Diabetes awareness mission takes flight

Jason Harmon had dreams of taking to the skies as a commercial pilot, but a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes crashed his plans.

“I was told I would never fly again,” said Harmon, who had obtained his pilot’s license by age 17, and was planning for future flights when he was diagnosed just after graduating from high school.

“I was pretty crushed,” he said. “I had my whole life set with what I wanted to do. So, it was pretty devastating. It took a while to regroup and figure out what else I could do.”

He ultimately turned to his second love, technology, and established a successful career, but in 1997, when the FFA relaxed rules and allowed people with type 1 diabetes to fly privately, Harmon was among the first to pass the stringent medical clearances and obtain his pilot’s license.

“The FAA is very strict,” he said. “To be considered you have to have a clean health record.” To be approved to fly, pilots cannot have experienced any hypoglycemic episodes requiring intervention from health care providers, and must have an established history of A1c and blood sugar control. Behind the controls, they have to check their blood sugar on an hourly basis, and must have fast-acting carbs and insulin at the ready to treat highs and lows immediately.

Harmon compares the protocol to the regimented, detailed safety checks that are already required of those manning the planes.

“Piloting is all about procedure, and blood sugar becomes one more system check,” he said, adding that because of those strict regulations, type 1 pilots over the past 16 years have a 100 percent safety record, significantly beating out pilots who do not have the disease.

“There are zero safety incidents linked to diabetes,” Harmon said, noting that pilots with type 1 diabetes flying worldwide have done so without incident.

To raise awareness of those flawless statistics, Harmon – along with a group of other type 1 diabetic pilots – takes part in annual air show-style flights, including last month’s Diabetes Formation Flight USA 2013, which set a simultaneous world speed record flying between Omaha, Neb., and Madison, Wis., and ended at the famed EAA air show in Oshkosh, Wis.

Harmon piloted a T Diamond DA-40XLS, and flew alongside record-setting British pilot Douglas Cairns, whose scorecard include making the first round-the-world flight as a pilot with type 1 and landing the first twin-engine aircraft on the ice of the North Pole, an event featured in the Discovery Channel show “Flying Wild Alaska.”

The group hopes to raise money for research as well as demonstrate that type 1 pilots can safely fly while showcasing the technological advances that make diabetes little more than another item on the safety checklist. Ultimately, they hope to expand the skies for people with type 1 diabetes by encouraging the FAA to follow the leads of other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, where type 1 pilots are allowed to lead commercial flights.

“While the U.S. was the first nation in the world to adopt that private flight rule for diabetic pilots, this country has not yet opened up commercial aviation to us,” Harmon said. “We’re trying to get that changed by demonstrating the perfect safety record that has been maintained by pilots with insulin-treated diabetes under this protocol since the FAA adopted its rule, even when flying record-setting extreme endurance flights.”

Harmon receives weekly emails from young people with diabetes who want to fly, but have been told – many times by their physicians – that their type 1 makes it impossible. He wants to make sure the kids who contact him know that their type 1 doesn’t have to be a roadblock, as long as they stay on top of the disease.

“Knowing that there’s an opportunity for people if they monitor their diabetes carefully” provides incentive for those who are interested in becoming pilots to take control of their disease early, making successful management more likely, he said.
“Any pilot who has diabetes is very capable of doing the job,” Harmon said.

We’re not handicapped. We have a manageable condition, and having diabetes does not limit our abilities.”

In addition to working to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes and pilots, Harmon also works on the ground as one of the founders of Get Real Health.The technology-based company has developed a product that instantly links consumers and their physicians to personal health records, making data such as glucose readings, blood pressure and more available instantly, allowing the physician to provide more personalized care.

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