My name is Jay. I’m a licensed private pilot, and I have Type 1 Diabetes (T1D). While my medical condition is fully controlled, guidelines written decades ago prevent me from pursuing my dream of becoming an airline pilot. These guidelines are outdated and need to be revised. But more on that in a moment. Let me tell you how my condition was the catalyst for my love affair with flying.
When I was six, my life changed forever. I was diagnosed with T1D. I had just started kindergarten and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My life as a seemingly normal child was turned upside down. My mom, dad, and I spent three days in the hospital learning everything we could about T1D. At the time, I wouldn’t have told you my diagnoses had a positive impact on my life; however, looking back and connecting the dots, it most certainly did.
While traveling to learn more about my condition, I ended up stuck in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) for nine hours. At the time, I was just nine years old. During that delay, I walked around CVG and took it all in; it was amazing. While I had flown my entire life, starting at 18 months, I somehow managed to avoid being bitten by the “AvGeek” bug. This trip was different, however. After years of flying, a nine-hour delay and the chance to observe airport operations over an extended period did me in; I was hooked on aviation.
In 2011, my dad found an article in the paper about a local airport in South Charleston, West Virginia. A few days, later we went to Mallory Airport (LID), camera in hand. While on my first “official” AvGeek trip, I explored and took many photos. I even started up a conversation with a man there who ended up letting me sit in his Mooney. It was the first time I remember manipulating the control surfaces of a plane. I was amazed. A timid tug on the yoke to the left was followed by looking out the left window to see the left aileron move upward towards the sky. It truly fascinated me how my inputs on the controls were applied in the wing.
On the way out, I noticed a sign that said “learn to fly here.” Why not? At 11 years old I took a few flying lessons and I absolutely loved it. Never did I even think having T1D might make becoming a pilot difficult.
Fast-forward to April of 2014 — after many commercial flights, an airport internship, and plenty of plane spotting, I decided to try flying lessons again.
I ended up taking flying lessons from a flight school at Yeager Airport (CRW) in Charleston, WV. I applied for a special-issuance FAA 3rd Class Medical. I went for a physical exam from a local AME (aviation medical examiner) and he deferred my paperwork to the FAA’s medical offices in Oklahoma City, OK, where presumably my application died.
After a couple of months of not hearing back from the FAA, I decided to get creative in looking for a response. Through my work as an advocate for diabetes research funding on Capitol Hill, I had built a list of contacts. I reached out to the office of one of our state’s senators, and within a few days I had my 3rd Class Medical. I was very thrilled; diabetes had lost and I had won. But it shouldn’t be this difficult. Our system is broken.
I flew my first solo flight on July 9, 2014 in a 1979 Cessna 172N. I was able to do one circuit in the pattern and had to stop as the ceiling dropped. I walked out of the FBO that day with a boost of confidence that could only be delivered through aviation.
A written test, endless studying, and a lot of flying later, I was ready for my FAA practical exam, the checkride. Admittedly, I was nervous. I knew how to fly and I was sure I had the knowledge to pass the oral exam. My examiner, a life-long pilot with an endless number of hours in planes from a Cessna 172 to a C130, to 737s and Learjets, was anything but intimidating. However, I was still nervous.
The oral exam went off without a hitch and I was done within 45 minutes. We went out to the sanctioned “practice” area to do maneuvers. Everything went well until… I busted on steep turns. Being the sensible and fair instructor he was, he allowed me to finish the maneuvers and go back to the airport and finish up all the required landings. I thought I had failed.
He listed the status of Private Pilot Evaluation as “incomplete”. I spent the evening at the airport with my instructor working on steep turns. The next day, I went back up with my examiner. I completed the steep turns and he instructed me to go back to the airport. I didn’t know if I had passed or failed. Once on the ramp at the FBO, with the engine shut off, my examiner reached across the small 172 cockpit, shook my hand, and said: “Congratulations, Jay.” I knew at this exact moment I had just become an FAA-licensed private pilot.
As of March 19, 2015, I could officially say I held a pilot’s license before I held a driver’s license. How cool is that? My first passengers, later that day, were my mom and dad.
What’s next? Ultimately, my goal is to be an airline pilot. I am at a pivotal point in my life and need to make some serious decisions regarding my future. If I enroll in a formal flight school, I can work all the way up to and hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) License. However, without being able to obtain a First Class Medical from the FAA, I cannot exercise the privileges of the license. In an ever-changing world of aviation technology and diabetes management technology, we are at place where diabetes and commercial flying together should be a reality. It’s time. My controlled condition, with today’s outdated regulations, prevent me from pursuing my dream.
In today’s world, my diabetes can be completely controlled in all but the most extreme circumstances. T1D is an auto-immune disease, meaning you can’t catch it and it is NOT caused by lifestyle choices. I have a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) which constantly checks my blood sugar, while an insulin pump administers insulin as needed based on an algorithm. As an added safeguard, if my blood sugar goes low it will administer medication counterintuitive to the insulin. With my CGM and insulin pump, I am able to maintain control of my diabetes and safely carry out my duties as pilot in command. The technology has come a long way since restrictions were put in place. Better yet, diabetes control methods continue to advance. Heck, there are even clinical trials running right now with artificial pancreases.
As technology in the cockpit continues to evolve parallel to major breakthroughs in diabetes management technology, it’s time for reform. While I might not be able to beat this well-controlled disease, I believe we can beat these archaic regulations. Until I can give my own “welcome aboard” message as an airline pilot, I will continue to build time, enjoy aviation with family and friends, and fight for the T1D pilot community so that we can eventually have the same privileges as others. One day, people with Type One Diabetes will be in the cockpit of an airliner, getting you safely from point A to B, and I’m advocating to make that a reality. Join me, won’t you?
This story was written by Jay Haapala for AirlineReporter. Jay is presently attending high school in West Virginia, advocating for diabetes research as well as T1D pilot causes. In what spare time he has, he squeezes in as many pilot hours as he can. This fall, Jay will be a participating pilot in Diabetes Formation Flight USA, a formation flight to raise awareness about T1D pilots and demonstrate that they are fully capable of safe aircraft operation.