Breaking Bread: Flying the Skies with a Gluten-Free Pilot and his Gluten-Free Father
Nima community member Joe is a regional airline pilot who flies between various cities in the U.S. Because of his duties as a commercial pilot, Joe is often away from his home kitchen for 3-4 days out of the week. If flying passengers wasn’t already challenging, Joe must also safely navigate his day-to-day food options to avoid calling in a sick day. Joe’s father, Doug, has a Nima, too. So we asked the aviation-loving, gluten-free father and gluten-free pilot son about their Nima experiences.
Hi Joe, thanks for joining us today. Can you share with the Nima community a little bit about your food identity?
Joe: I avoid gluten because I have celiac disease. I was diagnosed nine years ago just before Thanksgiving in 2008. My family had never heard of celiac disease or gluten, so my Thanksgiving meal comprised of plain potatoes and vegetables. I could have used a Nima!
Before I was diagnosed, I thought that my body couldn’t handle greasy/fatty foods or desserts. For two years prior to my diagnosis, I strictly avoided fast food and would rarely eat any desserts. The habit of a healthy diet has stuck with me. Though as the years pass, the bad memories of desserts have faded and I’ll occasionally indulge when out to eat.
And hi Doug, thanks for joining us today! What was it like for you and the family when Joe was diagnosed?
Doug: Thanks for the opportunity to tell our story. Joe was the last of our children living at home. Although Joe, his mother and I were all sick, Joe was most in need of care. His diagnosis was given to his mother by telephone along with the news that he had to have a gluten-free diet for life. We had no idea what that meant. It was the start of a long journey of learning for the entire family.
Shortly after Joe was diagnosed, his family fell like dominos. First, his mother was told to be entirely gluten-free, then me, then his oldest sister. His youngest sister was the next domino to fall, and my grandchildren started to get diagnosed. An asymptomatic older brother with a positive test says he will be entirely gluten-free when he turns 30. The oldest brother is testing his children for celiac this month. Nearly all the family households are gluten-free.
For Joe perhaps the biggest change was fitting his diet into his life. He was a senior in high school and was faced with a vastly different future. Although our house became entirely gluten-free, he was faced with potentially leaving home for college. At the time [in 2009], none of the colleges we contacted were willing to make the necessary accommodations. Consequently, Joe stayed home and went to the university a few miles away. While living at home he did learn to cook meals for himself and to travel safely.
Joe, what’s the process to become a commercial airline pilot?
I started flight training in 2007 when I was 16 years old. I continued earning certifications throughout college with a goal of flying people across the oceans. However, just as a new college graduate cannot instantly become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a pilot cannot instantly fly internationally. In December 2014, I accepted a job flying an 11-seat airplane out of Altoona, Penn. In April 2016, I continued my climb to a regional commercial airline flying 50-seat airplanes out of Washington Dulles. I am halfway to my goal and my office view has only gotten better.
What are some of the challenges of eating gluten-free as a pilot?
Joe: The most challenging aspect of following a gluten-free diet is eating well enough to perform at a high level every flight. The passengers deserve a pilot functioning at 100 percent to prevent and manage problems appropriately. I am typically on the road (or in the air) for 18 days per month with trip length varying from two to five days. Due to maintenance and weather delays/cancellations, I never truly know which city I will end up in, so I always take food with me. My fiancé and I spend the night before a flight cooking. For this upcoming three-day trip, we made four quinoa burger sandwiches, one double cheeseburger, a one-gallon-bag chicken and pasta with a pesto sauce, 1/2 a pound of risotto and 20 chicken nuggets. I am also taking pears, grapes, carrots, yogurt, hummus, granola, trail mix and Larabars. If I eat all of that food, I’ll dig into my “emergency” food, which is a can of soup, beef jerky, canned chicken, microwaveable rice and shelf-stable hummus.
Another challenge is never knowing exactly when I will be home. Weather or maintenance can prevent me from getting home as scheduled. Also, due to staffing needs, I am occasionally required to work past the scheduled end of my trip. My food plan may have worked out perfectly for my scheduled days of work, but staying on the road that one extra day puts me in a pickle. I can only hope I have enough time at the layover to get to a grocery store or that I haven’t eaten through my “emergency food.” Otherwise I will have nothing to eat.
