James Bushe’s dreams of being a pilot hit a roadblock when he was diagnosed as HIV positive, a fact that prevented him from getting the medical certificate he needed to fly in the UK. But after challenging the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules, he has made his dream a reality. 

I’ve always been an adventurer, and a sense of wanderlust has been with me since childhood. From the first moment I stepped onto the flight deck of a Boeing 747 as a seven-year-old boy, awe inspired by the panoramic views of Greenland and Canada 35,0000-feet below, mesmerised by the controls and gauges and idolising the three men who knew what they did, a dream was formed. I was going to see the world and I was going to do it from the best seat in the house; I was going to become an airline pilot. In January 2014, however, that dream was shattered on the day I was diagnosed with HIV, due to CAA rules that would prohibit me from getting the necessary medical certification to become a pilot. 

As I think back to that cold January morning my stomach is in knots. When I heard those words “James, you’re HIV positive” it was like someone had thrown a spanner in a machine and the cogs instantly ground to halt. My first question was “How long do I have?” However, the answer is that I have just as long to live as anyone else, because a person on successful treatment for HIV keeps the virus suppressed well enough that it can’t even be detected in a blood test, and cannot be passed on to others.

James is a commercial pilot with regional airline Loganair © James Bushe

However, we didn’t know that at the time. As I left the hospital I felt the world closing off to me, because I knew that realising that boyhood dream might not be as simple as I thought. My status might mean that I could never become an airline pilot and, at that time, I was right.

I needed to come to terms with my diagnosis and achieve something in spite of it. I quit my job and set off to fulfil that sense of wanderlust I had as a young boy. I learned Spanish in Barcelona, ran a hostel in Mayan village in Guatemala, sailed the bays of Belize, scuba dived in Honduras and trekked the jungles of Colombia. I met some incredible people, made some fantastic memories, but most importantly had time to heal and to focus. I came home more determined than ever that I was going to become an airline pilot and living with HIV wasn’t going to stop me. 

View from the cockpit © James Bushe

In January 2017 I was accepted on to a pilot training program and all I needed before I could start was a Class 1 medical certificate. A Class 1 medical is what all commercial pilots need in order to fly – however, the rules were so strict that a person living with HIV was denied this certificate. Despite this, a pilot that was already qualified and subsequently contracted HIV was still allowed to continue to fly.  Not only did I feel this position is discriminatory, but from a medical perspective it made no sense. Remember, someone living with HIV on successful treatment can’t pass the virus on to others. I knew these rules were outdated and needed to be changed.

I gathered medical evidence from around the globe to prove that HIV posed no risk to flight safety. I reached out to politicians which led to letters being sent from the First Minister of Scotland and UK Transport Secretary to the CAA, demanding that their rules be revised. Alongside this, I campaigned on social media and gave interviews to the media that gained international coverage. In January 2018, after almost a year of relentless campaigning, the CAA announced that the rules had changed. A person living with HIV who wanted to become a pilot, could now begin the training.  

James challenged CAA rules to become a pilot © James Bushe

At the beginning of this year, on 11 January, the LM470 Loganair flight from Glasgow to Stornaway was being piloted by Europe’s first newly qualified pilot living with HIV. I felt proud that day, not only about what I had achieved, but for what it might mean for others in the future.

Thankfully, as a result of this campaign the UK work is now underway to reform aviation rules across Europe. But across the world there are many countries that are still falling behind. Almost a quarter of the globe prevent a HIV positive person seeking residency in their country and there is still an outdated stigma surrounding the virus. HIV has changed and it’s time the world caught up. Now, my mission is to tackle this stigma and help shape a world in which anyone like me, living with HIV, can realise their dreams.

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