Pilots land in Prairie while advocating for flying with diabetes

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Thor Dahl (left) and Douglas Cairns stand outside their Dexcom-sponsored plane at one of the 29 stops during their 24-hour, record-breaking flight. Their efforts were to raise awareness for pilots with type 1 diabetes. (Submitted photo)

By Correne Martin

Only eight countries currently allow pilots with insulin-treated diabetes to fly. Though the U.S. is one of them, two European pilots are determined to lift that number higher. 

The duo landed a plane in Prairie du Chien July 28, in an effort to break the world record for visiting the most U.S. states in 24 hours, extending the record from 23 to 29 states in hopes of raising awareness for pilots with type 1 diabetes.

Douglas Gairns, 54, a Scotland native, and Thor Dahl, 24, from Norway, both have type 1 diabetes. They each grew up with boyhood dreams of flying but were grounded upon diagnosis.

Douglas, who now lives in Colorado, was a British Royal Air Force (RAF) jet pilot and instructor when he was diagnosed at age 25. Upon losing his aviator wings, he left the RAF and started working in the asset management industry. 

Thor graduated from flight school in June 2017 and was employed in Air Force troop transport, search and rescue and special operations for two months before he was diagnosed and grounded. Since then, he’s worked with recruitment and selection of pilots. However, his heart remains “in the air.”

In 2002, Douglas relocated to the U.S., gained a license to fly twin-engine aircraft, and bought a 1970 Baron aircraft. In 2002-2003, he flew the plane on a personal project called Diabetes World Flight—a flight around the world over five months, through 22 countries and over 26,000 miles. He then spent four years giving motivational speeches to the diabetes community. He also went on to set a series of world aviation records, including two trans-continental speed records, reducing the existing record to visit all 50 U.S. states from 15 days to five-and-a-half days in 2010, landing at the North Pole in 2011, and a dawn-to-dusk flight from London to Malta in 2016 in a tiny hand-built single-engine aircraft.(flyingwithdiabetes.com).

“This latest world record—29 states in 24 hours—has been a real pleasure to carry out, teaming up with Thor,” he stated.

Douglas’ comrade is actually the one who reached out to him, after learning about the storied pilot online, and paid him a visit in the U.K. in February. 

“The idea first occurred to me in 2015,” Thor said. “I had read about the preceding record and started to research how I could get back flying, when I stumbled across Douglas and his accomplishments.” 

The two started emailing one another, and Thor began making a documentary about the outdated rules for type 1 diabetics piloting aircraft. Not long after, while in the U.K. making a case to return to military helicopter flying, Thor finally met Douglas. Thor mentioned his aspirations to break the world record and Douglas agreed without hesitation.

“I felt this was a great way to demonstrate how effective the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) protocol is for flying with insulin-treated diabetes. My projects all aim to highlight that diabetes need not limit the scope of people’s dreams, something both Thor and I firmly believe in,” Douglas commented. 

So the dynamic duo took off from Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport in Maine at 7:49 a.m. on July 27. They touched down at the Prairie du Chien Municipal Airport, and in 27 other states, before finally landing at Albert Lea Muni Airport-Ael in Minnesota at 6 a.m. on July 28. Ultimately, they achieved their mission of landing in 29 states over 24 hours, while flying Douglas’ Beech Baron B58, twin-engine six-seater.

Along the route, the pair selected small airfields without an air traffic control tower, to make the time on ground as short and efficient as possible. 

“At non-towered airfields, you self-announce your position over the radio on arrival and departure. Typically, at the smaller airfields, less taxying is required,” Douglas noted. “We felt this would save us a lot of time at each airport.”

Thor laughed, “We basically stopped the engine, hopped out and took a picture with a time stamp and the GPS location. We fueled up in three states.”

Douglas further explained that, in the U.S., the FAA requires pilots to test blood glucose within a half-hour of takeoff, every hour of flight, and within a half-hour of landing. Test results need to fall within a wide and workable range— 100 to 300 milligrams per deciliter—to ensure safe flying. 

“Neither of us was even close to the upper or lower numbers,” Thor added. “If we would have been, my rescue line was a bag of Skittles and Douglas’ was a can of root beer. To be honest, fatigue was a concern, but both of us were alert all of the time.”

To help manage diabetes both every day and while flying, each of the two uses a Dexcom CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) System and finds it a powerful lifeline. By checking their CGMs every 10 minutes, they can safely track glucose trends and then actively control their diabetes accordingly, to help prevent life-threatening highs and lows. 

“If trending up, I can top-up with some insulin, and if trending down, I can eat or drink carbohydrates to remain within the required range of FAA protocol,” Douglas said. 

“Dexcom, in flight, is a great tool for reassurance and it’s so efficient,” Thor remarked. “In addition to the in-cockpit perks, the CGM gives you knowledge to base your decisions on, where, with a regular finger prick, you have no idea. Like, I can tell you that my glucose levels have been between 72 and 180 for two months straight.”

The CGM, which is about the size of an iPod Nano, works through a sensor in the stomach attached to a wearaable receiver. A cool advantage of the CGM is that it also can transmit numbers to Samsung smart phones and smart watches, according to Thor.

Such a breadth of statistics is crucial, both men say, toward convincing more countries’ aviation authorities that, given the right devices, people with type 1 diabetes are fully capable of flying safely and for long periods of time. Even if countries amend their rules and procedures to allow for a more assuring, two-pilot system, the men believe that would be a step in the right direction. 

Presently, Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Austria, Poland and Israel enable both private and commercial pilots with diabetes, while the U.S. and Australia have protocol in place for private pilots. 

Having done the incredible, the record-breaking journey for Douglas and Thor was important both personally and in the interest of others with soaring passions. 

“My (air) carrier license is something I’ve wanted my entire life and worked four years to achieve,” Thor implored. “I also believe it can be completely safe flying with (insulin-treated) diabetes.”

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