference, descent rates sometimes in excess of -2,500 feet per minute were required, which was well above the company limit for that phase of the approach.
Over the next several minutes, flight 2286 was cleared to descend to 16,000, then 15,000 feet, and the controller informed them that the weather in Durango consisted of light snow and fog with one mile visibility and an indefinite cloud ceiling at 800 feet. The conditions weren’t great, but they were above the minimums, so they pressed on. Finally, at 19:14, the controller transmitted, “Trans-Colorado twenty two eighty six, cross the Durango zero two three zero one one mile fix at or above one four thousand, cleared VOR/DME runway two zero approach to the Durango Airport.”
“Okay, we’re down to one four and we’re cleared for the approach,” Captain Silver replied.
Flight 2286 immediately began to descend to 14,000 feet. As it did so, it dropped out of airspace controlled from Denver, and at 19:16 the Denver controller said, “Trans-Colorado twenty two eighty six, radar service terminated.”
“Twenty two eighty six, wilco,” said Silver. This would be the last communication with air traffic control.
At almost that same moment, flight 2286 arrived over the 11 DME fix at a height of 14,000 feet, and First Officer Harvey initiated a blazing descent in excess of -3,000 feet per minute in an attempt to catch up with the prescribed glide path. Their speed ballooned to nearly 190 knots, thanks both to their steep descent and a 10–15 knot tailwind pushing at them from behind, which made the task of getting down even harder.
As radar continued to track the flight, it kept descending rapidly, until it reached the intended approach profile, having apparently caught up as planned. Around the same time, the plane also disappeared from radar in Denver due to intervening mountains. But by all accounts, it never pulled up — it simply kept descending into the darkness.
Moments later, passengers aboard flight 2286 began to sense that something was amiss. But before their thoughts could crystallize, one of the pilots pushed the thrust levers all the way up, and almost simultaneously, the plane slammed into a stand of trees atop a ridge, severely damaging the left wing. Engines screaming, the plane lurched back into the air, but it was out of control, rolling and cartwheeling about its crippled wing, until it slammed upright once more into the snowy ground. Amid great billows of powder, it skidded harshly to a halt, its cockpit and forward fuselage compressed like an accordion, its wings dislodged and thrown atop the cabin. And for a moment, there was silence.
On board the plane, passengers seated in the rear were amazed to discover that they had survived the crash with varying degrees of injury. Some had escaped with only scrapes and bruises, while others were more seriously hurt, with multiple injuries including fractured vertebrae. An as yet unknown number of people seated in the front had also been killed.
With little idea of where they were, and with no assurance of immediate rescue, the survivors decided to take matters into their own hands. The first to set out from the plane was crash survivor Peter Schauer, who embarked through freezing temperatures and waist deep snow on an arduous journey toward a lonely light in the distance. In pain from his injuries and faced with extremely difficult conditions, he was only able to move about 50 feet at a time before stopping to rest. It took him an hour and a half to reach the source of the light, which turned out to be a solitary house, nestled at the end of a rural dirt road, somewhere beyond the furthest outskirts of Durango.
Upon hearing a knock on her door, the aged retiree homeowner discovered a disheveled and exhausted man outside her house, whose appearance resembled, in her mind, a survivor of a “bad car crash.” But instead, he informed her that he had survived a plane crash, and asked her to call 911.
The homeowner’s call turned out to be the first indication authorities received concerning the whereabouts of the plane, which was reported missing by Rocky Mountain Airways personnel in Durango about 25 minutes after the crash. But until the report of a survivor, no search was initiated due to a lack of information about the plane’s last known location, as Durango-La Plata County Airport was not equipped with radar. Only now did a large convoy of rescuers set out from Durango along US highway 160 toward the general area where Peter Schauer was found.
Meanwhile, a group of five additional passengers, including a young mother and her 23-month-old child, also set out through the deep snow and freezing cold, unwilling to wait any longer for rescue. In defiance of the life-threatening conditions, they too trekked for an hour and a half across rugged, snowbound country, until they came across US highway 160 and flagged down a motorist. Piling into the vehicle, they too shared the incredible story of their survival, and the driver began transporting them toward Durango — only to encounter responding emergency services barely a mile down the road. First responders took the survivors onward to hospital, where all would eventually recover from injuries that included bruising, fractures, and frostbite.
