Dare to Dream: Flying Solo with Diabetes by Douglas Cairns
The next day I discovered I could get a sport medical and fly solo. Fantastic. My Thai girlfriend, Karuna, and I went down to Sri Racha Hospital, and after a quick interview during which I declared my diabetes, I handed over Baht 500 ($12.50) and was the proud owner of a sport medical license. I could now fly solo, albeit in a tiny, fragile, noisy little machine that flew 30 mph. It was time to have fun on my own.
Every time I flew I would test my blood sugar before takeoff. If I was low, I ate food and waited until my blood sugar level was at least above 70. However, it was nigh impossible to test while flying in the open air, with 30 or 40-mph winds buffeting your face, body, hands, blood glucose meter and strips. I therefore did my usual thing and munched candy after 30 minutes of being airborne to avoid going low.
The instructors at the microlight club sent me off solo after a couple of hours' practice. This was the first time I'd flown on my own in ten years. I was in heaven, even though I still had some reservations about these tiny, puttering machines. I flew low above Bangphra Lake, circling fisherman in tiny boats and water buffalo, their tails swishing flies off their heads. (There was a very large fly buzzing right overhead.) If a steady southerly breeze blew across the open water, I could fly slowly into wind a few feet above the shoreline, almost hovering in mid-air. Tremendous fun!
A few times, I went off around Bangphra Lake for over an hour, just reveling in the freedom. There was a beautiful temple at the far end of the lake, and further along the shoreline, people would look up and wave madly as I buzzed by. On the annual Open Day in 1999, I competed in the "nose-wheel off the ground" competition. On landing I applied a little power and kept the stick aft, thereby keeping the nose-wheel off the ground—until I nearly crashed into a fence at the end of the field. (Yes, I am competitive)
People often ask me whether it's boring to fly a light propeller-driven air-craft compared to flying jets in the RAF. My answer is no. It's flying, and it's immense fun. And you can make it interesting. Sure, I miss the raw power, speed and exhilaration of jet flying, with aerobatics, low-level navigation and formation flying at 500 mph. Even at the age of 41, I am wistful when watching a fast jet flying low over the British countryside. But flying remains a passion.
By 1999 I was flying regularly in both microlights and light aircraft. My skills were getting back to scratch. But I still didn't have a license for flying general aviation (light) aircraft. That was what I really wanted to do. As far as I knew, it was still not possible to do this with diabetes anywhere in the world.
A License is Possible
One day in 1999 I was flying in a Thai Flying Club Piper Cherokee with Philip in the back seat. As we climbed away from the runway there was a "pop" and a loud whistling noise. The passenger door had just burst open and the instructor sitting on the right was battling to close it again. We leveled off, reduced power and with less propeller slipstream, managed to force the door closed again.
This flight was memorable in more ways than one. The instructor was an American who had validated his U.S. FAA instructor's rating in Thailand, the only non-Thai ever to do this apparently. After learning I had diabetes, he said he thought that America had recently introduced a scheme that would allow me to fly. However, he didn't seem totally convinced. The next week I checked with a locally based FAA designated medical examiner, "Dr. K." Sure enough, I could fly in the U.S. on a full unrestricted private pilot's license (PPL), assuming I could meet the medical requirements. Wow! I was amazed, and extremely excited. I desperately wanted to know if I could meet the standards.
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One of the online diabetes groups I belong to (but don't frequently post to) is geared towards "frum" (Orthodox or "observant") Jewish people with (mostly type 1) diabetes. Most of the chat on the mailing list centers around people needing last-minute supplies before Shabbat or a holiday, where to acquire supplies and get medical help when visiting Israel, and advice on which pump is best for one's type 1 child — in other words, the usual sort of diabetes chatter, but...