Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS) Interview
- Sheila Wallace
My previous flying job was at a large fractional operator. When flying with a large pilot group, you will come across pilots with varied backgrounds, different personalities, and quirks. One of those interesting quirks I found was those pilots that want to spend more time in the bar than the cockpit. Drinking a couple of beers after a flight is one thing; showing up to fly after a long night of drinking is another.
Three of my fellow coworkers have been identified as having issues with alcohol within the last year. One of those individuals also happens to be my friend and was willing to sit down for an interview on his experience. I had a few questions regarding his recovery and the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS) program.
Here is the interview with my colleague and friend. I hope you enjoy and find it useful.
Q: From a layperson perspective, what is HIMS?
A: HIMS is an occupational substance abuse program specific to pilots. The overall goal of HIMS is the identification, treatment, and return to flying for the airman. The HIMS program was established in the 1970s with cooperation from the FAA, Airlines, and Pilot’s Union. Today’s HIMS program includes general aviation and corporate pilots.
Q: Let’s say an individual has either voluntarily (or involuntarily) discovered or admitted that they have a problem with substance abuse. What are the first few steps in getting help and the HIMS process?
A: It is important to first understand that a person with a substance abuse disorder has a medical condition. A person’s health and safety must come first. So, if there is any immediate concern, getting appropriate medical care is important. If a pilot’s immediate health and safety is not of concern, reaching out to a pilot that has been through the HIMS process would be a good starting point. The HIMS program website has contacts for pilots that have been through the process. My experience has been that regardless of the company a pilot works for, the HIMS community will extend their hand to assist a pilot in need. If the pilot’s situation involves action from the FAA, consulting a HIMS qualified Aeromedical Medical Examiner (AME) would be a good first step.
Normally the first step in the process involves the pilot going to a facility where a substance abuse evaluation can be done. Most of the time when a pilot has decided they need help, they are sent directly to a treatment facility where this is done. It is important to note that not all treatment facilities are created equal. There are treatment facilities that have specific aviation programs that are familiar with navigating through the initial phase of the HIMS process.
Q: I would imagine that each person’s story is different and yet the same. Is the program tailored to suit the individual? And pilots would naturally want to know, how long does it take? I would imagine that this varies with each individual as well.
A: You’re right. Each HIMS case has different circumstances. When evaluating each HIMS case for the special issuance medical, the FAA will tell you that they evaluate each pilot’s situation on its own merits.
The amount of time it takes from entering the HIMS program to receiving the special issuance medical varies with each individual case. Generally, the expected time is 6-12 months. In my case, it was almost 11 months to the day.
Some of the elements of the HIMS process can be tailored to each individual as determined by the FAA and the HIMS AME, but the general elements of the program remain the same. Let me use an example involving a pilot whose drug of choice was alcohol to give you an idea. After the pilot receives a special issuance medical, the pilot remains in “monitoring” for a period of time. The HIMS AME determines how random testing will be done and with what frequency. Some HIMS AME may choose to use Egt urine testing which has a 72-hour look back while others choose to use portable devices which offers convenience and immediate testing and results.
Q: What is the benefit of going through the HIMS Program as opposed to tackling your addiction (and the FAA) on your own?
A: In my case, I knew for a while that I probably had a problem with alcohol. I tried addressing it on my own but didn’t realize at the time that “my way” was not working. I thought I could control the situation and the truth is it only got worse for my family and me. The HIMS program elements are very structured and doing it “my way” was thrown out the window early on in treatment. I have learned the tools necessary to successfully enter into recovery and stay there. Something to keep in mind when talking about addiction is in most cases the substance a person is addicted to is only a symptom of deeper rooted issues. Getting to the bottom of those issues is necessary for a successful recovery. The HIMS program springboards you to get there in the initial phase, and the aftercare and monitoring keeps you there.
It is estimated that 23.5 million people in the United States suffer from active addiction. It is also estimated the there are 23 million people in long-term recovery. The HIMS program has a long‑term recovery rate that exceeds 80%. I believe strongly that the program works.
Q: How do the managers, pilots, healthcare professionals, and the FAA work together to preserve careers once an aviator has come forward about their disease?
A: The pilot group peer monitor reports, the company monitors reports, and the aftercare reports all go to the HIMS AME for review. All of the people involved in the process are trained to oversee the airman’s recovery program and know what “red flags” to look for if the pilot is in danger of relapse. To some this may seem like a policing action. That is not the case at all; everyone involved has the goal of keeping the pilot in recovery and actively flying.
I appreciate the pilot, my friend, for helping me and all our blog readers to understand the HIMS process. The pilot I interviewed offered his assistance to anyone that needs help or help to set up a program between a pilot group and company. Contact me for the pilot’s direct contact information.
Here are a few websites that may be useful to our fellow pilots:
- From pilots own words - see this ALPA video about their identification of their own addiction and recovery using the HIMS program.
- For the latest information on Drug and Alcohol regulations, policy, and training, see The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Drug & Alcohol Policy & Compliance (ODAPC) website
- The HIMS website
- Advanced Aircrew Academy’s Drug and Alcohol training module