Record-breaking pilot takes to the skies for diabetes

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - A former Royal Air Force pilot with diabetes is preparing to break another record by touching down in all 50 U.S. states and show that the disease is no obstacle for enthusiasts who dream of flying.

Former Royal Air Force fighter pilot Douglas Cairns poses with his Beech Baron twin engine plane at Bangpra airfield, east of Bangkok, on December 8, 2002. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang

London-based Douglas Cairns starts his journey of 9,000 miles on Sunday with a first leg from Hawaii, crossing the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles. From there he aims to land in all 48 mainland states before finishing in Alaska.

“One of the main aims of this is to highlight what you can do with diabetes when it comes to flying,” Cairns told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Cairns was diagnosed with diabetes in 1989 after serving more than five years in Britain’s air force. At the time piloting a plane with the disease was banned globally, so he was forced to give up his chosen career.

“I started to have symptoms and didn’t realize what they were. After losing about 26 pounds in weight, the doctor said: ‘You are a diabetic and you were a pilot.’,” he said.

The 47-year old, whose passion comes from boyhood days watching jets shoot across the Scottish Highlands, turned to the world of finance and worked in London and Thailand.

But in the late 1990s, the United States relaxed its laws, enabling people with type 1 diabetes to take to the skies.

Cairns, who has type 1 diabetes where the pancreas cannot produce insulin, took a leap of faith and spent five years catching up on lost flying time.

In a twin-engine Beech Baron, he has since set five world speed records, two U.S. transcontinental records and become the first licensed pilot with type 1 diabetes to circle the globe, though he was obliged to have a safety pilot next to him.

On this year’s flight, he aims to halve the existing record of 13 days, 22 hours and 22 minutes by flying at least 11 hours daily on a minimum of five hours’ sleep every night.


The International Diabetes Federation estimates that 230 million people worldwide have diabetes. Around 90 percent have type 2 diabetes, where the body gradually loses its ability to respond to insulin, which is vital to blood sugar regulation.

Despite rapid progress in diabetes technology over the last decade, only the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and Israel let pilots with the disease fly privately and under restrictions.

In the United States, any pilot with diabetes using insulin is required to test blood sugars half an hour before take off, each hour into a flight and half an hour before landing.

“Authorities do not yet take into account continuous blood glucose monitoring which gives readings every five minutes, which is one of the most exciting developments,” Cairns said.

“This has tremendous implications to help lift restrictive blanket ban policies in other countries,” he added.

Cairns’ quest does not stop at this year’s endeavor.

“The next one will be diabetes flight 90, which is setting a record between Barrow, Alaska, and 90 degrees north, to the North Pole,” he said.

(To follow the flight, click on

Editing by Sophie Taylor and Jon Hemming