When 17-year-old Jay Haapala steps into the cockpit of a plane he’s about to pilot, he always has one very obvious item with him: his “lucky” sneakers with bright orange laces.
“It’s a pilot tradition to have something like lucky shoes, so I do,” he said.
But there’s something else always with him that has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with meticulous preparation: his diabetes kit.
Haapala, you see, is living with type 1 diabetes. And as he readies himself to become a licensed private pilot, he is also working to make flying with diabetes not only more accepted for all, but also accepted on a higher level.
“My parents always said to me ‘if you want it bad enough, you can do anything you want,’” said Haapala, who was diagnosed at age 6. Traveling with his mom to St. Louis at the age of 11, he found something he wanted that badly: to fly an aircraft. “We had a delay, and I watched it all, and I just fell in love with it,” he said.
Researching on his own, he learned he’d have to earn a third class medical certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to work toward that license to fly. That meant showing he knew how to manage his blood sugar: that he could keep it within the FAA-required range of 100 to 300 mg/dl when taking off and manage it throughout the flight.
He did that, and last year, began flying lessons for real. This summer, he successfully completed his first solo flight, a one-hour cruise over his West Virginia town. “There were some aviation people who said to me from the start ‘you just cannot do this,’” said Haapala. “I think it was those people who pushed me to do this the most.”
Haapala wants his blood sugar level to be in the upper 100s when he boards a plane to fly. He carries his glucose meter and other supplies with him on board, and finds he usually lands with his numbers around 130. He likes gummy-type carb snacks in case he feels he has to give himself a little boost while in the air. As for stress during the flight, he has learned to remain calm and collected. “I’m usually nervous going up by myself (everyone is) and I just remind myself I can do it and I’m fine,” he said. “I’m always excited when I fly, but for the most part I just calm myself down.” He added, “Yes, you can be stressed and excited. But to safely operate the aircraft you shouldn’t be stressed or excited to the point that it messes with your blood sugar.”
His mom, Lori Haapala, has always tried to embrace her son’s dreams, but flying, she admits, gave her pause – as it would any mom, she points out. “I would say it was probably the same reaction as when a child without diabetes wants to do something in that order,” she said. “As a mom you are kind of like ‘yikes!’ But he was so passionate about this dream, and he did everything he had to do make it come true. What else could I do but everything I could to make it happen?”
Waiting on the ground after his first solo one-hour flight, she said, was nerve-wracking. Then he deboarded, giant smile intact. “I was good. He did it!” she said. “And then he told me he has to do a two-hour one next.”
She may have to get used to trusting his ability, because Haapala has dreams and plans way beyond that license. His goal is to convince the FAA to award him its first-ever second class medical certification to a person living with type 1 diabetes, which would allow him to pursue a career in corporate flying.
Haapala hopes to test for his license early this winter and to continue to gather information advocating for the change in FAA policy. But first, he has to go back to school.
It’s easy to forget he is only in high school. “He has done every bit of this on his own,” said Lori, his mom. “The paperwork, the meeting with elected officials, the studying. He’s amazing.”
Haapala knows he has more work to do, but he sees a lesson in his experience so far. “I cannot stress this enough: You never know until you try. The worst thing anyone can say to you is ‘no,’” he said. “And you never know where a first ‘no’ will take you. Just look at me.”
Follow Jay Haapala’s journey via his blog: t1dpilot.blogspot.com
Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author, and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books, and on her popular blog, despitediabetes.com. McCarthy has appeared on CNN Live, Good Morning America and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children With Juvenile Diabetes and her latest Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience