Diabetes causes pilot to shift course

 - December 8, 2006, 6:16 AM

Plenty of people had a lot riding on Andrew Hoy’s enjoying a long and prosperous career as a professional pilot. Quite apart from his wife and kids, his bank manager had approved loans of almost £100,000 ($190,000) to fund commercial flight training for both fixed-wing types and helicopters. And his grandfather had chipped in more money when the bank could lend no more to complete a self-funded path to an airline transport pilot license.

In addition, Hoy invested four or five years of his life in completing the extensive training required for him to fly for a living. Finally settled as the captain of a Learjet 45 that he flew for UK charter operator Gold Air, he felt he had landed just where he belonged in the aviation industry and expected to go gray in the cockpit. Diabetes had other ideas.

For several weeks in the winter of 2003, Hoy had been feeling extremely fatigued, suffering from occasional blurred vision and, increasingly, from an insatiable thirst. After a particularly difficult and uncomfortable night flight from Geneva to the UK, he went to see his doctor, who quickly diagnosed the onset of diabetes.

Hoy would have preferred a different diagnosis. “I can’t have diabetes,” Hoy told the general practitioner. “I’ll have to stop flying if I do.”

“I know,” said the doctor, rejecting Hoy’s plea that he return for further checks after completing the next day’s flight to Malaga, Spain.

Unlike most of us, Hoy knew something about diabetes because his brother has had the condition for more than 20 years. He hoped that tests would reveal that he had Type 2 diabetes, which would have allowed him to keep his pilot’s license (albeit flying in a multi-crew aircraft commercially under restricted conditions). But he didn’t respond to Type 2 medications and was soon getting a crash course in regulating his diabetes by injecting insulin. He confirmed the diagnosis to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and, sure enough, that flight from Geneva proved to be his last as a professional pilot.

Rebuilding a Career
Just 32 years old, still tens of thousands of pounds in debt from his flight training, and with a young family and a mortgage, what was he to do? Fortunately, the loss-of-license insurance that came with his Gold Air contract relieved some of the pressure, but he faced the prospect of having to start a new career to span some 30 or more years.

Though he hadn’t had this eventuality in mind, Hoy was fortunate to have other strings to his bow. While trying to get established as a working pilot during the somewhat depressed air transport market of the late 1990s, he had gotten involved surveying aircraft wrecks for insurance specialist Airclaims and trading in recovered aircraft parts–while still doing some freelance flying. The young pilot had established his own company, with operations in the UK, U.S. and Hong Kong.

A few years earlier, while building hours in the U.S., he had been asked to help a wealthy American buy and operate a Learjet 25D. Unable to be hired officially because he didn’t have a visa, Hoy was literally flying for food, but it gave him valuable experience in managing an aircraft.

Gold Air was sympathetic to Hoy’s plight and quickly offered him a job as commercial manager. But he soon found it too frustrating to be booking flights for his former pilot colleagues and watching his friends do a job he had long dreamed of doing himself.

After attending–on Gold Air’s behalf–a meeting for operating partners of what was then Bombardier’s Flexjet block charter program, Hoy joined the Canadian manufacturer as director of operations for its relaunched Skyjet International program. It was a big break, and more than two years later he is thriving in his new role, overseeing charter flights flown for Skyjet customers by some 50 operators throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. (Ironically, just a week before he stopped flying with Gold Air, Hoy had just achieved the minimum number of flight hours required to pilot Flexjet flights, and had flown his first charter mission for the program.)

Hoy told AIN that his flying experience has been invaluable in his day-to-day dealings with operators because he has an intimate understanding of operational issues. On the other hand, he concedes that there is more to managing operations than knowing the pilot perspective, and he has had to learn a lot about issues such as customer and employee relations.

What advice would he offer to young pilots starting out on their careers? Surely his experience tells them that they must think beyond the cockpit in terms of the skills and capabilities that they acquire.

“Well, you really do have to be 100-percent committed to flying because you’d never get through all the training if you didn’t have complete belief that you would make it,” he said. At the same time, he urged young fliers to take every opportunity to study more broadly and expand their personal and professional horizons to prepare them in case they have to keep their feet on the ground. He also urged all professional pilots to buy as much loss-of-license insurance as they can afford.
Does he miss flying? Hoy insists that now, even if he could, he wouldn’t return to flying for a living. That said, he would like other diabetic pilots to have the option and shares the frustration of others that the authorities do not appear willing to reconsider the ramifications of diabetes for holding a pilot license.

He and other pilots have had talks with CAA officials about the subject and, in their view, the authority’s position is based on medical knowledge that is 30 years out of date. “The treatment of Type 1 diabetes is now entirely manageable and a pilot would have no problem checking his or her sugar levels while flying, and taking any necessary measures,” Hoy explained.

At an international level, there has been some talk of allowing Type 1 diabetics to fly on a restricted basis as part of a multi-pilot crew. In Hoy’s view, pilots could be trusted to treat their condition because they have everything to gain from doing so.
The only flying Hoy can do under current CAA rules is through the new NPPL (national private pilots license), which would allow him to pilot a single-engine, “non-complex” aircraft in daytime VMC. But he cannot carry any passengers and can only fly solo or be accompanied by another diabetic pilot.

Hoy recently retook his private pilot test in a Chipmunk–the same type in which he took his first flying lessons.