Dare to Dream: Flying Solo With Diabetes by Douglas Cairns
Flying Solo With Diabetes
Copyright © 2005 by Albyne Press Limited.
Excerpt reprinted courtesy of Douglas Cairns. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including duplication, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
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Flying Solo with Diabetes
If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours….If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
--Henry David Thoreau
The Passion Remains
All throughout my new career, the passion to fly remained. It was, however, subdued for the first few years. I sometimes visited flying clubs near London, grabbing an instructor to act as a safety pilot and flying small planes like a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee. It was never the same as flying a jet, but it was tremendous to be airborne and blow some cobwebs away. It was also a relief to find I could still land an airplane, albeit rattling a few of the instructors' dentures.
Twice I flew in a high-performance aerobatic Pitts Special at White Waltham's grass airstrip even though the cost was prohibitive (clearly an issue for a Scotsman). Flying loops, stall turns, slow rolls and flick maneuvers over Berkshire's beautiful farmland was terrific, just like old days. It was always a mixed experience though. I was incredibly happy to fly each time but frustrated and depressed to get back on the ground, knowing I couldn't do this a desired career.
Each time I flew, I tested my blood sugar shortly before takeoff and always took plenty of carbohydrates with me in the cockpit. I would chew on some sweets after half an hour if I thought my blood sugar was dropping. I never had any lows while flying. It was food for thought—I was confident that flying was safe with diabetes if I was sensible and disciplined. Had I known that I would be able to fly in the U.S. a few years later and could carry out a world flight, I would have been extremely excited. But I also would have been quite incredulous. In the early 90s, aviation authorities seemed vehemently opposed to anyone flying with diabetes.
At one stage, I dabbled in some aerial photography. It was really an excuse to get me flying. I snapped away with a large camera while leaning out the window of a Cessna 172, 500 feet above Berkshire's countryside. I marked the track on a map, and later matched photos up with houses along the route. At the end of each flight, I would take the controls for landing, a tremendous way to finish off.
I quite enjoyed selling photos on a few Saturdays. I came across some stunning properties and met a few of England's landed gentry. My sale strike rate was 25% (one sale for every four calls) and as a tiny part-time project, it proved marginally cash generative and profitable. Overall it was fun to combine some flying with photography this way.
On other occasions, I'd go flying on an opportunities basis. After a new business presentation in Leeds, I had two hours to kill before flying back to London, so I nipped over to the Leeds/Bradford Airport flying club and went up in a Cessna 152 Aerobat with an instructor. Pulling loops, barrel rolls and stall turns was a great way to finish a working day! During the short flight, I saw my old base in the distance. A fleeting though passed by, that one day it would be a great to fly my own aircraft over the same airspace. Little did I know that nine years later I would do exactly this with a U.S. pilot's license.
Not long after leaving the RAF and moving to London, I contacted the Civil Aviation Authority to see if there might be developments to allow people with diabetes to fly. The elderly medic I spoke with was sympathetic and felt that while yes, there were people who could be well controlled, it would take many years before they would be allowed to gain a medical. He did, however, encourage me to keep in touch every couple of years.
A few years later, I spoke to a different guy. It was a depressing experience. He made it quite clear during our conversation that I was wasting his time, outlining the likelihood of people flying with insulin-dependent diabetes was in his opinion, zero. I was distressed when his assistant was also disparaging about people flying with diabetes. I was only too aware that if I lost it, or got angry, little help or consideration would ever be offered. It was best to be positive and constructive in any approach, and try to work with the authorities rather than against them. Unfortunately the second medic was aggressive and, without meaning to be, was quite insulting in his approach. (If someone is being defensive, perhaps it is easier to miss how insulting comments can be.) That was in the 1990s. Fortunately things have changed positively since then. It is now possible for me to fly in four countries, the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada. However, the U.S. is the only country that allows full, unrestricted private-licensed flying.
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So I wrote recently about how having someone who "gets" diabetes at your side can be so, so vital in a diabetes life. But what happens when the person you thought you could rely on fails you - in a major way? The night before the July 4th Holiday, I had a monster insulin reaction. By monster, I mean it was one of those cannot make sense of the world, cannot remember my name, cannot get out of bed and make it to the refrigerator kinds of low bloodsugars. ...