February 22, 2019 By Denise Barnard
Ready for flight

On February 11, 2019, 22-year-old Austen McDonald made history. He became the first Canadian with type 1 diabetes to receive a medical certificate from Transport Canada, allowing him to fly commercially. Diagnosed with diabetes in 2011 when he was 14 years old, he says, “I've always wanted to fly. I had my mind set when I was around 12 years old that I was going to follow my dad’s path through the air force and then into the airlines.” We spoke to Austen, and his dad, Captain Ed McDonald, who have been advocating, with support from Diabetes Canada, for Transport Canada to change its policy. 

Why is this decision such a big deal? 

Ed: Up until now, pilots who already had their commercial licence when they became insulin-dependent could apply for a medical certificate to keep flying. But no one who already was on insulin could do the same. It really made no sense to us.

Austen: Shortly after my diagnosis, I attended the diabetes transition program offered by the Stollery Children's Hospital, and was told that nearly every career opportunity was available to people like me—with the exception of military service and commercial piloting.

How long have you and your dad been talking to Transport Canada?

Austen: It has been nearly five years. After learning that there were pilots with type 1 diabetes working in the airline industry, my father started digging into the rules and regulations around the medical guidelines. Pilots who had gotten or kept their licences had been diagnosed after [becoming] pilots, and continued to work following successful appeals and risk assessments performed by themselves and Transport Canada.

How did you connect with Diabetes Canada?

Austen: Through my endocrinologist Dr. Peter Senior at the Kaye Edmonton Clinic. When I told him about some of the policy stances Transport Canada was taking, he encouraged us to get involved with the Diabetes Canada advocacy group to help with our case.

How does it feel to make history? 

Austen: It is a great honour. I am grateful for all the work done by my father, Diabetes Canada, my health-care team, and especially those pilots with type 1 diabetes who have trail-blazed since the ‘90s. I hope this means that no one’s dreams of being a pilot will be cut short by type 1diabetes in future. 

Austen McDonald (pictured above with his dad, Ed) lives in Edmonton. He will be graduating from the mechanical engineering program at the University of Alberta in May. He already has his private pilot licence, and is taking his commercial flight exams shortly. He hopes to find a job with a regional airline. 

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