Mitch Mitchell (left) of Indianapolis, an IT consultant at Eli Lilly and Company, is a licensed airplane pilot and flight instructor seeking to become one of the first commercial pilots in the U.S. with type 1 diabetes. Pilot Matt Kreich (right) is his student.
“When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 40 years ago, it was called juvenile diabetes, and there was a very different understanding of the disease,” recalls Mitch Mitchell. “It was the summer after my sixth grade year, and the doctors told us that I had about 30 years to live. I remember that was one of the few times I ever saw my mother cry.
“I have since outlived these predictions. But at the time I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. So when I found something I wanted to do, I figured out how to put my head to doing it sooner rather than later.
“I was interested in flying airplanes, and when I was 16, a friend who was a flight instructor offered to teach me to fly. He called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to find out the rules, and they said, ‘Tell that guy to find something else to do because he’ll never be able to fly an airplane [with type 1 diabetes]. We will never allow it.’
“After that, I kind of put away the thought of flying. Then in the mid-1990s, after a lot of hard work from a lot of other people, the FAA changed their position and decided that they would allow private pilots with type 1 to fly if they could demonstrate that they were in control of their diabetes. They published a protocol on how you would demonstrate that you were in control. I was able to comply with that, and I obtained my private pilot’s license.
“I continued to train and added Instrument, Commercial, Multi-engine, and Instrument Flight Instructor ratings to my license. I acquired my own airplane and flew myself to business appointments. Then seven years ago, I joined the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. I’m now an instructor and check airman for the Civil Air Patrol and a search and rescue pilot.
“So here comes my next big thing with flying.
“There are two things required to fly as a commercial pilot. First, you need a commercial pilot license. The license shows you have an advanced level of training and proficiency. Second, you need a commercial medical certificate. The medical certificate is required to demonstrate that you are healthy enough to fly commercial operations.
“Over three years ago, the FAA published guidance that they would examine individual pilots on a case-by-case basis and grant a commercial medical certificate to people with type 1 diabetes who could demonstrate that they were in control.
“That was a huge statement for the FAA to make.
“I met all the requirements they set forth, so I went through the process of compiling the massive amounts of medical information to justify issuance of a commercial medical certificate, as did about a dozen other people with type 1 diabetes. We’ve now been waiting over three years for a decision from the FAA. I specifically have been told I meet the requirements, so it’s frustrating to keep waiting.
“Interestingly enough, Canada and the United Kingdom have allowed pilots with type 1 diabetes to fly commercially for almost 20 years. It takes Transport Canada about a month to issue an initial medical certificate to a pilot with type 1 diabetes. What this means is that an airline pilot with type 1 can fly a commercial jet into Indianapolis with a cabin full of American passengers on board, but I am not allowed to do that… yet.”
The Student Becomes the Teacher
“I had never flown an airplane prior to being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on my 16th wedding anniversary a few years ago when I was 38,” says Matt Kreich. “It was something I always had wanted to do, a bucket list item for sure, but I kept putting it off until ‘later.’ After being diagnosed, I realized you never really know what’s around the corner, so I started working on both filling out my bucket list and checking off items. At the top of the list was moving forward with becoming a pilot.
“I’m a triathlete, ultra-marathon runner, and cyclist, so another thing I did soon after diagnosis was attend a JDRF PEAK program for athletes with type 1. I highly recommend that anyone with type 1 who is an athlete attend this program. It teaches you how to manage the disease while training and competing in a variety of athletic events. One big side benefit of attending was I met a few people from Lilly and they asked me to join their cycling team here in Indiana that raises funds for JDRF.
“It was while out on a 70-mile training ride with the team that an airplane passed by overhead as we rode near an airport. I mentioned to the cyclist next to me that I’ve always want to learn to fly. He responded by telling me about a guy in the area who’s a pilot and has type 1 diabetes and that I should talk to him. That pilot turned out to be Mitch.
“I’ll put this simply: Mitch taught me to fly and taught me to fly well. I got my license in a very short time because of his training. Maybe even more importantly, he did a lot of teaching around real-world aspects of dealing with diabetes when flying… such as making sure your sugar is in range before you go, making sure you’ve got the right supplies with you in the cockpit, including carbohydrates that you can easily put your hands on, and making sure you are in the right mental framework when you step into the cockpit. Mitch was also extremely helpful at working with me through the process of getting my medicate certificate [waiver] and all the legal avenues and paperwork required for my license as a person with type 1.
“I still train with Mitch. We’re currently working on my instrument rating together, which is the next level of a private pilot’s license. I plan on obtaining my commercial rating and eventually my certified flight instructor rating as well. Mitch has been such a good role model and true inspiration for me.”
Advice for Future Pilots
Mitch and Matt share some of their high-flying inspiration and a few practical tips for how to not leave type 1 diabetes management up in the air — when you’re up in the air:
Matt: “Learning to fly has taught me that type 1 diabetes doesn’t limit you or your dreams and aspirations. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be easy. To reach your dreams will require a significant amount of hard work and perseverance, and just like managing your blood sugar, you will have frustrations and highs and lows.
“More importantly, just know that there are people out there like Mitch who can support you and help make those dreams a reality. So don’t be afraid to dream big and don’t be afraid to go after your dreams.”
Mitch: “I often tell young folks with type 1 who are interested in flying to join the Civil Air Patrol’s cadet program. Cadets have exposure to aerospace education, pilots, aircraft, and flight training as part of the curriculum. It’s a great way to get started.
“I also want to say that reaching a big goal like flying a plane relies on all the little day-to-day management stuff, and this includes keeping a positive attitude as you manage this condition. I’ve heard stories of people who got in a lot of trouble because they either didn’t care or didn’t know how to manage type 1, and it resulted in problems.
“I’m not doing anything extraordinary in my mind, but to be here 40 years later and still be able to pass a commercial airline medical exam I think is a pretty good testament to why staying on top of what you’re supposed to be doing is important. It all adds up!
“Lastly, I urge aspiring pilots to get involved. The FAA has stated that the law allows them to exclude people with type 1 diabetes from obtaining a commercial medical certificate for safety reasons. However, the FAA has not blocked Canadian and United Kingdom pilots with type 1 diabetes from flying in the U.S. for safety reasons. Contact your elected officials and demand a change in the way T1D is handled by the FAA.”
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.