Have you gotten sick while on your duty?
Joe: Unfortunately, I have gotten sick from eating gluten once.
What happens when you get sick while on duty?
Joe: I didn’t plan my food well enough for the trip and needed to go to a grocery store while in State College, Penn. I was in the gluten-free aisle, which had a small freezer filled with gluten-free products. I was in a rush to get out of the store and eat, so I chose a box of chicken nuggets and some other microwaveable food.
Once I got back to the hotel, I microwaved the nuggets and took my first bite. I thought it tasted different so I took another bite to make sure. I had a sinking feeling that I was eating gluten. Before swallowing the second bite, I checked the front of the package. The heart-warming words of “gluten-free” were nowhere to be found. I frantically checked the back and read the allergen statement. “Contains wheat” was the only part of the package I could see. I spit out the chicken nugget and began washing my mouth out. Scared of what reaction I would have, I forced myself to vomit.
After a brief debate, I decided to call the company and tell them I was sick. There is a “no questions asked” sick policy. If a pilot says they are not well enough to fly an airplane, they will not be forced to fly. The company flew in a pilot from Dulles to operate my scheduled flights. The flight still left State College on time because the company had enough advance notice to solve the problem.
I have been back to this grocery store a few times. The products in the freezer are still organized the same way. Everything in the freezer is gluten-free except one row of chicken nuggets. Looking at the door from left to right you see a gluten-free package label, a normal package label, and then another gluten-free package label. After this day, I have checked the label of anything I buy numerous times.
In which cities are you finding the best gluten-free options?
Joe: Syracuse, N.Y., is my favorite layover location. There is a 100 percent gluten-free restaurant, Yum Yum’s Gluten Free Bakery, which delivers to our hotel. A breakfast with eggs, potatoes, French toast and sausage is certainly not the norm while traveling.
My other favorite cities are Ithaca, N.Y. and Baltimore, Md. There is a 100 percent gluten-free dining hall on Cornell University’s campus. On my last layover, I was able to have dinner there on day three of four. The buffet was exactly what I needed to fill my stomach and lift my spirits! In Baltimore, the hotel is near One Dish Cuisine. This restaurant is a short ride away, and I can take food to-go for the rest of my trip.
Joe, How long have you had your Nima?
I pre-ordered and have had it since December.
Doug, when did you get Nima?
Doug: After seeing Joe use the Nima so much and hearing his stories, I thought I should have one. I used mine for the first time while transiting through Houston’s airport. I was hungry and thought I’d survey the available restaurants. While looking wistfully at a barbecue restaurant’s menu, the manager came to the counter and told me that they like to make people smile with their food, and asked if I wanted some. That seemed like a good attitude for a manager to have, so I inquired about a gluten-free menu.
Unfortunately, the restaurant did not have one and the manager did not know what gluten-free was. In the ensuing conversation, however, he displayed a mastery of the ingredients in their food and the kitchen procedures. After explaining my needs, I ordered a plain baked potato and plain barbecue beef (no butter, no sauce, no seasoning). I noticed that the manager explained the needs to the kitchen staff and supervised the food preparation. The Nima test resulted in a smile both on the Nima and on my face. I ate and enjoyed the rest of my trip.
What’s life been like now with Nima?
Joe: Incredible! I have the confidence to go to restaurants which have positive reviews, a gluten statement on their website, and/or answer my questions all correctly. After leftovers for days, a hot, fresh meal gives me a great energy boost and allows me to enjoy the travel component of this job. Since I am able to venture out and explore some of the layover locations, I am also able to socialize with the flight crew.
On an Albany layover, I went to my (formerly) most trusted restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s. I tested my beef with broccoli just to be sure. The test result showed gluten was detected. I went back to the hotel and ate the meals that my fiancé had so lovingly prepared four days ago. I was extremely happy that I avoided the State College situation.
Can you tell us more about the opportunity you have now of being able to eat out with the flight crew?
