Can Pilots be Color Blind?

Pilots · 6 min read · May 25, 2022
can pilots be color blind

There are several requirements to become an airline transport pilot, and one of them is obtaining an aviation medical certificate. Moreover, part of the process to obtain the medical certificate involves taking an operational color vision test (OCVT).

In general, having a great vision, and the capability of being aware of the surroundings at all times are two critical characteristics a pilot should possess. So, it is reasonable to ask whether a pilot can be color blind or not.

It may seem that color blindness is a clear limitation to becoming an airline pilot. Yet, the truth is that the answer to the question above is that it all depends on the severity of the color blindness, and the type of color blindness the pilot suffers from.

Do you want to learn more about color blindness and how it affects the prospects of becoming a pilot? Keep reading as we give you the details.

A pilot adjusting aircraft controls in front of a colorful screen of gauges.

Defining color blindness

The human retina can sense colors using red, blue, and green cones. When images are viewed through the lenses of our eyes, these cones can identify the color and send the correct information to the brain.

Around retinal surfaces, rods control lighting and vision during nighttime. Together, many millions of cones and rods provide the eye with the capability to view color and detail in changing light.

Can the color blind not see color at all?

Color blindness is the condition that makes it more difficult to see colors and details with the eye. The problem affects 88% of males and 17% of females.

Some types of color vision deficiency, such as achromatopia, might limit color perception to a very severe degree where the affected individual barely recognizes that there are colors at all.

However, the most recent studies have shown that most people who suffer from this condition can actually differentiate colors to some degree. Therefore, the term color blindness has been replaced by color vision deficiency.

A colorful screen of an aircraft navigation system. Can pilots be color blind?

Color vision limitations and becoming a pilot

Clearly, a color blind person will have a significant limitation to fly aircraft, where colors and details play an important role when performing the required tasks to control the aircraft safely.

As opposed to normal color vision, limitations to color perception can negatively impact not only aircraft control abilities, but also distort the manner in which the pilot sees many colored lights such as runway lights, taxiway lights, caution lights, airport beacon lights, and red warning lights.

Moreover, night flying might also become more challenging as our color perception changes drastically in the dark.

Yet, there are some conditions that allow color blind pilots to fly, and these are usually determined by the corresponding authorities by having an Aviation Medical Examiner perform color vision testing of different kinds, such as the Operational Color Vision Test (OCVT).

What are some critical color signals a pilot must identify?

As a general rule, a color blind person can become a pilot provided that the person can differentiate between green, red, yellow/orange, white and blue to safely perform the flight tasks.

These are the colors that are critical since not identifying them properly can cause severe incidents, especially in areas such as:

Also, like any person with a normal color vision, the color blind person will have to meet the minimum requirements for the specific level of piloting they want to reach, and each level requires a specific medical certificate.

Of course, the higher the level of piloting, the more demanding color vision tests the prospective pilot will have to go through.

Let’s dive now into the details of the aviation medical certificate.

Doctor issuing a medical certificate

Aviation medical certificate

It is widely known that pilots have to undergo a series of medical tests to obtain the corresponding medical certificate required to obtain the license to fly.

Aviation medical certificates are supervised by the aviation authorities such as the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA in the United States, and they are generally classified as third-class medical certificates, second-class medical certificates, and first-class medical certificates.

According to the 14 CFR Part 67 regulations, revised on September 16, 1996, a pilot must have “the ability to perceive those colors necessary for the safe performance of airman duties for all medical certification classes.”

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) performs a corresponding color blindness test for pilots to be able to get a commercial pilot license. Based on data provided by CASA, 400 out of 36,000 Australian pilots have color vision deficiency, with 140 of them flying under a commercial pilot’s license.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the pilot’s ability to differentiate colors is assessed during the Class One Medical examination, an initial requirement to become a commercial airline pilot. This is done through the Ishihara test, one of the many tests that can be used by aviation medical examiners.

Are there any specific color vision testing methods?

