2012 Articles

OCT 10 2012
Aviation Events >> Pilots With Diabetes Set National Speed Record

Following the announcement by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority on 13th August 2012 that it would begin the issuing of the full range of aviation medicals to pilots and air traffic controllers (both current or aspiring) who have Insulin Treated Type 1 & 2 Diabetes, a group of pilots with diabetes, led by former RAF fast jet flying instructor Douglas Cairns, decided to celebrate the new policy by setting a national aviation speed record.

The record attempt was originally intended to be used to raise awareness for the campaign by the ‘Flying With Diabetes’ group to the CAA, but in light of the success, it became a symbolic ‘hurrah!’ for the breakthrough.

The ‘Flying With Diabetes’ group was formed by Douglas Cairns to convey the message that “diabetes need not limit the scope of people’s dreams and ambitions” whilst at the same time carrying out fundraising for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund.

Douglas was 25 when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1989, which ultimately led to the end of his flying career and a medical discharge from the RAF. 11 years later Douglas regained his pilot’s license in the USA before going on to fly around the world in a Beech Baron as part of the ‘Diabetes World Flight’ in 2003.

Over the next seven years Douglas would go on to set twelve national and world speed records, including two transcontinental speed records. The most notable being the Diabetes 'Flight 48' and'Flight 50' attempts in which the previous records to land in all 48 contiguous states and all 50 states of the USA were broken – it took 5 days and 15 hours to land in all 50 states. Douglas also set a world record when he flew the Baron to the Geographic North Pole from Barrow, Alaska in 8 hours and 20 mins.

The plan for the record attempt was to fly six light aircraft in a ‘D’ shaped formation between the cities of Derby and Southampton in the quickest time possible – for the prevailing wind and weather conditions – with waypoints over seven other towns/villages, each with the first letter eventually spelling out the word ‘Diabetes’.

Douglas flew in the lead position in his Vans RV-8, with the rest of the formation consisting of Matt Ponsford (C-152), Damien Fessey (Pa-28), James D’Arcy (DR500), George Duncan (Pa-28) and finally Karl Beetson (CT-SW).

Five of the aircraft were also carrying passengers, all of whom have diabetes and included four pilots (including your author, who was in the CT-SW). The majority of those taking part in the attempt have either lost their flying careers or had had their ambitions to fly commercially, or in the military, dashed upon diagnosis.

The turn of events on the day all relied entirely upon the weather conditions, which began with some fairly low cloud and even a few spits of rain (in Northamptonshire at least), the slightly inclement weather led to a delay in all six aircraft forming up over the former RAF station at Cottesmore, where a brief formation practice was carried out, before continuing on to Nottingham Tollerton Airfield whereby both pilots and aircraft could be refuelled.

Once fuelling and some press commitments had been completed, all six aircraft started up, taxied out and took off in the direction of Derby Airfield, forming into the ‘D’ enroute and turning many a head – I spied numerous parents on the ground ignoring their children playing football to have a look at the formation flying overhead.

The formation passed over Derby at 11:15:45 GMT to officially begin the attempt on the record. Having turned south, the formation passed over the waypoints of Ibstock, Aston Flamville, Buckingham, Emmington, Twyford, Earley and eventually arrived overhead Southampton at 12:38:23 GMT to complete the route in a record time of 1 hour 22 minutes 38 seconds, subject to ratification by the Royal Aero Club.

Having passed over Southampton, and satisfyingly held up some commercial traffic (apologies, if any of those affected are reading this!) the formation turned to the east to overfly Goodwood in formation before breaking to land for tea and medals.

By the time we had arrived at Goodwood, the weather had started to really come good with the clouds lifting to reveal patches of blue sky, which boded really well for the return journey to Sywell, where the CT-SW is based.

It was on the flight home, as we cruised over the coloured patchwork of this ever beautiful land, whilst watching the clouds of dust rise from the fields being harvested, when the sense of achievement finally set into your author's mind. I genuinely felt humbled to have been asked to partake in the record attempt and proud of those who had spent many a year campaigning and flying to prove to the CAA that diabetes is not a ‘disabling’ condition which prevents those affected from functioning normally in a position of extreme responsibility.

So, returning to the new CAA policy, what does it mean for those already licensed pilots with diabetes and air traffic controllers? It will allow them to resume their current duties, which have previously been discontinued.

It also allows those whose potential career paths were cut off upon diagnosis of diabetes to continue with their aspirations and become licensed pilots or ATCOs.

On a personal level, it will allow me, as a National Private Pilot’s License Holder, to gain a full aviation medical and to upgrade to a full European Aviation Safety Agency Private Pilot’s License and potentially go onto a commercial aviation career, if I was ever to give up on my current role as an aerospace engineer.

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2012-10-11 - barbara Sandy
Thanks Thomas for a great article. I learn something every day! Keep flying high. Glad your Mum emailed me about your article.

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