Last week, CNN broke the news that the Federal Aviation Administration will for the first time allow pilots with insulin-treated diabetes to fly commercial airlines in the United States. The news was roundly applauded by advocates for both aviation and diabetes.
The risk of severe hypoglycemia in the cockpit is obvious, but court filings detailing the FAA’s thinking demonstrate that the agency appears to be satisfied that pilots equipped with Continuous Glucose Monitors can readily anticipate and prevent dangerous blood sugar lows. The new policy was roundly applauded by groups such as the American Diabetes Association and the Air Line Pilots Association.
Oren Liebermann was the CNN reporter with the scoop. This was no coincidence. Liebermann has Type 1 diabetes and is himself an amateur pilot; he only turned away from a possible career in aviation after developing the disease.
Oren is a longtime friend of ASweetLife.org and has written for us in the past. (Check out his amazing report on climbing to Machu Picchu!) Oren was gracious enough to speak to us about his reporting on the story and what the news means to him personally.
Do you mind sharing any details on how you came to get the news?
I report from Jerusalem, so it’s tough to stay plugged in to everything that happens in DC, but I always have two areas of interest – aviation and diabetes. When those overlap, bingo! I had the right contacts in both aviation and diabetes to get this story sourced properly and confirmed.
What surprised me is how much the FAA has already put out in legal filings. The FAA federal air surgeon acknowledged that the protocol is done. They’ve figured out what they want to do and how to do it – it just needs a sign off now. Our story was that the sign off is coming soon. Hopefully very soon!
Do you have any details on how they’ll determine which insulin-dependent pilots are considered hypo risks, and which are not?
This is a purely speculative answer, but I suspect it will be based on a pilot’s HbA1c, medical records from the treating physician, record of hospitalization (or lack thereof), and a host of other factors. It will almost certainly require repeated checks, lots of paperwork, use of the latest technology, and a long list of tedious tasks and checks that have be completed. That being said, for a pilot with diabetes who’s been waiting to take that step, it’s worth it!
Our readers are more familiar with the ins and outs of diabetes management than the average CNN reader, of course. Are there any details you left out that you think ASweetLife readers might like to hear?
I didn’t really get into the current regulations regarding diabetes in the cockpit, and those can seem a bit crazy. FAA regulations tell a pilot when to check their sugars before, during, and after flight, how to treat lows, how to treat highs, how long to wait before flying, what kind of candy to have to treat a low, etc. The first time I read them, I was blown away. The FAA was giving specific instructions on how to handle blood sugar. For someone who has controlled his or her own diabetes, it comes across as a bit bizarre for someone else to tell you the optimal way to treat yourself.
You’re a pilot yourself. Does the news mean anything to you personally?
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on February 14, 2014. Valentine’s Day. My wife and I were backpacking around the world, and at the time, we were in Nepal. I kept a journal as I traveled (which ended up becoming my book, “The Insulin Express”), and two days before my diagnosis, I wrote that I had officially made up my mind – I was going to change my career and be a commercial pilot. It didn’t take long for the diagnosis to derail that.
That being said, I am 100% happy with where I am now, and I’m not about to leave my job to chase my childhood dream of being a professional pilot. I’m lucky enough to have a family plane in the US, and I’ll keep flying that as often as I can. But it means a tremendous amount to me to read all the comments about parents whose kids can now pursue their dreams – kids who grew up, just like me, wanting to be pilots and had their dreams derailed. Now they will have their chance. And I hope they make the most of it!
Can you share any funny (or scary) stories about diabetes in the cockpit?
Thankfully, I don’t have any scary stories! I tend to control my blood sugars quite tightly – eating right, exercising, checking blood sugars often. I do this even more on days I’m going to go flying. I don’t want anything surprising me in the cockpit, especially blood sugars. The cockpit of the family plane (a homebuilt RV-6A) is quite tight, so anything else you toss in the cockpit makes it even cozier. Carrying around a diabetes kit takes up its own bit of space, but it’s well worth it! To me, it’s just another task that has to be done. Check the propeller. Check the wheels. Check blood sugar. Etc. Only then am I ready to fly.
Are you in touch with other pilots with diabetes?
Yes! There are some incredible pilots with diabetes out there. Douglas Cairns is one of the most inspiring. I’m lucky enough to call him a friend. He’s been advocating for this for a long time. For all of us, it’s exciting! We’re all thrilled that the FAA is finally making this change, even if it is a bit too late for some of us. At least the next generation of pilots will have chances that we didn’t.