Why can’t color blind people be pilots? This is a question that many people are curious about, and it deserves a detailed answer because of the impact on everyone’s safety overall.
Pilots need to be able to distinguish between different colors to fly, especially at night. If you can’t tell one color from another, for example, you might not be able to make a safe landing.
Failing one test will not spell the end of your dreams of becoming a pilot. However, the more you understand about the reasons for these rules, the better you can appreciate these safety efforts and understand your options.
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Why Can’t Color Blind People Be Pilots? The Reasons Are Important
In short, pilots who cannot identify colors cannot fly safely at night or during low-visibility weather conditions. Color perception is an integral part of the testing that an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) performs to determine a pilot’s worthiness to fly.
When an AME gives you a test for color blindness, your career is not necessarily over with if you fail the test. You have the option of taking other approved tests for color perception, as well as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operational tests.
However, if you intend to fly professionally, you’ll need to keep the FAA regulations in mind. Greater knowledge of the rules will make it easier to plan your next steps if everything does not work out as intended, including pursuing alternate career paths.
The Importance of Perceiving Colors Normally
The FAA is strict about color perception testing because pilots must be able to identify and see different colored lights. One example is how night approaches can involve lights in any of these colors:
Airport beacons, for example, are designed to allow pilots to distinguish the colors without other cues being given. This perception is important because, unlike street lights, beacons can only be determined by their colors.
One of the reasons differentiating between colors is of primary importance is because of the distance where pilots often see these lights. If a pilot is fatigued or other flying under adverse conditions, the aviator must still be able to see the lights.
Pilots find the correct taxiways and runways by being able to identify lights of different colors. As a pilot, you should also be able to see approach lights and Intelligent Lighting System lights for smoother, easier approaches.
Cockpits also use lights with many different colors that you’ll need to distinguish between. The charts that you’ll need to read also use different shades of blue, green, and magenta.
Misinterpreting lights at night could endanger passengers and crew, as well as people on the ground. Ensuring that pilots can perceive different colors correctly is an integral part of FAA safety practices.
A 2002 incident that involved a FedEx plane put color blindness rules into the spotlight. A pilot with color deficiencies, when flying into the Tallahassee Regional Airport, went below the glide path during a night approach.
This plane crashed half a mile short of the runway, destroying the aircraft. The incident report that the government issued cited the pilot’s inability to correctly see the visual approach slope indicator (VASI) lights.
What is Color Blindness?
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) estimates that 8% of men and 0.5% of women have color perception issues. In most cases, a color blind person has difficulty distinguishing between red and green.
How Did Color Perception Standards Change in 2009?
At one time, pilots who failed color perception tests would only be able to fly during the daytime. Flying at night or receiving first or second-class medical certificates would not have been possible.
However, being 100% color-normal is not a strict requirement today like it once was. New research demonstrating increased safety allowed the industry to amend its standards in 209.
Pilots who are unable to pass the Ishihara test are, however, often able to describe and interpret colors and light signals in use for aviation. The 2009 changes opened the door to increased test types that would permit a pilot to get a medical certificate.
How is Color Vision Tested?
The AME that you see for getting your medical certificate will test your color perception. The test, also called an Ishihara test, uses hundreds of small circles in different color shades.
There is a number hidden in the pattern in a contrasting shade to the rest of the pattern. For example, a green number might be hidden in a red pattern.
Although people with normal color vision might find this test difficult, someone who is color blind will have more difficulty. If someone who is color blind sees the number at all, they may misread it, such as seeing an 18 as a 13.
What Happens If You Have Color Deficiencies?
If you think you might have color deficiencies, you ought to consult with your AME ahead of the medical exam. The AME can administer different tests to determine your color deficiency level and help you discern your options.
If You Fail a Color Test Can You Fly?
You still have the chance of becoming a pilot if you’ve failed a color vision test. However, flying at night or accepting Air Traffic Control (ATC) color signals will not be possible.
You might want to go to a vision specialist for an alternate color vision test, like the Dvorine or Farnsworth Lantern Test. These tests use green, red and white lights.
Passing one of these alternate tests offers a pathway to getting your medical certificate. Your AME will be able to grant your medical certificate when you present the paperwork.
What Types of Color Testing Are FAA-Approved?
The alternate color tests available include:
- American Optical Company (AOC)
- Keystone Orthoscope
- Keystone Telebinocular
- OPTEC 900
- OPTEC 2000
- Richmond, 15-plate
- Titmus i400
Third Class Medical Tests
The FAA can provide an Operational Color Vision Test (OCVT) for anyone seeking third-class medical that has failed the color perception tests. This test involves an FAA safety inspector checking your ability to identify signal lights as well as discern the colors on a navigational chart.
First and Second-Class Medical Tests
If you are applying under first or second-class medical, you will also need an OCVT. There is also a color vision Medical Flight Test involved.
When on the flight, you’ll need to show that you can interpret and read displays and instruments, including:
- Caution lights
- Lights on other planes
- Runway lights
- Taxiway lights
- Airport beacon lights
- Red warning lights on buildings and towers
You must also demonstrate your ability to see the terrain. Finding and describing the condition of emergency landing fields is also of paramount significance.
You’ll receive a letter of evidence and a medical certificate after passing your MFT and OCVT. The good thing about passing the MFT and OCVT is that you need only do so once.
Can Military Pilots Be Color Blind?
A color vision test is necessary for all Air Force, Army, and Navy pilot candidates. A test that the military uses for blue, red, and green color perception is the Contrast Cone Test(CCT).
The military also uses the Farnsworth Lantern Test for color perception. You’ll also find the traditional Ishihara test in use in the military.
None of the military branches uses the types of field tests that the FAA offers. You may want to consider having an optometrist give you color vision testing before enlistment if you have any concerns.
Civilian aviation may be an option for you if passing military tests is not possible. You’ll need to pass the appropriate operation tests for a civilian aviation career.
Can Pilots Use Color-Correcting Lenses?
Although there are products available designed to aid color perception, these are not available for pilots. Color-correcting lenses and sunglasses are prohibited under FAA regulations.
If you have concerns about your color perception, a career as a pilot may still be an option. However, you may have to take some extra steps to prove that you can safely fly and land a plane.