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Aeromedical Forum

Flying with Contact Lenses

Question 17b on your FAA MedXpress Form 8500-8 which you fill out before a flight physical, is one that gives folks a hard time:

“Item 17b Do You Ever Use Near Vision Contact Lenses While Flying?”

Some airmen will say yes if they wear any lenses at all, including eyeglasses. That’s wrong.

Some airmen will say yes if they wear any type of contact lens. That’s wrong.

Some airmen will say yes if the wear contacts with bifocals. Wrong again!

What the FAA is looking for, and wants you to avoid, is a special set up sometimes used in folks who have a hard time seeing distant objects — nearsightedness or myopia, and also have trouble seeing things close up — farsightedness. The eye doctor will refract one contact lens to see stuff close up and the other one for far vision.

Nearsightedness is pretty common in any age group. About 40 percent of people in the US have some degree of this condition. The underlying cause is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Risk factors include doing work that involves focusing on close objects, greater time spent indoors, and a family history of the condition.

Farsightedness comes in two flavors. Hyperopia is a condition where the eyeball is too short and the lens of the eye focuses behind the retina rather than on it. Objects up close appear blurry although, in severe cases, even more distant objects aren’t clear. It’s less common than myopia, although by no means rare.

Another type of farsightedness, presbyopia is a normal consequence of aging. It’s due to hardening of the lens of the eye, again, causing the eye to focus light behind rather than on the retina when looking at close objects. People usually start to notice it sometime in their forties.

Happily each of these problems is usually correctable with a pair of eyeglasses, contact lenses or refractive surgery. It’s rare for an airman to lose his medical due to any of these problems.

What the FAA is concerned about is you’re not correcting a combination of myopia and presbyopia with a set of these near-vision lenses.

Why the fuss, you might ask? It all began back in February of 1996 when a private pilot wearing near-vision lenses flared too late while landing, pancaked it, and bent a little metal.

Admittedly, they didn’t think too much of it until October of that year when the Captain of a Delta MD-88 was on final down in Orlando. He was wearing a near vision and a far vision contact lens. According to the NTSB he “was unable to overcome his misperception of the airplane’s position relative to the runway.

The pilot’s reduced depth perception and contrast sensitivity loss contributed to a short landing where the aircraft struck the approach light structure at the end of the runway, shearing off the main landing gear. Ouch! So, in hopes of preventing further clipping of rabbit ears, question 17b was born.

What’s a guy to do if he’s a little older and has trouble reading the fine print on the approach plates and also needs a little help reading the numbers at the end of the runway?

The time honored solution is eyeglasses with bifocals. The “cheaters” at the bottom of the lens take a little getting used to but after a few days you usually stop missing steps as you go down stairs.

Contact lenses with bifocals have gotten to be pretty good over the past few years although some pilots, especially older ones, sometimes have trouble accommodating to them.

In either event, it’s always a good idea to pay a visit to the eye doctor before your next flight physical just to make sure you have the right correction to be able to read those funny letters over at the AME’s office!

Fly wisely. See you next month.


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