Lots of kids dream of becoming airline pilots… but if you have diabetes, forget about it! Right?
PWDs (people with diabetes) are forbidden from flying commercial airplanes here in the U.S., thanks to legacy rules that put the States behind other developed countries that have updated their guidelines in recent years. So if you’re an American who could possibly go hypoglycemic, becoming a commercial pilot is a no-go.
Interestingly, PWDs are allowed to fly smaller private planes thanks to a federal rule change in late 1996. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hasn’t gone any further to consider allowing larger commercial planes to be flown by those with insulin-dependent diabetes — despite those updates underway in Canada and Europe (the UK just adopted this change in August 2012).
Here’s where the American Diabetes Association’s advocacy programs deserve a cheer. They’re working with a handful of pilots and groups here in the States and worldwide to lobby the FAA for an update that would allow PWDs to become commercial airline pilots, thus removing a barrier to many dreams…
A Maryland PWD/pilot named Jason Harmon hopes to bring more attention to this issue this coming Monday, July 29, when he and other PWD pilots come together for what’s being called the Diabetes Formation Flight USA 2013. The group will fly general aviation airplanes in formation on a route from Pellston Regional Airport in northern Michigan to the EAA AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The flight is also a fundraiser for diabetes research. Cool!
You may remember Jason from his involvement in the three-person historic diabetes flight last summer, that stretched from Daytona Beach, FL, to San Diego, CA. Jason has been flying since age 16 in the late ’80s and he earned his private pilot’s license when he was 17, but his dream to become a pilot and fly for a living was crushed after his type 1 diagnosis during college. Following the FAA’s special provision enacted in ’97, Jason was among the first to get their wings back. Since then, he’s continued his advocacy to change the rules more broadly for those PWDs wanting to pursue flying careers.
Jason’s used his knowledge of diabetes and IT to create his own company called Get Real Consulting, where he designs software to help empower people to manage their health. His successful system is used by leading organizations and programs like the ADA’s Diabetes 24/7 and the MedStar Diabetes Institute’s eHealth2Go, along with hospitals, government entities in Canada, the UK and U.S.
“The tools we’ve developed help me demonstrate how I can fly safely by closely monitoring and keeping my blood sugar at a consistently save level,” Harmon says. “I have very well-managed diabetes with no complications or side effects. A lot of my doctors see me as a model case.”
Just like last summer’s formation flight, Jason will be joined by four other PWD pilots. Those pilots are: Douglas Cairns, a type 1 pilot in the UK who not only got that country to change its rules but who’s set records that include having the shortest takeoff-landing time in all 50 states and a Discovery Channel-documented flight to the North Pole; David Malone, a longtime type 2 from Phoenix; Chris Isler who was diagnosed with type 1 at age 28; and Taylor Verett in New Jersey who was diagnosed in 2012.
How do they do it? As far as staying safe in the air with diabetes, there’s a tight protocol in place.
During a flight, Jason says that each pilot does a blood sugar check each hour and naturally they’re also connected to a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) — the Dexcom, which they all used during the historic 2012 flight. They’re required to carry fast-acting sugar for a quick boost, but they keep their blood sugars slightly elevated to guard against potential lows.
The ADA is hoping the FAA takes the education and these endurance flights into consideration and will revise its rules, to be more consistent with what’s happening globally. Jason hopes for that, too!
“Regularly authorities are very risk averse — as they should be — but we’re trying to get them to examine this based on real-world evidence, not on preconceptions,” he said. “We want them to evaluate data on people who follow their protocol, not the general population of people with diabetes. We’ve even been willing to be guinea pigs and be tested under controlled conditions to provide solid evidence of just how effective this protocol is. As more and more countries implement these changes and the safety record becomes increasingly obvious, the argument against allowing us to fly commercially gets weaker and weaker.”
We at the ‘Mine applaud these efforts — but can’t help feeling the slightest little twinge of doubt. OK, it feels like a bit of a betrayal saying this out loud, but we all know how easy it is for a Low to sneak up on even the “best-controlled” PWD. Wouldn’t it scare you at all to know that the pilot of the huge airliner you’re about to take off in has some risk of going hypo — no matter how teensy?
We can only hope that the protocol these pilots are following is pretty much foolproof. And come to think of it: if it is, we ought to be following it too!