An important update concerning aviation colour vision standards

arthur profileMy name is Arthur Pape, I am a Geelong based medico and Designated Aviation Medical Examiner (DAME) and holder of the CPL and the MECIR. I am colour vision defective (CVD) and for some thirty years I have actively promoted participation by pilots with a CVD in the aviation industry

First, let me give you a concise history of the struggle by and for those pilots who have a colour vision defect. My role in the struggle is well documented over many years.

I started my flying in 1976, at the Mid Murray Flying Club in Swan Hill, Victoria. Within a couple of years I managed to hold a CPL and a Command Instrument rating, but because of my CVD, I was prohibited from flying at night. I was mystified as to why this restriction was in place and after about ten years of research, I appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to have the night restriction removed. In the process of preparation I was assisted enormously by AOPA, both morally and financially. One of the memorable highlights in the preparation was a large meeting held at the club rooms of the Mid Murray Flying Club to which a couple of hundred colour defective pilots flew and drove from across the country to offer support and help plan the assault on the aviation colour perception standard.

The success of my own appeal was a just reward for a great deal of hard work and wide support, but the victory was bitter-sweet, as the Authority of the day refused to let the benefit of my success flow to any other pilot with the colour vision problem. That in turn led to a second far more comprehensive appeal for all the colour defective pilots of Australia. This case was nominally on behalf of Jonathon Denison, a young colour defective commercial pilot who had qualified for night flight in New Zealand, but who was prohibited from night flight in Australia. By mutual agreement between the parties, it was decided by the AAT to treat the Denison appeal as a wide-sweeping test case.

Again, the appeal succeeded and the ban on night flight was overturned for all colour defective pilots in Australia. To this date, the Denison appeal is still the most comprehensive examination of aviation colour vision standards that has ever been conducted in the entire world. The hearings lasted for over 30 days and called witnesses including experienced pilots and air traffic controllers, optometrists and visual perception psychologists to name just a few. As a direct result of the appeal's success, many such pilots found doors opening to career opportunities that were previously denied to them.

During a period of relative sanity and pragmatism, the (now called) Department of Transport opened the way for colour defective pilots to use the ATPL if they could pass the control tower signal gun test. A pass on this test earned them a clean medical certificate, on which there was no longer any mention of colour vision related restrictions. I myself passed this test, and, had I been a younger man, I could have entertained a career as an airline pilot, notwithstanding the fact I had a diagnosis of deuteranopia, which is one of the more severe forms of colour vision defect. I continued in my medical career and enjoyed a modest participation in aviation. The colour vision issue was never far from my mind.

Many pilots with colour vision defects did pass the control tower signal gun test and many, who prior to 1990 would not have been allowed to fly a C152 at night, made it all the way to the rank of Captain in the various airlines in Australia. A significant number are still employed amongst the most senior and experienced crew.

All would have been well, but for the fact that some competent pilots had trouble passing the control tower signal gun test and as a result they remained banished to the rank of First Officer within the various airlines. As their numbers grew, it became obvious to me that the control tower signal gun test was being used as an arbitrary device to determine if a CVD pilot could be classified as "safe" or "unsafe".

At the level of airline aviation, the control tower signal gun is a device that no airline pilot is ever likely to have to endure. Not only is the chance of exposure to such a signal almost infinitesimally small, the interpretation of such a signal is operationally impossible. Without labouring the point, imagine a B737 captain finding that he has lost radio communication as he calls "ready" at the holding point of a major runway at Sydney airport. There are three possible signals: white (return to starting point), red (not clear for take-off) and green (cleared for take-off). A 737 at a holding point cannot do a U-turn without entering the runway, which can't be done without a green signal light, which in turn has the meaning of clear for take-off. It amounts to simple nonsense and the control tower signal lamp (at least for RPT operations) belongs in the aviation museum.

So it is that one of the pilots who is being held back from using his ATPL by his inability to pass the signal gun test has lodged an appeal to the AAT to have his restrictions removed. At first, it seemed that his appeal could be limited to just the issue of whether the signal gun test was a real world "practical test" that realistically delineated between "safe" and "unsafe", but this is not the way CASA is treating the appeal.

Documents lodged to the AAT make it clear that CASA is treating this appeal as a golden opportunity to try to turn the clock back some 25 years in regard to the colour vision standard. It is patently clear that CASA is seeking to reverse every gain made in the Pape and Denison cases a quarter of a century ago and in the years that followed. Their desire is to reimpose restrictions of the most radical nature for those who fail to meet their renewed strict standard. Not only are CASA trying to restrict these pilots from progressing their careers, they are now actively proposing changes that would end their careers entirely.

There are two issues I want to bring to the attention of the entire aviation industry of Australia. The pilot who has lodged this appeal is a dedicated, hardworking and very competent pilot, employed as a First Officer on the Dash 8 for a regional airline. He has some 6000 hours of experience in a wide variety of operations. His company, his superiors and his peers endorse his professionalism and want him to assume command. But he does not have access to the sort of funds that CASA will be throwing into the legal battle that is looming. He has managed to obtain legal representation at a substantially discounted rate, but even with the discount, he would have to find a minimum of about $100,000 in costs to present his case and tackle the might and the apparently unlimited financial resources of CASA. We estimate that CASA is spending over half a million dollars on this case.

The second issue is that a failure of this appeal would have enormous ramifications for several thousand Australian pilots who have a colour vision defect. I know of many airline pilots whose careers would be adversely impacted should this appeal fail. Add to that the hundreds of CVD commercial pilots who could once again find themselves restricted to the pre 1989 limitations and possibly even more drastic restrictions (for example, no instrument ratings, no carriage of passengers, no night flying at all). It is beyond belief, but these are the aims of the current CASA medical staff in regard to this appeal.

It is indeed patently obvious that CASA is treating this appeal as a de-facto appeal against the Denison decision of 1989 and if they succeed I predict a catastrophic result for the entire colour vision defective pilot community of Australia.

The preparation of this appeal is well advanced. We have a strong case and the likelihood of success is reasonable (there are no certainties in life except death and taxes, isn't that how the saying goes?). The single most daunting obstacle to success is first and foremost the problem of costs. Whereas Denison's and my appeal were ultimately funded by the Legal Aid system, it appears that such funding will not be forthcoming for this appeal. I am amazed at this fact, as there is no doubt that CASA is treating the appeal as a "Test Case". If CASA goes ahead in this planned manner, it will be very much a case of "Might over Right".

There are two things I want to ask the general pilot community to consider. The first is that each and every pilot considers a contribution to a fighting fund to help fund his case. I ask this of all, but more so, of those pilots who have enjoyed the benefits of the struggle waged all those years ago in liberating the thousands of Australian colour defective pilots from the irrational and unjust colour vision standard. The second thing I ask is that people write to their politicians and in particular the Minister, Warren Truss, to voice their disapproval of the tactics being employed by CASA to overwhelm and discriminate against a group of deserving, competent and safe pilots.

Donations can be made through our CVDPA website and by EFT to the following bank account:

Colour Vision Defective Pilots Association Pty Ltd
BSB: 063-551
Account number: 104-253-52

Please support this action generously.  If you require an acknowledgement of funds transfer, please send us an email.

Kind Regards,

Dr Arthur Pape
CVDPA Director
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