Merilee Riely never imagined her dream would crash so quickly. Or that it could ever be born again.
Ever since her first discovery flight at Seattle’s Boeing field in college, she had wanted to become a pilot. In April 1995, the then 25-year-old became the newest pilot for Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a commuter airline based in Georgia. She was still in her probation period when nine months later, after losing 20 pounds in two weeks, Riely was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Her budding flying career was over.
“That was the worst day of my life. I knew that that was the end,” Riely, who now lives in Park City, Utah, told CNN. “At that time, it was an absolute definite. You’re insulin-dependent — you do not fly commercially.”
For the next 22 years, Riely stepped away from aviation, even as her husband rose to become a captain at Delta Air Lines.
Flying for fun was too expensive, and she stopped believing long ago that the Federal Aviation Administration would ever change the regulations that barred pilots with insulin-treated diabetes from commercial cockpits, even as countries like Canada and the United Kingdom began allowing it.
‘I didn’t get my hopes up’
The FAA allowed pilots with diabetes to obtain third-class medical certificates, enabling them to fly privately and flight instruct. But the first- and second-class medical certificate required for commercial flying were strictly off-limits.
The FAA decided that pilots with diabetes who suffered from severe high or low blood sugar during a flight would endanger the passengers and the aircraft. And that remained its position for years. With advances in technology such as continuous glucose monitoring that allowed for more precise control of blood sugar, the FAA’s position began to shift.
With rumors of big changes ahead, Riely began flight instructing a few years ago. But that was about as far as she could go.
“When you get something like this ripped away from you and then over the years people tell you that there’s going to be a cure for diabetes and then it never happens, I didn’t get my hopes up.”
In November, the FAA announced that it would begin allowing pilots with diabetes to apply for the first- and second-class medical certificate required to fly commercially. With nothing to lose, Riely sent her application and waited.
On Monday, Riely became one of the first group of pilots with insulin-treated diabetes to receive a first-class medical certificate. For the first time in 24 years, Riely could become a commercial pilot again.
The American Diabetes Association, which pushed for the change in FAA policy, applauded the decision.
“After ten years of advocating for insulin-treated pilots, it is an absolute joy to see the first pilots receive their medical certificates,” said Sarah Fech-Baughman of the association. “The ADA’s expert endocrinologists have advised the FAA for years that it is possible to identify pilots who can maintain blood glucose within a safe range in flight, and it is wonderful to see the agency finally come to the same conclusion.”
Now 49 years old, Riely no longer has her sights set on a commercial airline. Instead, she wonders if a corporate flying job would be a better for a mother of three. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around what to do with it,” laughs Riely.
‘A big moment’
Pietro Marsala knows exactly what to do with his new first-class medical certificate. In the 48 hours since it arrived in his inbox, Marsala has already applied to a regional airline.
Marsala, who lives in Scotsdale, Arizona, was diagnosed in late 2012, just as he was building hours and adding ratings to his budding career as a commercial pilot. He was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes earlier in the year, but since he only needed an oral medication, he could still fly commercially under FAA regulations.
When his blood sugars started to rise again, an endocrinologist confirmed his greatest fear: he had Type 1 diabetes and would need insulin immediately. He had been misdiagnosed before and could no longer fly commercially.
“That was just a dagger, man. That was just terrible,” Marsala told CNN. But Marsala never gave up on his goal of becoming an airline pilot. He wrote to the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine division often, asking for any news on changes to the regulations.
“I couldn’t let flying go. It was something that to me has meant more than just flying for a living. It’s everything that I thought it was going to be and more.” Marsala had wanted to be a pilot ever since his dad took him up to see the cockpit on the trips to his parents’ native Italy every summer.
He stared at the flight crew in awe. “I wanted to be them so bad. I looked at them like they were superheroes.”
When an email popped up on Marsala’s smart watch from the FAA on Monday, he admits he was “freaking out.” His girlfriend made him pull over to a safe spot before he could read the words he had waited so long to see — first-class medical certificate.
“I was crying like a little kid to be honest with you. It was just such a big moment.”
Entering the industry at an uncertain time
The fact that this is arguably the worst time in recent history to seek a job at the airlines is not lost on Marsala or Riely.
The International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing the world’s airlines, projected that airline passenger revenues would be cut in half this year, plummeting by $314 billion. The number of worldwide flights is down to 29,500 per day, according to Airlines for America. It was 111,000 at the beginning of the year. US air travel is down by about 97%, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
Airlines have persuaded thousands of employees to take unpaid leave or stay home with reduced pay.
One thing the airlines do not need right now is more pilots.
Aviation advocates are not deterred. In due time, the passengers will return, they believe, along with the flights and the demand for pilots.
Even if the present is difficult, Jim Coon, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, says, “The future of aviation can remain bright as this new protocol will allow even more qualified pilots to begin flying commercially.”
With the aviation industry in its current state, it’s tough to see where an aspiring career in aviation leads right now. Marsala knows where it ends. In the cockpit, where he’s always dreamed of being.
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