Plane Answers: Medical issues for pilots and the FAA

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Tom asks an interesting question:

Hi Kent,

I am a big fan of your website and your weekly additions here. Great stuff. But my true question comes down to this. I had a seizure two weeks ago and they did all the testing and EEG and MRI and CT scans and blood work and all came back negative. They are thinking that it was once in a lifetime type of thing. So I started wondering will I be able to still receive my First class medical if I have no seizures and I am on no medications and the doctors told me I am fine?

Hi Tom,

I checked with my AME (Aviation Medical Examiner) and he pointed me to this document from the FAA. It seems the FAA will look at your specific case and after you submit all pertinent medical records and a current status report, they’ll render a decision.

Good luck! I’d love to hear what you find out.

Steve asks:

I’ve been told that I’m red/green colorblind. Will this disqualify me for an FAA medical? Would I even be able to fly private aircraft just for fun?

Hi Steve,

In the U.S., apparently 8% of males have some sort of color deficiency. That percentage drops to just .04% of females.

Most have Deuteranomaly, which occurs in 5% of males. It’s more commonly known as the red/green color confusion.

Only .0005% of the population is totally color blind.

Most people won’t even realize they’re color blind until they try to get an FAA medical. If they can’t read the numbers in the color blind test, they’re given a restriction on their medical that says, NOT VALID FOR NIGHT FLYING OR BY COLOR SIGNAL CONTROL.

Take a look at this picture. What number do you see?

With normal color vision, you’ll see a five and If you’re red/green color blind, you’ll see a two. Of course, different monitors may affect the test, so you’ll want to be tested by an eye doctor to be sure.

If a pilot applicant is color deficient, they can apply for a waiver by demonstrating to an FAA representative that they are able to see the lights associated with a Farnsworth lantern test or, alternatively a light ‘gun’ test that’s beamed from the tower to aircraft that have lost radio communication, an extremely rare situation to be in as a pilot, but it’s an effective test apparently.

If the prospective pilot wants to get a first class medical, which is needed to fly for an airline, they would also have to fly with an FAA inspector to come in contact with the lights most commonly encountered inflight. If they can demonstrate proficiency during this flight test, they will then be issued a waiver.

I have met a number of pilots at various major airlines who’ve successfully gone through this process.

So for most U.S. pilots, the color vision issue is not disqualifying. You might want to try to get the waiver early on in your flight training, to be sure you’re able to continue commercially. Of course, this is all based on the current FAA U.S. rules which are rumored to be changing soon. I don’t know what the requirements are in Europe or Asia. Good luck!

Luke asks:

Do pilots need to have perfect vision to fly at the airlines?

Their vision needs to be correctable to 20/20 or better to be eligible for a first class medical. Most airlines have long since dropped the requirement for uncorrected 20/20 vision, but the military still requires it at the time you begin your flight training. After getting through your flight training, you’re allowed to wear glasses, from what I understand.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and he’ll try to use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.