Hot air balloons, the RAF, and D.I.A.B.E.T.E.S

June 28, 2012

AOPA Pilot Protection Services Jonathan Sackier

Jonathan Sackier

  • Surgeon, Clinical Professor
  • 30 years of healthcare experience
  • Author of the “Fly Well” column in AOPA Pilot
  • Flying since 15 years old, owns a Columbia 400

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Hot air balloons, the RAF, and D.I.A.B.E.T.E.S

What do Beaumont, Miss., hot air balloons, the Royal Air Force, and diabetes have in common? Stick around and find out, all will become crystal clear! Diabetes is on the march with millions afflicted, and a couple of pilots are taking the lead in tackling this affliction.

Diabetes occurs when the body fails to make enough insulin, an hormone produced in the pancreas, for our cells to react leading to wild fluctuations in blood sugar. In time, damage is done to every part of the human body; skin breaks down, infections reign, kidneys fail, digits and limbs die, eyes dim, hearts and brains falter, and nerves malfunction. I previously wrote about the scourge of diabetes in AOPA Pilot ( "It's all Greek to me") focusing on Type 2 diabetes, usually a result of acquired obesity and excessive carbohydrate intake. With poor modern diet and exercise habits, the age of onset of this form of the condition is dropping rapidly—when I was at medical school the average patient was in his or her 50s or 60s, and now patients are decades younger. However, so-called juvenile onset, or Type 1 diabetes, often strikes young, slim and fit folks, and so it was with the two airmen referenced above.

Butch Weaver's father was a World War II Army Air Force bombardier and after the conflict obtained his private pilot certificate. Weaver was the quintessential airport kid, taking every opportunity to hang out at the local field, Metropolis Municipal in Illinois (M30). Weaver Senior thought that the Civil Air Patrol was a great service, founded the local chapter, and his son became at cadet at age 12, flying the front seat of Piper Cubs with dad demanding, "Where are we? Check the chart!" At 17, he won a scholarship and soloed that year in Champagne, Ill., after 8.5 hours in a Cherokee 140. As so often occurs, college and other distractions interposed. After obtaining his degree in electrical engineering and computer science and commencing work, he was diagnosed with juvenile onset diabetes at age 28. Insulin injections and other issues pushed flying to the back of his mind. Other than a single lesson in a glider, Butch was earthbound until the FAA’s special issuance policy changed in 1996 to allow pilots with insulin dependent diabetes to fly. In December 2002, several months after applying, Butch finally received a letter; although the first paragraph referred to him being ineligible for a regular medical, the second stated that he was granted a special issuance. The next day he went to Boulder Municipal (KBDU) and embarked on his second stint of flight training.

A successful career in high-tech allowed Butch to indulge his passion, and his logbook reveals time in more than 50 aircraft. The Weaver fleet includes a Cessna 185 that divides its time between wheels and floats, partnerships in a Cessna 310 and 421, a 90,000-cubic-foot hot air balloon, and a Bell 47 helicopter. Despite describing himself as someone who does not chase ratings, he is certified in six types of flying machines and describes his Cessna 185 as the hardest to land: "the T-6 is a pussycat in comparison."

You get the impression that Weaver is a focused and determined individual, and talking to him reveals his passion for putting diabetes in its place. He understands that good management of the disease, "tight glycemic control," minimizes his likelihood of suffering the adverse consequences of diabetes. He has also been a proud advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and likes to show what people with diabetes can do. For instance, he rode his bike 3,000 miles from San Diego to Washington, D.C., in three weeks on this mission.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the duck pond, Douglas Cairns, a Londoner like me, had trained to fly with the Royal Air Force and was instructing others when at age 25 he was also diagnosed with diabetes and was chillingly told by his flight surgeon that he was "no longer a pilot." In 2000 he came to the United States, reclaimed his wings as a private pilot (the U.K. has now followed our lead and allows an equivalent certification) and three years later flew around the world, a first for a pilot with Type 1 diabetes. A book about his exploits, Dare to dream: flying solo with diabetes, followed and for three years Douglas traveled America giving talks to groups of folks with diabetes. Just to keep busy he established two transcontinental and five world speed records and also broke the time to land in all 48 contiguous states. He also landed in all 50 states in five days, 15 hours in 2010, flew from Barrow, Alaska, to the north pole, and was the first pilot to land a light twin on the polar ice. Clearly our Messrs. Cairns and Weaver are kindred spirits!

So now to their latest adventure: In late June, Cairns and Weaver, together with a colleague, Jason Harmon, are going to fly in formation across the United States. Their route, only 2 percent longer than a great circle, sees them lift off from Daytona Beach International and then fly over Interlaken, Fla., Atmore, Ala., Beaumont, Miss., Eddiceton, Miss., Tennessee County, Texas, El Paso, Texas and land in San Diego. What do you know, the first letter of each spells out "DIABETES." Flying is one of the most challenging--and rewarding--pursuits humans can aspire to; formation flying raises the ante and by completing this route our two dashing pilots are proving a point; with good medical care, professional attitude, and proper planning, there is nothing that can stand in one's way, diabetic or not. Regulations demand that pilots with diabetes measure their blood sugar every hour of flight and 30 minutes prior to landing--one more checklist item to consider. In completing the flight they are raising awareness of these issues while raising money to support diabetes research. You can follow their progress or see how you can help at their website.

There are many things we can all do to support our well-being and our passion for flight. The information brought to pilots by AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services is a good place to start. Sometimes, however, nature intervenes and despite our best efforts disease strikes. But as Cairns, Weaver, and Harmon demonstrate, because you have an illness does not mean the illness has you.

Hot air balloons, the RAF, and D.I.A.B.E.T.E.S

What do Beaumont, Miss., hot air balloons, the Royal Air Force, and diabetes have in common? Stick around and find out, all will become crystal clear! Diabetes is on the march with millions afflicted, and a couple of pilots are taking the lead in tackling this affliction.  to continue reading…


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Jonathan Sackier is a surgeon, aircraft owner and AOPA Pilot Protection Services expert.