A common misnomer is that if you are colorblind, you can never be a pilot. You might be surprised to learn that not only is this not true, but 1 in 12 men and roughly 1 in 200 women are color blind—many of which do not discover it until they go for their pilot’s license medical exam. Of course, when you operate a commercial aircraft, you want to ensure that your eyesight is in tip top shape, and there are rules and regulations in place to ensure the safety of both you and your passengers.
Having been through the testing to become a pilot himself, Henry Vinson, a commercial pilot and flight instructor, is deeply familiar with the process and why it is so important. He dispels misconceptions and sheds some light on why eyesight requirements were put in place.
The Importance of Sight
Sight might be one of the most important aspects of being a pilot. Henry Vinson explains that facing problems like blind spots, low visibility, and areas with few visual references when you have poor vision can have dire consequences. Unfortunately, no mechanical equipment can replace the crucial sense of sight for a pilot. A serious impairment in a pilot’s vision can lead to mistakes, miscalculations, and misreading the panel instruments, all of which can have fatal consequences. For this reason, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires pilots to take a comprehensive vision test by an aviation medical examiner.
In order to get a First-Class FAA Medical Certificate needed to fly a commercial passenger airline, a pilot has to have: at least 20/20 overall vision in each eye, 20/40 near vision in each eye, and 20/40 intermediate vision in each eye. Even if you don’t naturally have great eyesight, you can still wear corrective lenses and fly. Nearsighted (myopic) individuals are required to wear corrective lenses at all times during aviation duties. Farsighted (hyperopic) individuals are required to have corrective lenses available during aviation duties. These lenses are usually bifocals, progressive lenses, or the half-cut reading glasses.
As a military and commercial airline pilot, you are able to wear glasses to correct your vision to the above stated standards. For commercial airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration requires all pilots with refractive errors that might affect their distance vision to wear prescription or contact lenses to correct their vision to 20/20. In addition, the FAA recommends that all pilots who require eyeglasses or contact lens carry an extra set with them as a backup when they fly. While glasses are allowed, what about color blindness?
Colorblindness is a bit of a “grey area,” and it depends on the severity of your condition. Color perception is critical to safe flight for several reasons. Within the flight environment, many types of information are conveyed using color. Henry Vinson explains that color blindness is usually genetic, but it can also be acquired with age or illness and in many cases, people do not know that they are color blind until they go for their initial pilot medical assessment.
There are certain scenarios where colorblindness is permissible; however. The FAA requires you to have clear enough vision to be able to identify important things like aircraft position lights, airport beacons, chart symbols, and more. You will need to go through a more thorough color vision test to ensure that you can safely carry out your duties as a pilot. An applicant can be tested with a number of different color vision tests: the FAA recommends Richmond HRR (Hardy Rand and Rittler) pseudoisochromatic plates based on the ability to test for both Red-Green and Blue-Yellow color deficiency. Some of the testing asks pilots to identify numbers hidden in circular arrangements defined only by color, seeing if the pilot can differentiate between colors well enough to qualify to fly. If you are given the green light to fly, you will need to go for a medical exam every 12 months, including a color vision deficiency test.
Final Thoughts from Henry Vinson
Lastly, the past decade has seen the inclusion of laser eye surgery, opening up the ranks to thousands of qualified candidates. For many years, the Air Force had a long-standing policy that disqualified applicants who have had LASIK surgery from flight training and navigator training, but this rule was lifted in 2007. Henry Vinson notes that every country will have different standards and regulations around eyesight requirements and it is best to consult your local authority to find out if you are able to fly.