Joe: The flight crew I start a trip with is normally the same crew until the end of the trip. A customary activity for flight crews is to go out to dinner if they finish their work day early. I have never participated in this because of fear of eating gluten; I would stay in my hotel room and eat there. Since purchasing Nima, I went out with the crew for the first time on a Charleston, W.V. layover. Before taking off from Washington Dulles, I was looking for a restaurant to try. I found Pies and Pints, which had many positive reviews though it is not a dedicated gluten-free restaurant. On the van ride to the hotel, the common conversation began, “We don’t start until late tomorrow morning. Should we go out to dinner tonight?” For the first time, I was able to say yes and recommended Pies and Pints.
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we got back in the van and rode over to the restaurant. I was happy to be entering a social world that I had never known before, however still a little apprehensive about eating gluten.
Once we were seated, I asked the waitress all of the usual open-ended and closed-ended questions regarding food preparation. After a thorough interrogation of the waitress and a manager, I felt confident enough to test the pizza. I followed the advice of the Nima team by breaking off a small piece of crust and rubbing it all over the toppings. The wonderful smile appeared, and I experienced a flight crew tradition for the first time.
That’s really cool to hear that Nima has empowered you to do something you weren’t able to do before with your crew!
Doug, what does Nima mean for you?
Doug: Before I retired I developed guidance on managing risk from technology. Consequently, I look at Nima through the risk management lens. Although Nima is not a magic bullet that eliminates risk, with proper procedures and a firm recognition of Nima’s limits, it can be used to bring a restaurant’s risk into an acceptable range.
Typically the first cut at restaurant selection is a qualitative evaluation of reputation. Second is a qualitative evaluation of the restaurant’s staff and procedures. Third is to assess the restaurant’s reaction to a request for necessary changes to restaurant procedures (e.g. clean grill, pans, utensils). Those steps should cut out the bulk of the risk, perhaps 90 to 95 percent. The residual risk, however, was nearly always sufficient to keep me from trying a new restaurant. With Nima, however, I frequently have a way to address much of the residual risk by testing a sample of the food on the plate. Using Nima in this fashion on the recent trip enabled me to eat a baked potato and beef at an airport, eggs from the hotel’s breakfast buffet, and barbecue at the museum’s restaurant. I would not have eaten any of that food without the Nima.
Speaking of risk mitigation, Joe, we saw on Instagram that you used Nima to test your food while on your trip to London (to propose) and also to test your wedding reception dishes. Can you tell us more about what happened? (And congratulations on your engagement!)
Joe: Thanks! Wedding planning is exciting and sometimes stressful, though Nima has helped with the most stressful part of wedding planning – the food. In November 2016, we chose the reception venue, which has partnered with a caterer. Before signing a contract for them to provide the food, I asked to speak with the chef. The chef said that he had catered to gluten-free patrons many times. He talked about cross contamination in a shared kitchen and how he mitigates risk. Everything he said indicated that he could keep myself and my 14 other celiac family members safe.
On May 16, we had the tasting. As the day was approaching, my stress level was increasing. I will never try a restaurant which doesn’t have any gluten-free reviews, and this caterer did not have any. Knowing that I had Nima was the only thing I had to cope with that stress. When we arrived at the location, I asked if our request to make everything gluten-free had been passed along to the kitchen. We were told that it had. The chef had even called manufacturers to check if products were gluten-free. After hearing that, I felt more confident in this chef.
The first course came out – beef and shrimp skewers. Once again I followed the testing advice and tore off a piece of beef where the grill mark was, rubbed that piece all over the vegetables and shrimp, and then tested it. While Nima was working, I explained what Nima was to the catering representative. Then a “gluten found” result appeared. I told her ingredients that might have gluten like the shrimp glaze or spices. Also discussed were possible areas of cross contamination, such as not cleaning the grill. She left the table and went to the kitchen to speak with the chef.
When she returned with some answers, we discovered that Nima had exposed this confident chef. The chef did not think about cleaning the grill or asking manufacturers if the glaze or spices were gluten-free. We decided to leave the tasting and find another caterer. As of today, we are still in the process of finding a gluten-free caterer. Nima saved me from eating gluten while at home on May 16 and, more importantly, from eating gluten the day of my wedding.
We’re glad and optimistic to hear that Nima is able to help keep you happier. We’d definitely like to hear how things go after the wedding. Hopefully you will chat with us again soon!
Thank you for sharing your stories, Joe and Doug! Happy Father’s Day weekend everyone!