To the North Pole With Diabetes: Talking to Pilot Douglas Cairns


Douglas Cairns grew up in the Highlands of Scotland watching Royal Air Force fast jets fly 250 feet above his house.  When he was 8-years-old he told his parents, “I’m going to fly one of those jets some day.”

Douglas did fulfill his boyhood dream.  He joined the air squadron while in university and the RAF from there.  He went straight into officer’s training and received his wings on fast jets, doing so well he was able to become an instructor immediately.  All was going well for Douglas.  He was doing everything he’d ever dreamed of.  But six months later he began to lose weight.  And within a few months he’d lost 26 pounds, was exhausted, and drinking way more than usual.  He went to the doctor who performed a quick blood glucose check.  “You’re a type 1 diabetic,” the doctor said.  “And you were a pilot.”

That was 22 years ago.  Today Douglas Cairns is not only back in the cockpit, he’s attempting to break the solo speed record between Barrow, Alaska and the North Pole.  His expedition, Diabetes Polar Flight, which raises funds for JDRF, will take place on April 17th.  Douglas also plans to cross the Magnetic North Pole and hopes to land at a Russian Ice Camp which is approximately 60 miles from the Pole. We had the opportunity to talk to Douglas about his childhood, his type 1 diabetes diagnosis, and flying.

How did you feel at the time of your diagnosis?

Part of me was just relieved that I wasn’t being diagnosed with something more immediately life threatening than type 1 diabetes.  Diabetes is a manageable condition.  You’ve got to work hard at it, but it’s controllable.  In the first two years, it was difficult going from an established flying career to a desk job.  This was in 1989 and no country allowed even private flying for pilots with type 1 diabetes.  So I changed careers, to finance.  When I look back at that period I realize that although I wasn’t diagnosed with depression, I was probably suffering from it.

It really took me a change of job in the finance world (embarking on a fund management career) to get me feeling happy again.  My passion for flying remained and I still flew with instructors, but I wasn’t licensed to fly solo.

In 1999 I learned the U.S. had introduced a system for flying with T1.  I was really encouraged.  The following year I got my medical and my license in the U.S.  It was fantastic to get back to flying.

How do you manage your diabetes?

I use multiple daily injections of Lantus and Humalog.  I test my blood sugar 8-12 times a day.  For the last three years I’ve used a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), a Dexcom 7 Plus.  The CGM is a very powerful and terrific tool.  I also believe in exercise.  I ski and I’m a qualified ski instructor. I used to do a lot of work with the disabled.  When I was in Alaska a few weeks ago, I skied.  I also aim to exercise 3 times a week.  It helps me maintain good blood sugar control.

What are the regulations for flying with diabetes?

You’ve got to pass a medical exam, prove you’re well controlled and well educated, show your HbA1c report history, your doctor’s review, blood testing log, and proof you don’t have diabetes complications.  When flying you must test blood sugar 30 minutes before take off, each hour of the flight, and 30 minutes before landing.  Your blood sugar range must be between 100-300 mg/dl.  If you aren’t in that range, you can’t take off.  If you’re flying and above 300 you need to land as soon as practical and bring sugar within range before flying again.  That’s never happened to me.  If you’re under 100 you have to ingest 20 grams of quick acting carbohydrate.  I find this method very safe and effective.  The CGM helps a lot also.  I have it velcroed to my instrument panel.  I can just push a button and get a reading whenever I want to.

Do you test in addition to the CGM?

Yes.  I test according to the regulatory requirements.

You don’t sound at all concerned about flying with diabetes.

I’m not.  I think the system is safe and effective.  There are over 500 pilots in the USA using this system.  A pilot has a lot of cockpit checks to go through and the blood testing just becomes part of the routine checks and a routine part of flying.

Can you tell us about your upcoming North Pole expedition?

It’s exciting.  Our 50 states flight last year was one of the most memorable aviation events of 2010.  I’ve been looking into the North Pole flight since 2006, but my sponsorship fell through.  This year I’m using personal funds and sponsorship to cover the cost of the flight and any donations go directly to JDRF.

This year the goal is to set the speed record from Barrow, Alaska to the geographic North Pole.  I also hope to cross the magnetic North Pole.

How long does this flight take?

It will take 7.5 to 8 hours to reach the North Pole.

What do you take with you?

(Laughing).  An extra 257 gallons of fuel.  I’ll also be taking a shot gun in case of polar bears.  I’ll be taking a survival kit.  I’ve got food, two satellite phones, a locator beacon, special clothes that are good to -40 degrees c, boots, trousers, jackets, and gloves.  So if I have to be out in the ice, I’ll be well-protected.  I’ve got a sleeping bag that’s good to -60 degrees c.

How will you keep your diabetes equipment from freezing?

I’ve got a heater in the plane so the cockpit will be at normal temperatures.  If the heater fails I’ll have the warm clothes and what I would do is have my ACCU-CHEK (they’re one of my sponsors) meter in my pocket  next to my skin.  The same for the CGM and insulin.

How do you feel about diabetic pilots flying commercially?

I’m one of the founders of Pilots With Diabetes and one of our goals is to see this happen, with certain qualifications like multi-crew operations.  Canada has a system that allows this with required blood checks every 30 minutes.  We’re trying to get something similar in the U.S.

What’s your message to people with diabetes, and to everyone?

Diabetes doesn’t have to limit the scope of your dreams and ambitions.


All photos and images courtesy of Diabetes Polar Flight.


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12 years ago

Great to hear that you are flying. After 53 years as a T1 I would like to get a pilots licence too. The trip is exciting and for such a good cause.check out Denise Faustmns work at Mass General to see what could possibly be a cure.

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