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Advocacy the center of effort to put local teen in pilot’s seat

Sammy Werderich with music instructor and diabetes research advocate Andrew Bordoni ready themselves for a stage show at the Illinois Aviation Academy last month.
Sammy Werderich with music instructor and diabetes research advocate Andrew Bordoni ready themselves for a stage show at the Illinois Aviation Academy last month.

“You can be anything you want to be.”

It’s something parents tell their children. We tell them to encourage them never to settle, to set their sights high and not be discouraged. And we believe it, too. Or we want to. We wish for our children that with hard work, passion and perseverance, the world is at their fingertips. And we are there to cheer them on, every step of the way.

But for some kids, it’s not that simple.

Take for example 13-year-old Sammy Werderich of St. Charles. Sammy is an active teenage boy who plays guitar, baseball and travel hockey. But above all, Sammy loves to fly.

He was born into an aviation-oriented family. Sammy’s grandfather was a captain, his father as well. His dad runs the Illinois Aviation Academy in West Chicago, where teenagers learn all the concepts of flying, take field trips, and prep for eventual licensing. Between classes at the academy, aviation camps in the summertime and lessons with flight instructors, Sammy is doing everything he can to get ready to become a pilot himself, setting his sights on solo flight by age 16, and his final goal as a commercial pilot.

But even with all the prep work, that goal may never be achieved because Sammy has type 1 diabetes.

Sammy learned two years ago that this disease, one he has managed since his diagnoses at 4 years old, one his parents raised him to believe would never stop him, just might.

That’s because in the United States, people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes who are insulin dependent cannot simply become pilots based on their skills and performance. The Federal Aviation Administration identifies insulin use as a disqualifying condition to receiving a medical certificate to operate aircraft. In fact, until 2015, they could not pilot commercial aircraft at all.

(Pilots are eligible to receive a level one certificate, allowing them to perform private and recreational operations, fly as a student pilot, flight instructor and as a sport pilot.)

In April 2015, the FAA revised its policy to state that it will provide consideration for pilots applying for certification “on a case-by-case basis.” But Bob Werderich, Sammy’s dad, said it’s a tough road. Only a few pilots have been granted level two certificates, and to date, there are no approved level three U.S. pilots with diabetes. And that’s what you need to be a commercial pilot.

But according to the American Diabetes Association, Canada has been allowing pilots with insulin-treated diabetes to fly commercially since 2001. In 2012, the United Kingdom also approved a protocol that allows for pilots with insulin-treated diabetes to engage in airline transport and commercial operations. These nations’ aviation regulators have recognized that pilots who use insulin can be individually assessed and perform aircraft operations consistent with their national safety mandates.

And these pilots fly commercially in U.S. airspace every day.

For now, Sammy still has a couple of years in front of him. He feeds off the success of Indy car driver Charlie Kimball and NASCAR’s Ryan Reed, both diabetic and both breaking the boundaries that once surrounded people with the disease.

Sammy’s mom, Donna, said it’s all about advocating. The family, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the ADA and others keep trying to make people aware of the progress made in treating and managing the disease, and hopefully move the FAA to more readily consider pilots with diabetes.

That advocacy sets goals for Sammy as well, she said. It gives him motivation to continue to lead a healthy lifestyle, to continue to concentrate on flying and all he has control over in that pursuit.

So while Sammy keeps working hard, others keep advocating, raising awareness and doing what they can. People such as his parents, and his music teacher, Andrew Bordoni, who hosts concerts that benefit diabetes awareness and research on behalf of Sammy and other young music students with the disease – all vibrant, talented, energetic kids – who are ready to take on the world. Kids just like mine. Kids just like yours.

Check out highlights from one of the recent shows on page 25 of this edition, and consider supporting the awareness and research that one day will help kids such as Sammy achieve their dreams.

Or better yet, write to the FAA directly and the Federal Air Surgeon to recognize the capabilities of people with type 1 diabetes and the remarkable advances in technology and treatment that neighboring nations recognized years ago.

Thanks for reading.

Federal Air Surgeon Michael Berry, M.D., M.S.

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