The outcome for those who remained with the airplane was not so fortunate. The crash site was not located until 22:26, more than two hours after the crash, and rescuers only managed to reach it at 23:14, traveling overland in snowmobiles, ski patrol sleds, and a bulldozer. Amid the twisted wreckage, they found six people dead, including both pilots; four others were clinging to life, but two died as they were being extracted. Although the remaining two survivors were rushed to hospital — as fast as the awful conditions permitted — one passed away the next day, leaving a total of nine people dead. Eight others survived, although official documents are unclear about where, exactly, the eighth person was found, because the group of five, plus Peter Schauer, plus the one person extracted alive from the wreckage, only adds up to seven.
For the National Transportation Safety Board, several signs immediately suggested that this was a classic case of “controlled flight into terrain.” At that time, aircraft with fewer than 30 passenger seats were not required to carry any flight recorders, and the ill-fated Metroliner was not equipped with any, but other sources of data painted a bare-bones outline of what happened in the flight’s final minutes. A plot of radar returns from the Denver area control center (depicted earlier in this article) showed that the flight arrived over the 11 DME fix at 14,000 feet, then steadily descended at a rate at or above -3,000 feet per minute all the way down to the prescribed glide path, at which point it could no longer be tracked, but when plotting the crash site — about five nautical miles short of the runway — as the final data point, it was obvious enough that flight 2286 simply never leveled off and continued descending steeply until it struck the ground.
Given the steepness of the descent required to land from 14,000 feet in a distance of 11 miles, especially with a tailwind, there would not have been a large window in which to adjust their vertical speed before landing. The pilots would have needed to be alert and diligent with their instrument scans in order to avoid inadvertently overshooting and falling below the normal 3-degree glide path, but this evidently did not happen. For whatever reason, First Officer Harvey never realized that he needed to rein in his descent, and Captain Silver never noticed his fatal omission.
This outcome perfectly underscored why the VOR/DME approach to runway 20 was never supposed to have been flown “straight-in.” Proceeding directly to landing after crossing the mountains required a descent rate which was in excess of company limits and was sometimes unsafe. Following the published procedure by flying through the DME arc to lose altitude would have ensured a stable, steady descent at a reasonable vertical speed, but the NTSB felt that there were structural incentives that drove schedule-minded pilots like Captain Silver to choose the riskier shortcut. The time allotted by Trans-Colorado for the flight from Denver to Durango was too short, and the official approach procedure was clearly inconvenient for crews coming in from the north or east, as it required them to double back. This design apparently came about because the VOR/DME runway 20 procedure was a “special approach” created by and for the defunct Pioneer Airways, with special FAA approval, and was only transferred to Trans-Colorado after Pioneer Airways went out of business in 1986. The arrangement of the DME arc made sense for Pioneer Airways, whose flights more often neared Durango from the south and west, but was awkward for Trans-Colorado, whose hubs lay to the north and east.
Why this risky approach snowballed into tragedy on that particular flight could not be known with certainty, because the pilots’ conversations were not recorded. However, investigators noted several factors which may have contributed. Most notably, with the cloud ceiling at 800 feet above the ground, the runway lights actually might have come into view a few seconds before the crash, despite the sketchy reported visibility. If this was the case, then the pilots might have gone “heads up” — eyes outside the plane — before First Officer Harvey realized that they were too low. With their eyes off their instruments, the pilots might not have appreciated that they were still descending rapidly and were in danger of striking the ground.
Furthermore, although Durango-La Plata County Airport was equipped with a Visual Approach Slope Indicator system, or VASI, which displays white lights when an incoming plane is too high and red lights when a plane is too low, it might not have been possible for the pilots to actually see it. By the time the VASI was close enough to be readable, if it ever was, the plane might already have dropped so low that the ridge which it eventually struck was blocking their view of the approach end of the runway, where the VASI was located. The presence of the ridge would not have been obvious, given the overcast conditions that prevented moonlight from reflecting off the accumulated snow. There was likely a black hole effect where the only visible objects were the runway lights, isolated in a sea of darkness, until suddenly the plane’s landing lights illuminated the trees and rocks below — at which point it would have been too late.
