Steve Wolbrink loves to fly in fact, he loves it enough to fight for the right to do it.
His passion and determination to remain “in flight” is what got his license back after the FAA took it when he failed his physical exam due to Apha-1.
Wolbrink, of Mitchell, South Dakota, became a licensed private pilot in 1982, years before any Alpha-1 symptoms appeared. When he began to get short of breath, he – like many Alphas – thought nothing was wrong. “I wasn’t overly concerned. I just couldn’t seem to do what others my age could do,” he says.
Then in 1995 Wolbrink applied for a job at PPG Industry, a glass and manufacturing company that required careful medical exams. Testing at the Cleveland Clinic revealed an abnormal chest X-ray. He was sent to a pulmonologist who immediately did a blood test for Alpha-1; Wolbrink finally got his answer.
Despite the medical exam results, PPG took a chance on Wolbrink and hired him.
Over the next five years his Alpha-1 lung disease began to take a toll on him, and the Federal Aviation Administration noticed. He began to do poorly on the FAA’s required medical testing. He was falling below the minimum level of lung function is required by the FAA to be a licensed private pilot.
He managed to hold onto his license for a while by applying for a special issuance; anyone who doesn’t meet the FAA’s minimum requirements is able to use this for an undetermined period. Then in 2000, the FAA refused to renew his special issuance and took away his pilot’s license.
Wolbrink is a stubborn man. He probed the FAA’s medical staff at several levels and appealed to the National Transportation Safety Board, the governing agency over the FAA. No success.
After two years of this, he was ready to give up the fight. Then his wife suggested he contact their US senators and member of Congress. His persistence eventually caught the attention of then South Dakota U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, who wrote a letter to the FAA.
The FAA decided to give Wolbrink another chance: If he took some tests in an altitude chamber to determine the oxygen saturation levels in his blood, they would consider revisiting the terms of his pilot’s license.
He looked for a suitable altitude chamber, and found one in a neighboring state. Best of all, he got the help of Dr. Warren Jensen, Director of Aeromedical Research, Assistant Professor and Flight Surgeon of the University of North Dakota’s Center for Aerospace Sciences in Grand Forks, ND.
Dr. Jensen spent most of a day testing Wolbrink’s oxygen saturations and comparing them with his own, at several different “altitudes” (done in the chamber without ever leaving the ground). Then the professor outlined his results on spreadsheets and presented them to the FAA. The result was a smashing success.
The FAA decided to re-issue Wolbrink’s license with some altitude restrictions and the requirement that he regularly check his oxygen saturation levels when flying.
It took two years—and oxygen tanks and a pulse oximeter became his constant in-flight companions—but his persistence, hard work, and Dr. Jensen’s expertise had paid off. He had his license back.
On long-term disability now after 10 years with PPG, Wolbrink continues to enjoy flying for pleasure with his brother, who is also a pilot. Under FAA guidelines, he wears and monitors a pulse oximeter at all times while flying. He must use supplemental oxygen at 6,000 feet, or if his saturation levels dip below 92%.
Today, Wolbrink could take advantage of another option for pilots. Under a new classification called the Sport Pilot license, he could fly smaller two-seat aircraft by simply self-certifying his medical fitness to fly safely. The classification is intended to simplify and take some of the expense out of pleasure flying.
After more than 25 years as a licensed pilot, he still loves life in the sky. “The feeling of freedom, the view—there’s just nothing like it if you’ve never done it,” Wolbrink says. “It’s just a whole new world that I didn’t want to give up.”
Another thing he likes to do, born out of his relationship with Dr. Jensen. Wolbrink and his brother make yearly trips to the University of North Dakota to speak to the medical students about their own personal experiences—and the importance of testing their future COPD patients for Alpha-1.
Steve’s not the only Alpha pilot who loves to fly. Read John Grammer’s story in our Special Stories Section.
Dr. Alex M. Wolbrink, a relative of Wolbrink’s, co-authored an article in the Federal Air Surgeon’s Medical Bulletin about Wolbrink’s case.
Click the following links to view “Airman with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency”: