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Diabetes Can’t Ground This Pilot

April 25, 2011

Douglas Cairns succeeded in flying his light plane to the North Pole and landing it there last week, setting a world speed record for a light, twin-engine piston aircraft. Cairns overcame strong headwinds, the failure of his satellite-based navigation system and his diabetes to earn a place in aviation record books, Reuters reports.

“It was rather surreal and very exhilarating to be at the crown of our planet earth with 24 hours of daylight. I’m delighted to be able to do this kind of thing solo, with diabetes,” he said Friday in an Anchorage interview.

Cairns, 47, flew from Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States, to the North Pole on Tuesday in a Beechcraft Baron, completing the 1,300-mile flight in eight hours and 20 minutes.

The former British Royal Air Force pilot circled the geographic pole several times before landing at a nearby Russian ice camp, making him the first to land a twin-engine piston aircraft at the pole. Aided by strong tail winds, he then flew home back to Barrow in six hours and 20 minutes.

With GPS equipment becoming less than reliable so near the pole, Cairns had to navigate using the sun’s position in the sky.

Cairns was forced to end his RAF flying career after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1989. He then pursued a career in finance.

This record flight was one of a series of expeditions for Cairns, who helped found an organization called Pilots with Diabetes to demonstrate ways to overcome limitations imposed by the disease.

Five nations now allow insulin-treated diabetics to hold private pilots’ licenses. One is the United States, which allows diabetics to fly solo with regular in-flight monitoring of blood-sugar levels, with corrective medical actions taken if needed.

Cairns took to the skies again after US authorities cleared diabetic pilots for flight in 1997 and has set various speed and distance records including the first-ever around-the-world flight by a diabetic pilot in 2003 and a 50-state flight completed in 2010.

Ron Sheardown, a veteran Alaskan pilot has been on his support team for years. Alaska Airlines and Alaska-based Era Aviation provided hangar space. Cairns and his plane were also filmed for an appearance in an upcoming episode of “Flying Wild Alaska,” a Discovery Channel television series about Alaska bush pilots.

A circumnavigation around the British coastline is also being planned by Cairns, a journey he expects to do in about 14 hours which would set a speed record for his aircraft type. After that? “In the next few years, I would very much like to make a journey down to the South Pole,” he said.

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