The backgrounds of the pilots helped explain some, but notably not all, of the above events. Captain Silver’s reputation for haste surely led to his decision to choose a straight-in approach, and First Officer Harvey’s serious difficulties with instrument approaches almost certainly contributed to his failure to control the plane’s flight path during its final descent. But Captain Silver had no such training difficulties — although he was reckless and was no stranger to violating procedures, he was not incompetent or oblivious, and he should have anticipated the need to begin leveling out as they neared the ground. So why didn’t he?
In February 1988, just over one month after the crash, the NTSB received a phone call from a corporate pilot who described meeting a woman claiming to be Captain Silver’s fiancée while staying at a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. In the course of their conversation, the topic of the accident came up, at which point the woman dropped a bombshell: “I’m sure glad that we were able to bury him right after the accident,” she allegedly said, “because the night before, we had done a bag of cocaine, and I was worried that the autopsy would say there were traces of this in his system before he died.”
Investigators were stunned, but skeptical. Was it really possible that an airline captain, whose life appeared to be in order, could have been flying under the influence of cocaine? The story could not be immediately dismissed, because the woman’s name matched that of the girlfriend who posed as Captain Silver’s wife during the lost baggage incident. Furthermore, while both pilots’ blood and urine samples had already tested negative for alcohol — dismissing speculation that First Officer Harvey had relapsed — nobody had tested the samples for cocaine, which was not yet standard procedure at that time.
In response to the allegations, the NTSB immediately submitted Captain Silver’s archived blood and urine samples for retesting. And sure enough, the results came back positive: Captain Silver’s blood definitely contained both cocaine and cocaine metabolites, with the ratio between them indicating that he had almost certainly used cocaine sometime between 10 and 18 hours before he died. It would not be overly sensational to say that the investigators were shocked: in fact, it was the first time illicit drugs had ever been detected in a pilot involved in a passenger plane crash.
The discovery took Captain Silver’s family and coworkers completely by surprise. None had suspected that he was using cocaine, and he had even had dinner with his parents the night before the flight without letting anything on. He told his parents after dinner that he was going home to rest before work, but apparently that was a lie — he didn’t go home; instead, he went out with his fiancée and spent the night using drugs.
However, one friend who spoke to the NTSB was not so naïve. A woman who had known Captain Silver for several years reported that there was a marked change in his behavior around 1986, when he met his eventual fiancée, whom the witness believed had introduced him to drugs. “He wasn’t himself anymore,” she wrote, describing Silver’s behavior. I knew right off that there was some kind of drug problem. He acted very nervous, like he was scared of something. He’d look over his shoulder a lot as if there was someone behind him when there wasn’t. When I was over at his house, every time a car came through he’d jump up and look out the window. I thought he gained more weight than I had ever seen him gain before. And he was just real jittery.” Eventually, she decided to confront him, telling Silver that he must be using “a lot” of drugs to have fallen into such a dark place. Chillingly, Silver replied, in reference to his fiancée: “She’s like a sickness. It’s all a disease and there is no cure.”
In 1988, cocaine had only recently transformed from a novelty drug into a substance of widespread abuse, and research into its effects was still in its preliminary stages. However, it was known to be highly addictive in all higher order animals, and its potential effects on an airline pilot were manifold and negative. Given that a cocaine high only lasts a short time, and Silver had used the drug at least 10 hours before his death, he could not have been directly under the influence during the flight, but he would have been experiencing post-use knock-on symptoms. Essentially, cocaine reverses the effects of fatigue, helping the user feel more alert, but once the high ends, a “cocaine crash” can follow, in which energy levels crater to below where they started. The most common way to medicate the cocaine crash is by consuming additional cocaine, which over a certain timeframe will result in accumulated resistance to the positive effects of the drug. The user then continues to administer cocaine not out of desire for the high, but in an effort to avoid the increasingly negative effects of stopping, which can include severe fatigue, cravings, deep and long-lasting depression, paranoia, and other adverse symptoms.
