According to the National Eye Institute, more than half of all Americans over the age of 80 have cataracts or have had treatment for the problem. While the condition is less common in younger people, cataracts still cause vision problems for people in their 40s and 50s, which could prove problematic if you want to fly an aircraft. If you or someone you love suffers from cataracts, find out if the condition can affect your eligibility to fly and how you can overcome the problem.
Types of cataracts
Cataracts occur when proteins in the lens in your eye clump together to form a small, cloudy area. Over time, this cloudiness can spread, making it increasingly difficult to see. Cataracts most commonly occur due to aging, but there are other types of cataracts. These are the following:
- Secondary cataracts, which can form after surgery for other conditions like glaucoma. Secondary cataracts also develop as a result of other medical problems like diabetes.
- Traumatic cataracts that occur after an eye injury.
- Tiny congenital cataracts that develop from birth.
- Cataracts that occur after exposure to harmful radiation.
An eye doctor may need to use various tests to accurately detect cataracts. For example, tonometry uses a special instrument to test the pressure in your eye.
How cataracts can affect a pilot's vision
Cataracts don't always have a serious effect on your vision. In some cases, an eye doctor can give you new glasses or sunglasses with an anti-glare coating that mean you retain normal vision. However, as they develop, cataracts may interfere with your eyesight and your flying ability.
The clumps of protein can reduce the sharpness of the image that your retina detects. The clouding may cause blurring that means you cannot properly focus. This blurring may also cause headaches. Sometimes, the clear lens changes color and adds a brownish tint to your vision. In this case, you may find it harder to distinguish certain colors, including blues and purples.
Medical standards for pilots and cataracts
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposes strict medical standards for anyone who wants to hold a pilot's license. The standards can vary depending on the type of license you want. First-class airline transport pilots must meet the strictest standards. Although third-class private pilots must also meet medical standards, the requirements are not as exhaustive.
Cataracts may mean you cannot meet the FAA medical standards. The change in color of the lens in your eye (or eyes) may mean that you struggle to distinguish between certain colors. If you cannot distinguish between the colors that a pilot depends on (such as red and green), the FAA won't issue any sort of license. However, cataracts may not interfere with color vision to a serious extent. If you can pass a color vision test to the relevant standard, the FAA would still consider you for a license.
Cataracts are more likely to cause a problem for pilots where they interfere with eyesight. For an airline or commercial pilot, you must have 20/20 or better vision in each eye separately, with or without correction. There are also standards for near vision and intermediate vision. If an eye test reveals a serious enough problem with your eyesight, cataracts could stop the FAA issuing or re-issuing your license.
Dealing with the issue
Following treatment for cataracts, pilots must submit the FAA's dedicated form (number 8500-7) that includes all relevant information to help the Authority evaluate your eyesight. The form includes details of the surgery and the medications you use, as well as a full evaluation of your eyesight completed by a qualified eye doctor.
It's important to remember that cataract surgery has a high success rate and complications are rare. As such, if your cataract(s) cause vision problems that may interfere with your flying ability, it is always worth talking to a surgeon, as he or she can normally help you continue to meet the FAA's medical standards.
Cataracts affect many people across the United States, and older people are at particularly high risk. Nonetheless, surgery can help correct any vision problems that may otherwise prevent pilots flying. Your local aviation school, such as Parkland College, can offer more information and advice on how cataracts may affect your eligibility.