You can be a commercial pilot with CVD! Don't let the lab based tests stop you

Updated: Feb 7

One of our ECDAA panel members , is a commercial pilot based in New Zealand and has CVD . He helped in bringing in the new practical form of CVD testing (The OCVA) in New Zealand. He currently has 7100 hours on the Boeing 737, 5300 hours in command of the 737. 1000 hours TRI or Training Captain and 1000 hours on the Airbus A320/A320NEO and A321NEO as a First Officer when he left Qantas New Zealand to join Air New Zealand at the bottom of the list. 8100 hours safely flown on jets and around 1500 hours on turboprops. He shares his story of how he got where he is today.

This was written in 2015 for the challenge against the New Zealand CAA.

My passion for flying started as a young boy when I was spending my holidays on my grandparent’s farm in the South Island of New Zealand. I was once invited to ride along with the local ag pilot in his FU-24 Fletcher. After that flight I was hooked. It was not a matter of if, but when I would pursue my dream of flying.

In the early part of pursuing my PPL, my medical examiner would inform me, that I failed the Ishihara plate test and that I would never become a professional pilot. This was absolutely devastating and very confusing, as I had never had any issues with distinguishing colours my whole life? I had managed to safely navigate my way around the modern world of colour, with traffic lights and other assorted colours of every day life without even a hint of an issue with colour vision. It was simply just not an issue. After all I learned colours in school like everyone else! This confusion would set the stage for a crusade to clear my medical.

An optometrist in Auckland performed my first examination. I sat the Holmes Wright Lantern B test, a test accepted by the CAA at the time, which was originally designed for seafarers. The test started with 10 coloured targets in red, green and white about the size of a ballpoint pen head. I identified all of these correctly and with ease. The following targets were the size of a pinhead; this is where my anomaly was exposed. I was fine with the red targets but the issue occurred with white and green targets together. There were a few errors, not many but enough to fail the test. I asked the examiner after the test, where in the aviation environment I would have to distinguish green/white lights together the size of a pinhead. With a bemused look he confessed that he did not know, even though he was an approved aviation optometrist.

After this test I wrote to the CAA asking to clarify where in the aviation environment could I possibly misidentify a pinhead sized, green and white combination of lights? After all, I was not colour blind, just colour deficient. The reply was I could possibly misidentify the tower signal lights. As this was the only example I was made aware of, I took it upon myself to head down to the local control tower during the day and again at night to see if I could in fact identify the tower lights. (Incidentally, I have not heard of a single instance in my entire career of the tower signal gun being used). At a distance of approximately 700 meters I correctly identified all the targets at different light intensities and passed the test with ease. On submitting the letter from the control towers duty controller to CAA confirming that all 21 targets had been correctly identified I awaited a clear class 1 medical because now I met the ICAO standard “able to readily distinguish the colours used in air navigation and correctly identify aviation coloured lights. The CAA informed me in their reply that this was not an accepted test by the CAA. I was completely stumped; I had provided a practical aviation test result to resolve any doubt from the previous Holmes Wright lantern test and met the ICAO standard!

Over the next few years many optometrists examined me with tests giving conflicting diagnoses. The test results differed from protanomaly by one Optometrist, to diagnosis of deuteranomaly by most, some diagnoses were mild, some were severe, one stating that I passed the Giles Archer lantern test (previously accepted by NZCAA) stating I was colour safe. Each and every single diagnosis determined one thing; I was colour deficient, nothing more. However in my opinion, these scientific tests could neither determine whether I could readily distinguish the colours used in an aviation environment, nor could they establish whether I can fly an aircraft safely in the real world of aviation. To me it was absolutely astonishing, that we were still using archaic tests in a modern day aviation environment, which were designed by non-colour deficient and non-aviator scientists to determine whether an individual was able to correctly identify safety related lights! After all we don’t fly aircraft in laboratories?

Frustrated with New Zealand regulations, I travelled to Australia to pursue my dream of flying and obtained my first one thousand hours of flying experience. Whilst in Australia, I completed a more practical tower signal light test accepted by the Australian authorities. Accompanied by two CASA officials I attended the Townsville tower on a bright, sunny day to be tested in a real pilots environment in what I’ve always said is ‘the pilots real world’. I passed this test with ease and was issued a class one Australian medical with nil restrictions. I was finally getting somewhere. I wrote to the NZCAA to explain that I had a clear Australian medical and had also previously passed a tower signal light test in NZ. This along with various other records of passed colour vision tests should be enough reason to be issued a class 1 medical with nil restrictions. However, in their reply the NZCAA advised that this was not an accepted CAA test and the restrictions would remain on my medical. I was absolutely devastated. How could I have an Australian medical, be able to fly in and around NZ on my Australian medical under the TTMRA agreement but not be able to obtain a New Zealand medical?

Another few years would pass with more tests and more set backs. Finally, thanks to my perseverance and as my mother would say “pig headedness”, I was granted a practical flight test with a NZCAA testing officer to establish whether I could in fact see the lights in the aviation environment. The test was conducted during the day, dusk and at night. The officer positioned the aircraft at various distances from the aerodrome and asked me to identify various lights, including the tower signal gun from various distances. Other tests included the identification of the PAPI approach lights at different distances and slope and various lights around the aerodrome. The lights inside the cockpit were added in for good measure! At the end of the flight test the officer turned to me and asked, “What is the issue again?” I just smiled and said ‘It’s taken a long time to have the chance to finally prove this’.

This shows that the current scientific tests in place do not represent the environment in which an aviator works, as these are entirely theoretical. Even the head medical examiner at ICAO outlined to me: “ unfortunately, colour vision is such an unknown science.”

I’m colour deficient, not colour blind.

After obtaining my class one medical with nil restrictions, my career literally took off! I flew freight and passenger charters and accumulated a little over one thousands hours single pilot IFR flight time. I flew circling approaches into non controlled aerodromes with no glide slope guidance other than lead in lights with PAPI approach lights in stormy low visual conditions on a regular basis. From there, I moved onto the Saab 340 and Dash 8 aircraft, accumulating around 1500 hours flight time, all of which were flown IFR and on EFIS display aircraft. Today, I am a captain on a Boeing 737. I have accumulated nearly five thousand hours flight time on the Boeing. Over two thousand of these have been in command and I have never had an issue with my colour deficiency. Colour deficiency really does not matter. In fact as my career has progressed, I fail to see where colour vision plays a major role in modern day aviation. Yes, now there are a lot of colour instruments in the modern day cockpit, but I am colour deficient, not colour blind!

I know for a fact that there are many colour deficient pilots, including many senior Captains with airlines such as Emirates, Virgin Australia, Qantas and Jetstar. All of them are flying in, out and around New Zealand with colour deficiencies. Out of the 25 odd years of colour deficient aviating which has accumulated millions of flight hours throughout the world I am unaware of any accidents proven to be caused by colour deficiency.

The irony is that when an aircraft manufacturer certifies a new aircraft, the aircraft must complete a certain amount of flight safety certification hours. Colour deficient pilots have 25 years and millions of safe flight hours from flying all around the world but still suffer the rules from a bygone era.

Surely a proven safety record must prevail over a scientific thesis.

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©2020 by The European Colour Deficient Aircrew Association.