Colour Vision Defective Pilots Association

John O'Brien

john1My name is John O’Brien and I have been flying now for 15 years and have logged over 5500 hours in a variety of operations. I in fact hold a full Australian ATPL licence and achieved this licence 8 years ago now. However, I am one of those pilots who are still being discriminated against by CASA and the archaic colour vision standard that not only remains here in Australia, but also around the world. Despite the fact that I hold an ATPL, my Class 1 medical certificate still has two restrictions:

  1. Not valid for ATPL operations;
  2. Holder does not fully meet the requirements of ICAO Convention Chapter 6 of Annex 1

This is due to the fact that I am a ‘protanope’ and have failed CASA’s colour vision tests. These restrictions therefore preclude me from exercising my hard earned ATPL privileges and effectively mean that I can only fly using CPL privileges and only inside Australian airspace. I use the word ‘discriminate’ because that is exactly what these restrictions are. Here in Australia, CVD pilots such as myself and many others like me have been operating safely now for over two decades at the highest levels in aviation ever since the Pape and Denison AAT cases. These cases were instrumental in allowing us to progress our careers far beyond what was previously possible. However, the great work that was done back in the 1980’s still needs to be finished, not only for the benefit of Australian pilots but also those of you who wish to have fulfilling aviation careers overseas.

I started my aviation career instructing where over the years I progressed and eventually became a Grade 1 Instructor. I was responsible for all levels of training through to CPL level and also night and multi-engine IFR training. I thoroughly enjoyed my instructing experience and over this period have trained many pilots who themselves have also gone on to have successful general aviation and airline careers.

Additionally, I have worked in the charter environment where I flew high performance multi engine aircraft on both freight and passenger charter operations. This flying was all single-pilot and predominately IFR, including many hours at night and often in very poor weather conditions. As a senior pilot at the company I worked for, I was also responsible for conducting line training for new pilots to our company. All this flying taught me valuable lessons and it reinforced to me the fact that my colour vision deficiency simply did not matter! I was able to pass all flight tests undertaken to a high standard, I operated glass cockpit aircraft with EFIS display screens and I had no problems interpreting visual approach guidance such as red-white PAPI. Indeed, I was no ‘less’ safe than those pilots that I was training or my peers that I worked with every day.

Since that time, I have advanced my career and now work as a First Officer flying Dash 8’s for an Australian regional airline. I am able to do this using my CPL privileges as I am currently operating only as a co-pilot. However, I am now at the point where I wish to obtain a command position and become a Captain. This leads me back to the discrimination in the CVD standard and my medical restrictions which are preventing me from achieving this goal. Apparently, according to the authorities, I’m ‘safe’ to operate by myself using CPL privileges and can completely legally fly any single pilot aircraft as pilot in command (such as Chieftan, King Air, Metroliner just to name a few examples), yet I’m suddenly deemed ‘unsafe’ when it comes to flying a multi-crew aircraft as pilot in command.

This makes no logical sense – as a First Officer we are required to pass exactly the same simulator checks as our Captains on a regular basis. As all airline pilots would know, simulator checks are one of the more stressful requirements of our employment. Here we are assessed in all aspects of normal and abnormal operations including engine failures/engine fires after take-off, rapid depressurisations and various systems abnormalities. Additionally, even in normal line flying we operate ‘leg-for-leg’. Flight sectors are shared evenly between both the Captain and First Officer and when pilot flying, as a co-pilot we are generally tasked with making decisions in exactly the same way the Captain would if it was his/her sector.

I readily admit that I cannot pass colour vision tests – but as my experience demonstrates, this does not in any way affect my ability to operate an aircraft safely at the highest levels possible. In Australia, as many pilots would be aware following the Denison AAT decision, CASA introduced a ‘practical’ test to further assess pilots with colour vision deficiencies. One of these tests was the control tower signal gun test. I have attempted this test three times now and on each occasion only scored one light wrong – yet that was still deemed a fail and has meant the difference between me being able to exercise my full ATPL privileges and having my career being put on hold as it is currently. Of all the CVD pilots I have spoken to who did pass this test, most readily admit that they only did so due to sheer luck.

The real problem however is that the signal gun test is not a ‘practical’ test in the way that the Denison AAT decision recommended. I am yet to speak to one pilot who has ever seen a signal gun light in a real life environment – so therefore how can it possibly be considered a ‘practical’ test?

Picture this for a moment – you’re flying a Dash 8 or B737 or A380 (or any aircraft for that matter!) into a busy international airport and have suffered a radio failure. Can you seriously imagine the control tower shining anything other than a green light issuing a landing clearance? They’re hardly going to want to give you a red-light indicating to go-around while you’ve got no comms. Similarly, how about you taxi to the holding point and suffer a radio failure? Do you think that ATC are likely to give you a green light issuing a take-off clearance?

Aside from these points, the regulations clearly state that an aircraft suffering a radio failure is going to be given one of the highest landing priorities possible. Furthermore, aircraft that we fly in the ATPL environment are equipped with not only dual VHF radios, but also HF and satellite phones in addition to personal cellular phones. Many instrument approach plates also include a telephone number for ATC in the event of a loss of communications. None make mention of looking for the out-dated signal gun light. The chances of ever having to resort to one of these lights are miniscule. It is simply another ‘colour vision test’ and does not in any way reflect a pilot’s ability to operate safely within the aviation environment.

This is why we still need your support! Not only are there many pilots in Australia such as myself who are still being discriminated against, there are many others around the world who need a starting point in challenging their own authorities. The time for talk is now over and we need action – but this can only be achieved collectively and requires enormous funding towards legal costs. Indeed, here in Australia, our legal preparation is now well advanced in taking this next step, but the financial burden is significant and not something that we can do on our own. If we can all contribute a little, then I’m sure a lot can be achieved!

Thank you for taking the time to read my testimony and I trust that you will graciously consider your support.