High times: A speedy history of drugs in aviation
Let’s get fucked up and fly a plane! Everyone likes to unwind now and again, and pilots are no exception. Join us on a brief high history of flying as we explore the uppers and downers of aviation.
Everyone’s favourite late-night chatting, penis-shrinking, madness-inducing drug, speed, was until recently a fav with the USAF. Amphetamines were given to Allied bomber pilots during World War II to stave off fatigue and enhance focus during long missions. During the Persian Gulf War, amphetamines were super popular with American bomber pilots, and were taken (on a voluntary basis) by roughly 50% of USAF pilots. Until 2017, the US Air Force had been happily handing out amphetamines—dubbed ‘go pills’— to keep pilots perky during long flights. In 2002, two Air National Guard F-16 pilots, under the influence of Dexedrine (the air force’s ‘speed’ of choice) pilots bombed and killed four friendly soldiers in Afghanistan. In the inquiry it was revealed that the pilots (Schmidt and Umbach) were advised by their superiors to take “go pills“, and the airmen cited this as part of their defence.
The German, British, American, and Japanese armed forces hoofed down hefty amounts of amphetamines during World War II. An extremely popular methamphetamine in Germany marketed as Pervitin, were known informally as Stuka pills due to their popularity with the Luftwaffe. The Japanese imperial government distributed pills to pilots for long missions under the trade name Philopon (also known as Hiropin). The Japanese pilots used the term “senryoku zokyo zai” or “drug to inspire the fighting spirits.” Though it is sometimes said that Kamikaze pilots took large doses of methamphetamine (via injection) before their suicide missions, this is much debated and it may have been merely ritual sake and a crushing sense of duty that sent them to their cockpits.
We asked a Cold War fighter pilot if he was encouraged to take speed for long flights, he replied, “Oh, yes. Go pills. We’d save ’em for when we got there so we could stay up all night running the local girls. There wasn’t any kind of a rush. They must have worked, though … either that or the stamina I had after 8- to 10-hour ocean crossings was due to my youth!”
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Dexedrine is gone and the new upper of choice for long USAF missions is Modafinil. Shame that “Between 5% to 10% of users may be affected with anxiety, insomnia, dizziness, diarrhoea, and rhinitis”.
Though more popular with infantrymen than pilots in World War I, cocaine was taken by some early aviators (both military and civil). Use of the then widespread confidence-boosting drug is understandable considering the huge risks involved in early aviation (French records reveal cocaine was beloved by many early aviators). To be a fighter pilot in this time was to have one of the most dangerous jobs in all of history. Cocaine was issued by superiors and self-prescribed by airmen themselves. It was taken during long-distance flights by Imperial German military pilots.
According to a 1931 book:
“Cocaine infused into the few duelists of the air who made use of that cold and thoroughly lucid exaltation which – alone among drugs – it can produce … at the same time it left intact their control over their actions. It fortified them, one might say, by abolishing the idea of risk.”
Sadaaki Akamatsu (赤松 貞明, Akamatsu Sadaaki, 30 July 1910 – 22 February 1980) was an ace fighter pilot in the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II famed for his mischievous behaviour. He was officially credited with destroying 27 enemy aircraft. This is pretty impressive considering much of his flying was done drunk.
Alcohol and flying have long gone dangerous hand-in-hand. A report from 1963 stated over 35% of fatal general aviation accidents that year involved pilots with measurable amounts of alcohol in their blood.
We asked former F-15 pilot Paul Woodford if in-cockpit smoking happened during his time, “When I flew for the 32nd TFS in the Netherlands, one squadronmate, smoked in the cockpit. He carried a screwtop 35-mm film canister in his sleeve pocket and used it as an ashtray. This was in the late 70s/early 80s. I suppose there were others throughout my career, but he is the only one I can say for sure did it. I flew on his wing often and could see him light up in the cockpit. Even though few smoke these days, I bet it’s still done, and actually electric vape cigarettes would make it even easier to smoke in the cockpit, leaving no evidence behind.” Former Lightning pilot Ian Black when asked if recalled smoking replied, “I do – especially in Vietnam era – not sure RAF did it in fighters but pretty sure the VC10 had an ashtray – I know the F-4 did.”
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A lady acquaintance of mine some years ago told me that in her younger days she had a Dutch boyfriend who flew for KLM. I think she said he was a First Officer rather than a Captain at the time which would have been around the early to mid-seventies. She remembered him going to work to fly after taking LSD on a few occasions.