If Captain Silver was experiencing these effects during the accident flight, they would have acted like a sort of supercharged fatigue, negatively affecting his ability to monitor the First Officer’s actions. This could have been compounded by actual fatigue, since “a bag of cocaine” was enough to have kept him and his fiancée awake through much of the night. Now, with this knowledge, it was not so hard to understand why Silver failed to notice the impending catastrophe: he was probably lost in a world of suffering, hidden away in his heart, known only to him.
Stephen Silver’s tragic and ultimately fatal descent into addiction mirrored popular alarm about the dangers of drugs and sent shockwaves through the aviation industry. Pilots were supposed to be a held to a high standard of behavior — but were they really? Of course, the truth throughout history has been that pilots are people; they have human faults and struggle with human challenges. The notion that pilots are not and cannot be flawed leads to the ostrich approach to safety, hiding our heads in the sand. With that in mind, it was not exactly surprising that there were pilots out there who were (and are currently) struggling with various forms of addiction to illegal drugs, and already in 1988, there were basic measures in place to detect drug use. Pilots were tested at annual medical checkups and upon employment, which did discourage consumption of drugs, but the timeframes were predictable, and when it came to pilot-addicts, the tests tended to catch only those who lacked the self-control to refrain in the days and weeks before a scheduled medical examination. Intelligent users, like Stephen Silver, were not seriously impeded.
In 1986, following a Pittsburgh Press report highlighting cases of pilots treated for drug addiction at Pittsburgh area hospitals, the Federal Aviation Administration announced its intention to mandate random drug testing for pilots. The proposed rule, which would require airlines to implement random drug testing programs for several common drugs of abuse, was completed in 1988 and submitted for public comment shortly after the discovery of cocaine in Captain Silver’s blood was reported to the press. The responses to the proposal generally fell into two camps: on one side were airlines and some safety experts, who believed that the rules would reduce the number of pilots flying under the influence; and on the other were pilots and pilots’ unions, who contended that random drug testing was invasive, ineffective, and produced false positives that would ruin careers.
In its comments on the proposed rule, the Air Line Pilots Association argued that the accuracy of extant drug tests would need to be extraordinarily high in order to avoid an unacceptable number of false positives, given the volume of testing that would occur. The math was quite simple: if every pilot is tested on average once every two years, as the FAA proposed, then a pilot with a 30-year career can expect to be randomly tested 15 times. If the accuracy rate of drug tests was 99.9% — and in fact at that time the accuracy of rapid drug tests was less than that — then the chance that any particular pilot might receive a false positive during their career would be approximately one in 66. And if you take 100,000 airline pilots, of whom one in 66 receives a false positive, that’s 1,500 pilots who would at some point experience the headache of being falsely accused, all to catch an unknown but undoubtedly small number who were actually using drugs.
On top of these concerns, ALPA also argued that random drug tests violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures;” that the cost of implementing a testing program that met federal standards would be too high; that there was little evidence of pilot drug use being a major cause of accidents; and that submission of samples could be used for discriminatory purposes against people with undisclosed medical issues and pregnant women.
Other commenters accused the FAA of being beholden to political interests, writing that the agency had “surrendered to public hysteria” stirred up by President Reagan’s ill-fated “war on drugs.” The FAA, in its response, acknowledged that “the war on drugs is one of this administration’s priorities,” and also pointed toward acts of congress aimed at prosecuting the so-called war, along with opinion polls that showed a majority of Americans were concerned about the issue. The agency called these facts “noteworthy” but ultimately stated that it backed random drug testing because it believed it would improve safety, not because of political pressure.
The NTSB was initially skeptical of the proposed rule, which it called “unproven” and potentially unconstitutional. The agency later reconsidered its position, and today it tends to support drug testing requirements, in part due to the legacy of its investigation into Trans-Colorado flight 2286. But the biggest proponents of random drug testing in 1988 were the FAA itself and the airlines, which both believed that pilot drug use represented a substantial and growing liability. However, in an effort to address ALPA’s concerns, the FAA introduced a wide range of checks and balances to its proposed rules, too numerous to list here, which included follow up testing by a different method to confirm positive results; less stringent requirements for small companies with limited finances; strict privacy standards; and encouragement of rehabilitation programs that would give addicted pilots a chance to return to the cockpit after getting clean. Concerns over constitutionality never materialized, as precedent showed that drug tests, as a “search,” were usually found by the courts to be “reasonable” for individuals whose medical fitness is important for public safety. The rule was eventually implemented with these provisions and forms the basis for random drug testing of US pilots to this day.
