Can You Become a Pilot if You’re Color Blind?

Pilot overseeing the horizon after a color blind test.

In this post we’re going to answer a frequently asked question, can you become a pilot if you’re. color blind.

Pilots need to identify different colors to fly successfully. Therefore, pilots are tested for their color perception when they see an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) for a medical certificate. 

Your AME will give you a color blindness test. If you fail that test, it’s not necessarily the end of your flying career. You can take other color vision tests and present these results to the AME. You can also take operational tests with the FAA to prove that you can perceive different colors while flying.

But understanding why the FAA is strict about these rules–and who they let fly and who they do not–are important considerations if you’re pursuing a long-term career as a professional pilot.

Why Being “Color Normal” is Important

The FAA wants to make sure that pilots can clearly and easily identify different colored lights. For example, when flying night approaches, pilots must identify white, green, red, yellow, and blue lights. 

Think about the VASI/PAPI lights or airport beacons, which require the pilot to differentiate the color of a light in absence of any other clue. This is unlike driving a car, where street light designs clue you into the color without needing to see the color.

Further, airport lights are often tiny specks of light far away. A pilot with color deficiency will have a difficult time differentiating these faint clues. It’s also worth noting that these deficiencies become much harder to deal with in difficult conditions, such as when fatigue plays a role. 

Identifying different colored lights helps pilots identify the correct runways and taxiways. Pilots must also identify approach lights and ILS lights for instrument approaches.

And, of course, they should be able to see different colored lights in the cockpit and read charts that use magenta, green, and blue shading. 

A pilots view at night after a color blind test.

A pilot that misinterprets lights while flying an approach at night could endanger the safety of their crew, passengers, and people on the ground. The FAA is focused on safety and wants to ensure that pilots can perceive different colors used in aviation operations.

Color blindness rules were given a fresh review following an accident involving a FedEx 727 in 2002. The color deficient first officer, flying a night approach into Tallahassee Regional Airport, sank below the glide path on a visual approach.

The aircraft crashed one half-mile short of the runway into trees and broke apart. The first officer’s inability to interpret the VASI lights on the night approach was cited as one probable cause in the NTSB’s accident report.

Color Perception Issues

According to AOPA, about .5 percent of women and eight percent of men have difficulty with color perception. Most color perception difficulties arise from deciphering between red and green. 

Updated 2009 Color Perception Standards

In the past, if you failed a color vision test, you would be restricted to private, daytime flights. You wouldn’t be able to get a first or second-class medical certificate or fly at night.

However, new studies have shown that pilots don’t need to be 100% color normal to be safe pilots. 

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Many pilots that can’t pass an Ishihara test can accurately describe and interpret the colors and light signals used in aviation operations. Since 2009, color-blind pilots have had more options to prove their visual abilities and get a medical certificate. 

Color Vision Testing

When you see an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) for a medical certificate, the AME will give you a test to ascertain your color perception. This is usually an Ishihara test. 

Photo of color blind test.

The Ishihara test features hundreds of small circles in different hues. A number is hidden in the pattern. For example, a number 18 with green hues might be hidden amongst red hues. A person with normal color vision will have some trouble identifying this number, and a color-blind person might see the number 13 instead.

This type of test is one of the hardest tests to interpret if you have any color perception difficulties.

If You Think You May be Color Deficient

If you think you may be color deficient, schedule a consultation with a local AME BEFORE scheduling an actual medical exam.

In many cases, the AME can administer several color tests in his or her office to help determine if one is in fact color deficient and to what degree and if so, will help you put a game plan together.

Can You Fly If You Fail the Color Test?

If you fail a color vision test, you can still become a pilot. However, you’ll be limited to daytime operations and won’t be able to fly at night or accept ATC color signals. 

Pilot looking at the view from above after a color blind test.

In addition, you can ask to take alternate color vision tests at a vision specialist. The Dvorine second edition 15-plate test is one of the alternatives available. The Farnsworth Lantern Test is another popular color vision test that shows vertical lights for two seconds at a time. Pilots are shown red, white, and green lights. 

If you pass the alternate test, take the paperwork to your AME, and you will be issued a medical certificate.

Color Vision Tests Accepted by the FAA

  • American Optical Company (AOC)
  • AOC-HRR
  • Dvorine
  • Ishihara
  • Richmond-HRR
  • Richmond, 15-plate
  • Farnsworth Lantern
  • Keystone Orthoscope
  • Keystone Telebinocular
  • OPTEC 900
  • OPTEC 2000
  • Titmus i400

Third Class Medical Options

If you don’t pass the color perception tests, those seeking a third-class medical can ask the FAA for an Operational Color Vision Test (OCVT). An FAA safety inspector will give you a practical test to see if you can differentiate colors on a navigation chart and identify signal lights. 

First and Second Class Medicals

First or second-class medical applicants will have to undergo the OCVT described above. In addition, they will take a color vision Medical Flight Test (MFT). During the flight, the pilot will have to demonstrate that they can read and interpret instruments and displays, such as caution lights. 

Pilots must show that they can see the terrain and find emergency landing fields and describe the field’s condition and obstructions. They also must be able to identify colored lights, such as lights on other aircraft, runway lights, taxiway lights, airport beacon lights, and red warning lights on high towers and buildings.

After passing the OCVT and MFT, you will be issued a letter of evidence and a medical certificate. You’ll only have to complete the OCVT and MFT once–not every time you apply for a medical.

Color Vision and Military Pilots

If you want to fly in the Air Force, Navy, or Army, you must pass a color vision test. The military gives pilots a Contrast Cone Test (CCT) to test blue, red, and green color vision. In addition, the military uses the PIP and Farnsworth Lantern test to test color perception. 

If you fail the color vision tests, you won’t be able to become a military pilot. The military doesn’t have field test options as the FAA does. If you are interested in becoming a military pilot and worried about your color vision, see an optometrist and ask for color vision testing. 

If you aren’t eligible to be a military pilot, you can pursue a career in civilian aviation after passing operational tests. 

How pilots see the world after a color blind test.

Color Correction Options

Many products aim to help people perceive more colors. However, the FAA does not allow pilots to wear color-correcting sunglasses or lenses. 

Final Thoughts

If you are just starting in your aviation career and worried about your color vision, see an optometrist and ask for color perception testing. If you don’t pass the standard tests, you can still be a pilot if you can prove that you can identify light signals, airport lights, read aeronautical charts, and interpret terrain and obstacles.

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