Colour Vision Defective Pilots Association

The Tragedy of the Colour Vision Standard

By Dr Arthur Pape

boyA mother rings me for advice. She has a twelve year old son whose first words were ‘plane, sky, Mum!’ He has grown up with an innate love of all things to do with planes and flying. He has wanted only to be a pilot. Mum and Dad love him and will support him in his passion, no matter what it takes. He is smart, intelligent and passionate. Everything he does, he does to achieve his goal: to fly.

But, and it’s a dark, menacing ‘BUT’, Mum and Dad have a fear they cannot dismiss. Mum’s father (the lad’s grandfather) wanted to be a pilot in the Australian Air Force during the Second World War and was rejected because he was ‘Colour Blind’. He too had had his heart set on flying. No matter how he complained, he had struck a brick wall and never achieved his dream.

So, being the careful parents they are, they arrange for the lad to be tested at the local University College of Optometry. They meet with a young female optometrist, who conducts a battery of tests and then dismissively informs the parents and the boy that he is “Colour Blind” and that he can never ever be a pilot, not now, not ever, end of discussion. She tells them this with all the confidence that comes with being a professional optometrist and she remembers totally the list she had to learn as a student of the wonderful professions that are ‘no go’ to the ‘colour blind’. It was, after all, a cornerstone of the syllabus and she had achieved straight A’s.

What she hadn’t been told with any enthusiasm was that a whole twelve years earlier there had been a resoundingly successful series of legal cases fought in Australia, that had opened many doors to the so called ‘colour blind’ and that at that very moment in time, the lad need not have suffered the profound disappointment he was experiencing. The advice given was totally incorrect and from professional point of view, negligent.

The mother rang me on the advice of a family friend of a friend who had heard of me in the context of the said legal challenges. She told me of her son’s pain on hearing the verdict of the optometrist and of how he became withdrawn in practically every facet of his young life. His hopes had been smashed and his mother feared that he had become clinically depressed.

For me, this was a profound moment in my life, when I was able to tell this child the best news that would change his life.

I am proud beyond description to follow the likes of this young man in their professional aviation development. Never could I have dreamed when I first set out on the journey in a totally innocent and simplistic way thirty-five years ago, that one day I would welcome letters and telephone calls from CVD pilots who have achieved the rank of Captain in our major airlines.

But the tragedy is far from over.

On the world scene, our successes in Australia influenced other national aviation authorities to tighten their grip by imposing tougher testing regimes and more onerous restrictions in order to 'protect' the standard. They rejected the Australian court's findings and instead belittled the process and the outcome as being a result of 'clever lawyers'.

The Australian experience should at the very least cast doubts on the validity of the Aviation Colour Perception Standard (ACPS). However, in the eyes of the protagonists and defenders it was an affront to their authority and wisdom. This too is deserving of an entire article and will be covered in detail.

Meanwhile, worldwide, thousands of CVD individuals continue to face the brick wall of the ACPS and have their dreams shattered and often their lives affected. A few have approached me over the last twenty years and advice has been freely given, but there is only so much one person can do. The advice is always along the following lines:

If you want to challenge the ACPS in your country, you must first find out what avenues are available in your country to appeal a decision metered out by a bureaucrat, irrespective of what branch of the bureaucracy it is. Invariably, the result of this ‘research’ comes up with the result that no other country in the world has anything like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia that is a godsend to the citizens of this incredible country (Australia). Instead, for almost every other national aviation authority I’ve heard of, the appeal mechanism is ‘internal’. In other words, the aggrieved applicant appeals to another officer within the same organisation, and the results are never good. In my view, this represents a serious denial of ‘natural justice’.

Once it is clear that your country’s laws make an appeal a practical impossibility, then consider moving to Australia, achieve your dreams of flying, and become a professional pilot in a beautiful country (I always add ‘the luckiest country in the world’).

Perhaps it could happen that one day you might achieve the ultimate irony of being a captain of a jumbo flying from Sydney to Heathrow. On your stop over, seeking to rent a Cessna for a night flight to Manchester and being told that you are too unsafe to even consider it.

Meanwhile, in all countries other than Australia, the tragedy continues to be played out on a massive scale. Many thousands continue to be discriminated against each year on the basis of their defective colour perception. Each victim of the ACPS feels alone and powerless, with nowhere to turn. Some professional aviation medicos may offer comforting support because they too may have had misgivings about the logical integrity of the ACPS, but like the victims, they know no way to approach it.

It is little wonder that many pilots seek to ‘learn the tests’ and some with success. Many such ‘cheats’ then go on to become airline pilots and quietly and safely go about their aviation careers undetected for an entire lifetime.

I’ve had many communications from such individuals, often after they have retired, relieved to finally be able to ‘come clean’ and tell their story. It is a tragedy to force people to such measures when the ACPS itself is and always has been the ‘LIE’.

Yes, the ACPS has created tragedy for countless young people who could have attained the highest levels of participation with a wonderful career in a great industry. As your read on, it should become clear that the tragedy need not be perpetual. There is a way to change, and we hope that this website will inspire many to invest in change.