Common tests used to assess color vision during medical examination include:

  • AOC (1965 edition) Pseudoisochromatic Plates
  • AOC-HRR (second edition) Pseudoisochromatic Plates
  • Dvorine Pseudoisochromatic Plates (second edition)
  • Ishihara Pseudoisochromatic Plates: Concise 14-plate edition
  • Ishihara Pseudoisochromatic Plates: 24-plate edition
  • Richmond (1983 edition) Pseudoisochromatic Plates
  • Richmond-HRR (4th edition) Pseudoisochromatic Plates
  • OPTEC 900 Vision Tester and Farnsworth Lantern Test
  • Titmus Vision Tester
  • Titmus i400
  • OPTEC 2000 Vision Tester
  • Keystone Orthoscope
  • Keystone View Telebinocular

Of course, there are more demanding tests that might be chosen by the aviation medical examiner and they usually come after any selected from the list above. These usually include the Operational Color Vision Test (OCVT) and the Color Vision Medical Flight Test (MFT), the latter being an actual flight test to verify color vision directly in flight.

Now, let’s take a look at the vision requirements of each of the medical certificates mentioned above.

A stethoscope next to a laptop.

Medical certificate types

Third Class Medical Certificate

The third class medical certificate is governed by CFR 14 Part 67 Subpart D, and it is the least demanding of the three.

The requirements do not specify an average vision, and permits pilots with 20/40 near and distance vision to retain their certificates without correction.

Color vision needs are similar to those of other categories. The third class medical certificate is usually granted to student pilots, recreational pilots, and private pilots.

When your health certificate states that you have failed the pseudoisochromatic color plate test, it means your doctor has issued a restriction on it. This normally restricts night flying or flying during the day under color signal control.

However, the pilot may ask for a kind of appeal by applying in writing to the Aerospace Medical Certification Division (AMCD) or the Regional Flight Surgeon (RFS) for additional testing to be undertaken.

Applicants seeking a Third Class Medical Certificate will undergo an Operational Color Vision Test (OCVT). The applicant will only be able to take this test only once and during the day. If the applicant fails, then they may ask to take the test at night, but only once.

Second Class Medical Certificate

The second class certificate medical certificate is governed by CFR 14 Part 67 Subpart C. Commercial pilots must have 20/20 vision distance, as well 20/20 near and middle vision. Likewise basic criteria apply to color vision.

Airmen with second class medical certificate are usually capable of delivering passenger and cargo on commercial aircraft for rental.

In this class, the OCVT exam is required for all applicants. A medical flight test (MST) is also required to pass get the certificate. Second class medical certificate is usually granted to commercial pilots, those who can actually get compensation for flying but cannot carry passengers for airlines yet.

First Class Medical Certificate

The first class medical certificate is governed by CFR 14 Part 67 Subpart B, and it is the most demanding certification class of all. However, its criteria is similar to the one of the second class certification. First class medical certificate also requires the candidate to take a Medical Flight Test.

First class medical certificates are usually granted to airline transport pilots. Pilots of airlines are not merely commercial pilots.

They must be able to handle larger aircraft and take fast decisions for the whole crew, even when the situation is extremely critical. Often airlines choose to hire military pilots with air force experience or proven management abilities.

There are exactly the same color vision requirements to the second class medical certificates.

An aircraft cockpit with colorful buttons and gauges.

Operational Color Vision Test

The Operation Color Vision Test (OCVT) combines aeronautical charts reading and a signal lights test. The first part is simply to recognize a symbol from an aircraft chart and distinguish the relevant color like blue, magenta or any of the other colors mentioned before.

Signal light test

As the name implies, the OCVT’s signal lighting test is primarily a light test. This section is based on signals fired at different distances that require identifying the color for each light. If the signal lights are not identified correctly, the prospect pilot will fail the test.

The test starts with a pilot positioned at two different distances from the command tower and relaying which color a light gun displays.

The final call: Can pilots be color blind?

Depending on the country, the color vision requirements will vary, so the answer to the question brought up here will depend on those requirements. For many, their color vision deficiency will not be an issue to becoming a pilot.

For example, in the UK, getting the first 15 plates right in a row during the Ishihara test, will grant the pilot a pass since it is considered they have a demonstrated ability to differentiate colors.

Also, in Australia, pilots who pass the Operational Color Vision Assessment will gain a completely unrestricted medical certificate and will be able to fly at all levels including night flying, IFR, ATPL, and internationally. It only takes to meet the minimum color vision requirements.

Finally, while color vision tests are more strict in the US, applying to further testing may help color blind pilots become airline pilots even after experiencing quite a few drawbacks.

Therefore, as long as their color deficiency does not stop them from differentiating the signals and their colors, the answer is yes, pilots can be color blind.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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