Being a pilot comes with a very high level of responsibility, so it’s no surprise that pilots are subject to DOT/FAA drug testing.

But when might a pilot be drug tested, which drugs are tested for, what happens if a pilot refuses, and are there different rules depending on the type of certification a pilot has?

During the Medical Exam

Whether you visit an aviation medical examiner with the goal of being tested for and issued with a first-class, second-class, or third-class medical certificate, you will not be drug tested.

A urine exam is administered, but this tests for sugars and proteins as possible indicators of diabetes or kidney disease.

Random Drug Tests

Private Pilots

Private pilots are generally not subject to random drug tests, though if involved in an accident may have to undergo one.

Commercial & Airline Pilots

Commercial and airline pilots are subject to random drug tests.

An aviation employer must ensure that each employee has an equal chance of being tested; the selected employees are tested in a way that is unannounced; and random testing is spread reasonably throughout the calendar year in a non-predictable pattern.

The FAA currently sets annual rates at 50%.

How Often Commercial & Airline Pilots Are Drug Tested

Pilots can be drug tested under any of the following scenarios:

  • Pre-employment
  • Random: The FAA currently sets annual rates at 50%
  • Post-accident: No later than 32 hours after the accident
  • Reasonable cause: Due to physical, behavioral, and performance anomalies
  • Return to duty: After having previously tested positive or refused to take a test before being allowed back to work
  • Follow-up: Pilots who have previously passed a return to duty drug test are subject to six random follow-up tests in the first 12 months from returning to duty

What Happens When a Pilot Refuses a Drug Test

A pilot, regardless if they hold a private, commercial, or airline transport pilot license, can refuse a drug test, though will face consequences.

FAR 120.11 states that refusal is grounds for:

  • Denial of an application for any certificate, rating, or authorization issued under part 61 of this chapter for a period of up to 1 year after the date of such refusal; and
  • Suspension or revocation of any certificate, rating, or authorization issued under part 61 of this chapter.

Besides outright refusing to take a drug test, failure to appear for a drug test within a reasonable amount of time, failing to comply with all testing procedures, leaving before the testing process is complete, and being confrontational, are all categorized as a refusal to take a drug test.

What Happens When a Pilot Fails a Drug Test

If a pilot fails a drug test, they are subject to suspension or revocation of their FAA Certificates.

To go into more detail, a pilot will immediately be removed from performing their safety-sensitive duties, and their employer will report any violation to the FAA within 2 working days.

An employer also has the choice to terminate the pilot’s job.

Additionally, upon a positive test result, a pilot will be called by the medical review officer (MRO) to discuss if there is a legitimate medical explanation for testing positive.

Next, the FAA will send a Letter of Investigation or Emergency Order of Revocation.

It may be possible to return to duty as a pilot if a pilot meets with a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP). Acceptable Substance Abuse Professionals (SAPs) are provided by a pilot’s current employer.

The SAP will recommend education and/or treatment and document everything to a pilot’s current or future employer.

The SAP will re-evaluate a pilot in a follow-up meeting to determine if they have successfully completed the education and/or treatment recommendations.

A pilot will then be subject to return to duty and follow-up drug testing procedures.

Drugs That Are Tested For

Prohibited drugs that are tested for include marijuana, cocaine, opiates, phencyclidine (PCP), and amphetamines.

Do Flight Schools Drug Test Students?

While it’s not unheard of for flight schools to drug test students, it is generally rare.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.