Colour Vision Defective Pilots Association

A Brief History of the Challenge

By Dr Arthur Pape

When I began my flying training in 1976, I was a general practitioner in a small town in rural Victoria, Australia, quite a distance from my home city of Geelong. Flying appealed as a means of improving opportunities to visit family as well as expanding my medical reach to outlying townships. I was aware that I was ‘colour blind’ but was of the belief that my disability was essentially a trivial matter, as it was in nearly everything I had done with my life to that point in time.

It goes without saying, I failed the Ishihara and when I did the Farnsworth lantern, I duly failed that as well. I happened to ask the senior DOA (Department of Aviation) Examiner of Airmen, who had flown his departmental twin-engine aircraft some 300 miles from Melbourne just to administer the test, why it was such a ‘big deal’ that I failed these tests. His reply changed my life, I kid you not. He said, “I don’t really know. I don’t think it matters at all. MAYBE YOU CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, BEING A DOCTOR AND ALL THAT.”

I was in my mid-thirties, totally naive and I thought a carefully drafted letter to the Director of Aviation Medicine of the DOA would soon sort it out.

In the meantime, I set about competing my training for the PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence), the CPL (Commercial Pilot’s Licence) and the Command Instrument Rating. I thought that I was a capable and conscientious pilot. It irked me no end that I could fly in zero visibility and carrying any and all passengers during daylight hours, but come nightfall, I was considered a threat to ‘the safety of air navigation’.

What I learned over the next twelve years was simply amazing. While questioning the broad subject of the evidence that underpinned the Aviation Colour Perception Standard, I invested vast amounts of time and energy into making my own observations. In particular, I started analysing all the myriad justifications given by the Aviation Authorities and the Aviation Medical ‘Experts’ for the need to maintain a strict colour perception standard, always in the name of ‘safety’.

I experienced firsthand and for the first time in my life, the meaning of the terms ‘bureaucratic double talk’, ‘buck passing’ and downright lying. I met with senior academic optometrists, and read their ‘research’ papers purporting to support the ‘standard’. I was threatened with financial ruin if I pressed my case. I wrote many, many articles in the Australian AOPA Magazine (see 'Further Reading' section).

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that rather than being a ‘standard’ based on sound science and logic, the Aviation Colour Perception Standard had all the hallmarks of ‘an Article of Faith’, akin to a religious dogma, a tradition that needed to be ‘preserved’. What appeared to matter to the DOA more than anything was not the rational integrity of the ‘Standard’ but the need to protect it and thereby their own authority.

Support for my stand grew and CVD pilots from all over Australia started to contact me, telling me of their experiences, their successes and their frustrations. Meetings were held. Pilots and organisations, in particular Australian AOPA, got behind me in the push to rid us of this irrational standard. Donations were made, politicians were lobbied. Finally after exhausting all avenues, I decided to resort to the courts. I appealed the Authority’s refusal to lift the night flying restriction from my licence and the avenue of appeal I chose to use was the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). This was a massive undertaking, and I received tremendous support from many quarters. I was well served by a barrister, Laurie Gruzman QC, himself a CVD pilot with thousands of hours of flying experience with particular expertise in the field of search and rescue.

The outcome of my appeal was successful. I was granted the right to fly at night, but with certain conditions. The Authority, tried to impose on me a condition that would have made it impossible to ever enjoy my hard fought victory. They insisted that I would have to install in my aircraft (a Piper PA28) a second and totally independent power bus to drive my standby radio system. We returned to the AAT where we argued that a simple hand held unit would suffice. We were again victorious and common sense prevailed.

But the bullying didn’t stop there. In its desire to continually frustrate, the Authority declared that the victory would apply to me alone and all the CVD supporters would be denied any benefit from the victory. These two episodes further reinforced my conviction the ACPS was more a political issue than scientific.

Over the next three years I became totally consumed, getting my hands on every bit of evidence I could and this eventually culminated in an appeal that would end all appeals. I looked at the candidates available, I chose the legal team and I searched out the team of experts that we could use to fight the case.

It was during the interval of three years between the end of my own appeal and the beginning of the Denison appeal that I experienced the most intense education as to the fundamentals of sound science. I got to know a remarkable man, who was the newly appointed Professor of Psychology at Deakin University, in Victoria, Australia. His name is Boris Crassini. A stranger to me, he kindly agreed to take a look at the large collection of ‘research papers’ by various academics at the College of Optometry in Melbourne. These papers had been commissioned by the DOT (Department of Transport) to ‘protect the Standard’. I had felt misgivings about these projects, but my medical training had not equipped me sufficiently to be certain about my doubts, let alone to argue the point in a court of law. The relief I felt was enormous, when Professor Crassini confirmed my suspicions, as to the fundamental flaws that were inherent in the material I had put before him and upon which I knew the Authority would rely in the pending legal battle.

More than ever before, I came to see that the battle would revolve around the question of ‘Evidence’ and that was decades before the term ‘Evidence-Based’ became popular in medical parlance. What the Professor inspired me with was the constant reminder that as a colour vision defectives, all CVD pilots were ‘wavelength cripples’, but based on the evidence, as he saw it, that when it came to flying aeroplanes, it didn’t matter.

So the Denison case came to court. By the direction of the Tribunal, and with agreement of the parties, the case was conducted as a ‘Test Case’ with the scope of evidence to include all types of colour vision defects (not just Denison’s) and all levels of professional aircraft piloting. The case took up 35 days of hearings. Not a thread of evidence was left unexplored. I have no doubt that the conduct of the AAT’s examination of all the evidence available at the time pertaining to the Aviation Colour Perception Standard, was then, and remains to this day, the most comprehensive examination ever conducted of the topic anywhere in the world.

Of interest is the fact that on the final day of submissions, all parties agreed that the hearing had been thorough, unbiased and exhaustive. The Authority’s legal team indicated to the Chairman of the Tribunal that whatever the outcome, the Authority intended to promote the result on the international stage; such was their satisfaction with the encounter.

What happened next?

WE WON THE CASE!

...And that is why, twenty-three years later, we have in Australia a significant and growing cohort or CVD pilots participating at all levels of aviation including airlines. They are subject to all the checks and balances, all the rules, and all the testing that their colour vision normal counterparts are. They perform no differently in every respect!

The irony has to be noted, that these CVD Captains and First Officers, are flying their Australian registered Airbuses and Boeings and many other aircraft types into countries where, should they wish to self-fly a locally registered Cessna 172 at night, they would be refused permission to do so because of their colour vision.