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Can a colour blind person fly a plane?

Colour vision deficiency, commonly known as colour blindness, is the inability to perceive certain colours or distinguish between colours. It is a fairly common condition that affects approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women globally. The most common types of colour blindness are red-green colour blindness, where an individual struggles to tell the difference between red and green hues, and blue-yellow colour blindness, where discerning blue from yellow is difficult.

For many careers, colour blindness is not a major hindrance. However, for professions where colour recognition is a key part of the job, such as electricians who need to work with coloured wires, colour blindness can be problematic. One career where normal colour vision is generally required is pilots, as the ability to distinguish coloured lights and instruments is essential for safe flight operations. So can a colour blind person ever become a pilot? Let’s take a deeper look at the requirements and considerations.

Colour Vision Requirements for Pilots

Aviation regulatory agencies around the world have specific vision standards that must be met to qualify for a pilot’s licence. With regards to colour vision, the requirements are generally strict. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States requires pilots to be able to recognize and distinguish between colours used in air navigation, such as coloured lights on runways and aircraft. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) similarly mandates that pilots must be able to quickly identify aviation colours.

Here are the specific colour vision requirements for pilots in some major countries:

Country Colour Vision Requirement
United States Pass FAA colour vision test (red, green and white light test)
Canada No errors in Farnsworth Lantern colour vision test
United Kingdom No errors in Ishihara colour vision test
Australia No errors in Ishihara test and pass Farnsworth Lantern test

As shown, being mildly colour deficient is generally disqualifying, with only those with normal colour vision or very mild anomalies passing the standard aviation colour vision assessments.

Importance of Colour Vision for Pilots

The ability to accurately and quickly identify colours is considered essential for pilots for several reasons:

– **Aircraft lights and markings** – Coloured lights and stripes help identify parts of the aircraft, like the wings, landing gear and fuselage. Red and green lights differentiate between the left and right sides of the plane.

– **Cockpit displays** – Many of the instrument gauges and visual displays in the cockpit use colour-coding, like red to signify hot temperatures or green to indicate normal status.

– **Runway lighting** – Coloured lights demarcate runways and taxiways at airports. For example, runway threshold lights are green while runway edge lights are white. Red lights signify the end of a runway.

– **Navigation lights** – Flashing navigation lights in red, green and white help pilots determine an aircraft’s directionality and relative position at night.

– **Weather phenomena** – Distinguishing colours in clouds provides clues about impending weather conditions. Red sky at night means fair weather ahead while red sky in the morning signifies inclement weather.

– **Emergency signals** – Pyrotechnic rescue signals like red flares signify an emergency. Orange smoke indicates a plane’s location.

Without normal colour vision, a pilot may not be able to quickly and reliably interpret the variety of colour-coded information essential for situational awareness and safety. Even mild deficits could lead to mistakes, especially in low visibility conditions.

Can Colour Blind Pilots Fly Safely?

While stringent colour vision standards aim to ensure safety by weeding out potentially unfit pilots, some argue the standards are too restrictive. Advocates for reconsidering the rules point out:

– Many colour blind individuals develop coping mechanisms and can function well in daily life. With training, some may be able to sufficiently operate aircraft.

– Mild colour deficiency does not necessarily equate complete inability to distinguish colours, just increased difficulty. Some hues can still be recognized.

– Advances in aviation technology and cockpit automation have reduced the need for pilots to rely solely on colour-coded information. Multi-modal displays provide redundancy.

– Colour blind pilots who have flown successfully under special exemptions or restrictions demonstrate the condition doesn’t prohibit safe flying.

Nonetheless, aviation regulators have been hesitant to relax the rules, insisting normal colour vision is a must for unaided flight. They argue it is better to maintain conservatively high standards to remove any risks to public safety. A few exceptions exist though:

United Kingdom

In the UK, colour blind pilots can be issued a restricted licence permitting them to fly an aircraft with functioning colour signal lights. They must also have an accompanying pilot with normal colour vision in the cockpit while operating an aircraft.


Canadian pilots denied a licence due to colour blindness can qualify for a Restricted Category licence if they pass a special flight test and meet certain conditions. They are limited to only fly during daylight hours and within certain airspaces.

United States

In the US, the FAA has granted Exemptions and Statements of Demonstrated Ability (SODA) allowing some colour blind pilots to still obtain certification under specialized protocols. However, such exceptions are rare.

So while opportunities exist in a few places for certain colour blind individuals to fly with restrictions, in most countries normal colour vision remains an across-the-board prerequisite for unrestricted piloting. Calls for loosening these standards have so far not resulted in significant reform.

New Testing Methods

One notable development that could potentially expand options for colour blind aspiring pilots is the adoption of more nuanced colour vision testing methods. Conventional tests like Ishihara and Pseudoisochromatic plates present coloured dot patterns to screen for defects but don’t assess real-world colour discrimination abilities.

Newer assessments like the Colour Assessment and Diagnosis (CAD) test and Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) Ring Test utilize coloured light stimuli similar to actual aviation signals. They provide more granular results on colour vision abilities, beyond just a pass or fail. CAD testing is already accepted in the UK and Australia for licensing. If more aviation agencies like Transport Canada and the FAA approve advanced colour vision assessments that can identify mild deficiencies, this could open the door for limiting restrictions rather than outright bans on certain colour blind pilots in the future.


Colour blindness does not universally preclude someone from proficiently flying an aircraft. However, given the prominent role colour recognition plays in cockpit displays, aircraft lighting, navigation and weather observation, major aviation regulatory bodies still mandate normal colour vision as a basic qualification for pilot certification in most cases. A few exceptions exist where colour blind pilots can obtain restricted licences under special protocols, but opportunities remain very limited.

While the conservative approach aims to protect public safety by setting a high visual acuity bar for pilots, some argue that updated colour vision screening methods paired with specialized training could enable more colour deficient individuals to fly safely with appropriate limitations. However, major reforms remain unlikely in the near term as regulators prefer to stick with tried and tested vision requirements standards. Colour blind pilots seeking opportunities will need to look for openings in the handful of countries providing restricted licences and be prepared to demonstrate their capabilities to convince sceptical aviation oversight agencies.