Vision and FAA Standards
What are the FAA standards for vision?
Federal Aviation Regulations require that a pilot’s distant vision be 20/20 or better, with or without correction, in EACH eye separately to hold a first or second class medical certificate. The standard for near visual acuity (16″) is 20/40 in each eye separately. Pilots aged 50 and older also have an intermediate visual standard measured at 32″ of 20/40 or better in each eye separately. Third class medical certificates require 20/40 or better for near and distant vision. There is no intermediate vision standard for third class certification.
Nearsighted (myopic) individuals, those who have blurring when viewing distant objects, are required to wear corrective lenses (glasses or contact lenses) at all times during aviation duties. These lenses must correct distant vision to 20/20 in each eye.
Farsighted (hyperopic) individuals or presbyopic individuals (those who require reading glasses as they age), are required to have corrective lenses AVAILABLE during aviation duties. These lenses are usually bifocals, progressive lenses or the half cut reading lenses (“granny glasses”).
Pilots and controllers with cataracts whose vision does not correct to 20/20 at distant may be recertified to fly and control after having a surgical implantation of an artificial intraocular lens. These individuals may also be required to wear glasses to provide optimum visual acuity.
With FAA order 3930.3B ATC vision standards were made similar to airman standards. With or without correction air traffic controllers must demonstrate 20/20 distant vision in each eye separately, 20/40 in each eye at 16 inches near vision, and 20/40 in each eye at 32 inches intermediate vision if they are 50 years of age or older. Glasses or contact lenses are permitted.
Unilateral vision or visual field defects are waiverable for pilots, but typically not for controllers (see cataract article). However, controllers with visual field defects might possibly be considered for center operations on a case by case basis.
What determines the eye’s ability to focus images?
The ability to focus images on the retina of the eye is determined by primarily by two components of the eye, the lens and the cornea. The cornea has a refractive power of approximately 45 diopters (ability to bend light rays). The lens has a variable refractive power (accommodation) of 1-18 diopters as a youth, but there is a progressive deterioration in accommodation so that the 50 year old pilot/controller may have less than 2 diopters of accommodation. The retina and macula may be affected by certain conditions that preclude good vision regardless of the status of the lens and cornea.
Distant vision requires less bending of light rays (lower diopters of refraction) to focus on the retina than near vision, such as reading, requires. The young farsighted individual, who has a flatter cornea and less corneal refractive power, can compensate for problems in near vision by using the accommodation of the lens to add refractive power. As one ages, the lens stiffens and loses the ability to accommodate (presbyopia) or add near focusing power. The first thing the pilot or controller will do when faced with this problem is hold objects they are attempting to read at greater distances from the eye. When those distances exceed the arm’s length or cannot be moved (such as an instrument panel), the pilot usually reluctantly admits it is time for reading glasses or bifocals.
The nearsighted pilot or controller, who has been constantly wearing glasses to correct for the excessively curved cornea with too much refractive power, may not have to use bifocals for five to ten years after his farsighted counterpart has, because the loss of accommodation is compensated for by the larger refractive power of his cornea. Ultimately, they will require lenses with significant differences in the near and distant corrective powers.
Astigmatism is the irregular curvature of the cornea so that different portions have varying refractive powers. Glasses or toric contact lenses correct this condition.
For more information, see the AMAS article regarding Eyes and Physiology of Vision.
How will corrective eye surgery affect my FAA medical certificate?
The FAA will permit pilots and controllers who have undergone refractive surgery to fly and control, if they have had a successful outcome. If they meet the uncorrected visual acuity standards for the class of medical certificate applied for, the Airman Medical Certificate will not have any vision limitations. If the visual surgery does not result in meeting the FAA standards uncorrected, but does with corrective lenses, the certificate will bear the standard vision limitations (e.g.., “must wear corrective lenses”). If the outcome of the surgery does not allow vision correction to FAA standards or results in fluctuating vision, the airman or controller may be denied medical certification. The surgery must be reported to the FAA on Form 8500-7, Report of Eye Evaluation, at the next physical. Controllers must obtain specific clearance from the Regional Flight Surgeon before returning to duty.
Contact Lens Authorization by the FAA
Pilots and controllers wearing glasses or contact lenses must meet all of the FAA vision standards. Those requiring near and distant correction may do this with either bifocals worn all the time or wearing contact lenses that correct for distant and having reading glasses available for near vision.
Some contact lens manufacturers and eye specialists are touting the advantages of Mono Vision Contact Lenses (MVCL) to eliminate the need for glasses without surgery. The MVCL technique uses one contact lens to focus at near while the lens in the other eye focuses at distant. The pilot suppresses the blurred image from the eye not in use depending on the distance of the viewed object. The FAA continues to prohibit the use of MVCL?s because each eye does not correct to 20/20 at distant and 20/40 at near separately. Because both eyes are not simultaneously focusing on an object at distant, the binocular component of depth perception may be reduced. Many other monocular cues to depth perception, such as shadows, relative size, motion parallax, contrast and texture gradient still exist when using MVCL. These monocular cues are susceptible to illusions in a visually compromised environment, such as reduced lighting or weather. The FAA will only allow monovision correction if induced surgically (see our article on refractive surgery) though it does require at least a six months adjustment period before returning to flying. After that time, the FAA will most likely require a medical flight test and subsequent Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA) to remove restrictions. Currently controllers are not authorized any method of monovision correction.
The FAA has approved the use of the newer multifocal contact lenses that correct at distant in the central portion while correcting for near vision at the periphery. This arrangement works fine when looking down at something to read, but blurs images in the periphery on lateral and upward gaze, particularly in low light conditions. Applicants must allow 1 month for adaptation before returning to aviation related duties, must be free from any vision defects, and must meet FAA vision standards.
Finally the FAA prohibits the use of X-chrome lenses. These are contact lenses of different colors to enhance color perception in those individuals who are “color blind.”
Removal of Previous SODAs for Uncorrected Vision
The FAA removed the previous uncorrected visual acuity requirement. As a result, many individuals no longer required SODAs. You must specifically request that the SODA be removed from your records. This can be accomplished through your FAA medical examiner or through AMAS.
What is FAA current policy regarding glaucoma?
Pilots and controllers medically treated for increased intraocular pressure are usually not medically disqualified. Continued medical certification depends primarily on the status of the ophthalmologic condition. Individuals whose ocular pressure can be controlled while maintaining required visual acuity and normal fields of vision, are generally certified for all classes. Once treatment begins, the FAA must be provided with evaluation and treatment information. FAA form 8500-14 (Ophthalmologic Evaluation for Glaucoma) must be completed and forwarded to Oklahoma City. Controllers report through the Regional Flight Surgeons. FAA will require periodic follow up which can be provided during the airman’s routine FAA physical examination.
As noted previously, unilateral vision or visual field defects are waiverable for pilots, but typically not for controllers. However, controllers with visual field defects might possibly be considered for center operations on a case by case basis.
AMAS Aeromedical Assistance
For a more specific personal explanation to your questions or those concerning aeromedical certification, contact AMAS for a private consultation. For help in reporting treatment for and obtaining clearance from the FAA to fly and control with these conditions, refer to the AMAS Confidential Questionnaire. If you are an AMAS Corporate Member, these services are FREE to you.