Just before 7:30 a.m. on June 22, Southwest Airlines flight 370 lifted off from McCarran International Airport, climbing westward over the Las Vegas Strip with Captain Bob Halicky at the controls.
Banking north, the twin-engined Boeing 737-700 with the airline’s ubiquitous blue, yellow and red livery leveled off at its cruising altitude of 40,000 feet for its flight to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
For the passengers on board, it was a normal flight, landing twelve minutes early.
But Halicky, a 59-year-old Las Vegas resident, had waited nine years for this opportunity. It was the first United States commercial flight with a pilot with insulin-treated diabetes at the controls, according to the American Diabetes Association, a milestone years in the making.
A triumphant return to the skies
“It was super exciting to return to the cockpit and also to be the first ever [type 1 insulin dependent] pilot in America to fly [commercially],” Halicky told CNN after the flight.
For years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) didn’t allow pilots with insulin-treated diabetes to fly commercial airliners, even as other countries like Canada and the United Kingdom began to ease their restrictions, allowing these pilots to fly commercially provided they did so with a second pilot.
The FAA deemed it too high risk. Any pilot diagnosed with insulin-treated diabetes was barred from flying commercially.
The American Diabetes Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and other organizations lobbied the FAA to re-examine their policy.
Last November, the FAA announced that pilots with insulin-dependent diabetes could apply for the first-class medical certificate required to fly commercially. Under the new guidance, the first batch of medicals was issued in April.
Flying first-class medical
“The FAA issued a new medical protocol late last year for pilots with insulin-treated diabetes mellitus (ITDM),” the FAA said in a statement to CNN. “The decision was based on the advancement in medical technology and the treatment of ITDM. The protocol allows pilots with ITDM to apply for a special-issuance medical certificate to have air transport, commercial or private pilot privileges.”
To date, the FAA says it has issued six first-class medicals for pilots with insulin-treated diabetes. The agency does not track commercial flights of pilots with insulin-treated diabetes and could not say whether this was the first such flight. But the American Diabetes Association, which is in contact with these six pilots, hailed Monday’s Southwest flight as a breakthrough.
“This is a historic day for pilots living with diabetes who have been sidelined for too long, as well as for all people living with diabetes,” said ADA CEO Tracey Brown. “The American Diabetes Association (ADA) has had the great privilege of partnering with incredible pilots over the course of the past decade to make this dream a reality. These pilots are tireless advocates whose dedication is remarkable.”
A career in flight
Halicky had spent his entire career in the skies before diabetes derailed his flying. He was an Air Force pilot from 1987 to 1991. He joined Southwest Airlines in 1993, while also flying with the Arizona Air National Guard. In 2002, he retired from the Air National Guard, but kept flying for Southwest, which declined to comment for this article.
In July 2011, Halicky was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He stayed in the industry as an instructor pilot, helping younger pilots build experience in simulators.
When the FAA allowed insulin-dependent pilots to apply for first-class medicals, Halicky was one of the first on the list, submitting his blood sugar history, doctor’s notes, his insulin regime and more.
On April 13, 2020, the FAA issued Halicky a first-class medical for the first time in nearly a decade. He finished the necessary requalification course as soon as he could, and on Monday morning, he climbed into the cockpit of a SWA 370, ready to helm a commercial flight for the first time in nearly a decade.
A huge uplift to the diabetes community
In the air, Halicky couldn’t stop smiling. “I’m super pumped about this,” he said after landing in Seattle, calling it “a huge uplift to the diabetes community.”
But he had little time to celebrate the accomplishment.
Less than two hours after landing, he was back in the air on a flight to Oakland. In the next few days, he has stops in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Houston, Milwaukee and more before he returns to Las Vegas, a commercial pilot once again.