Looking back now, then, it’s worth asking: did random drug testing reduce drug use among airline pilots? The answer is a solid maybe. Prior to the introduction of the 1988 rule, the FAA highlighted an airline that voluntarily implemented random drug testing and found that 2.5% of its pilots tested positive, but the most common “illicit drug” found was marijuana, which is now legal in many states. The rate of hard drug use was much lower, and it remains so today, which makes gathering any meaningful data almost impossible. Trans-Colorado Airlines flight 2286 remains the only major commercial plane crash linked to illicit drug use by a pilot, although about 4% of private pilots killed in general aviation accidents test positive for illegal drugs. The fact that this number is much less than 4% for airline pilots killed in crashes worldwide suggests that commercial pilots use fewer drugs than private pilots do, but as far as we know, that could have been the case before random drug testing too.
Of course, there is an elephant in the room, which is alcohol. When discussing illegal drugs, it’s important to remember that by far the most commonly abused substance among pilots is alcohol, which can be purchased anywhere at any time by almost anyone. Several plane crashes throughout history — although generally not in the United States — have involved pilots under the influence of alcohol, and cases of pilots showing up drunk to work still occasionally make the news. Although both alcohol and drug abuse are fundamentally health issues with similar treatments, alcohol abuse is clearly a much larger concern than the near-mythical specter of pilots amped up on cocaine.
Or, perhaps, forget cocaine — what about fentanyl? Ironically, in the 2010s the FAA announced plans to expand random drug testing to include opiates, which set the exact same debate in motion again. Spurred this time by news reports of a Spirit Airlines pilot found dead in his house from an opiate overdose, the expansion received the endorsement of the NTSB and the airlines, while ALPA again spoke up in opposition, writing that random drug testing has not improved safety and that “problematic substance use in an individual [should] be considered as an illness requiring diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation with a view towards returning the employee to work.” ALPA also expressed concern that the tests would not be able to distinguish adequately between legitimate prescription medications and illegal opiates. The NTSB disagreed on this point: “They’re wrong,” the agency’s chief medical officer said, rather bluntly.
On the opposite side of the issue, critics contended that existing drug tests are not strict enough, and that even the new rules would not solve the problem. These commentators point to data which shows that only 25% of pilots are randomly tested for drugs in any given year, and only 10% for alcohol, allowing abuse to escape undetected for years.
And if this is the point where you expect me to take a side, as I have in some previous articles, then, newsflash: this time, I’m not. Instead, what’s going on here is a process of checks and balances that’s a natural part of just and informed rulemaking. A potential problem is suggested, a rule to correct it is proposed, and the stakeholders present arguments from their particular perspectives. It’s not ALPA’s job to weigh the pros and cons; it’s ALPA’s job to protect pilots against any possibility of overreach, and that means making every possible argument in favor of pilots’ rights and privileges, knowing that not every argument will be won, but that enough of them will be to ensure a final rule that contains adequate safeguards against abuse. The open disagreement is therefore a sign that the system is working.
The crash of Trans-Colorado Airlines flight 2286 changed the debate over drug testing for pilots, but it’s also worth remembering that it made several other less appreciated contributions to safety as well. The NTSB’s first recommendation was that the FAA check how airlines are actually flying a special approach procedure before granting approval to use it, and the FAA agreed, altering its approval process to catch shortcuts like the one used by Trans-Colorado. The crash was also a major catalyst in the FAA’s decision to require black boxes and ground proximity warning systems on airplanes in the 12 to 30 seat range beginning in 1994, a change which has almost certainly saved many more lives than the new drug rules have. Consequently, the families of the nine people who perished have reason to believe that they did not die in vain. And the survivors, too, can look back on their harrowing experience with the knowledge that something was done, that changes were made, that their ordeal was taken seriously by the people and organizations that mattered. In the aftermath of any tragedy, that is really all we can ask for.
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Note: this accident was previously featured in episode 49 of the plane crash series on August 11th, 2018, prior to the series’ arrival on Medium. This article is written without reference to and supersedes the original.