Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

By James D. Lakin PhD MD FACP CFI
FAA Senior Aviation Medical Examiner 

Flying With Contact Lenses

 

January 1, 2022



Every time you fill out your MedXpress form for a flight physical, you’ll find Question 17b. “Do You Ever Use Near Vision Contact Lenses While Flying?”

Most folks get the question wrong. It’s not surprising since if you are not an eye doctor, you probably have no idea what they are asking.

Contact lenses are great, especially for those of us that would be wearing “Coke bottle” lenses if we were sporting eyeglasses. They free you from fogged up lenses and restriction of peripheral vision. Assuming you tolerate them, they are a definite improvement over eyeglasses!

So can you fly with contacts?

In most cases the answer is yes. If you are near-sighted (myopic) and have trouble seeing objects at a distance, using contact lenses to correct this is OK with the FAA. For a First or Second Class medical certificate you must be able to see 20/20 with corrective lenses. Just let your examiner know that you are wearing contacts and he/she will record the appropriate limitation on your medical certificate: “Must wear corrective lenses.” You meet this requirement by wearing either appropriate glasses or contacts.

As time goes by, most of us tend to have trouble “accommodating.” This means using the muscles in our eyes to squish the lens to focus on things close up, like a Sectional. That is why near vision is tested as well as far vision.

To get any class of medical certificate you have to be able to see 20/40 or better near in each eye. For us old-timers this usually means using reading glasses. If you already are wearing glasses a special lens can be added to the lower part of your glasses. These are called “bifocals.” Bifocal contact lenses are also available. Some folks feel that contact lens bifocals do not work quite as well as bifocal glasses.

I’m not an ophthalmologist or optometrist, and she/he is the one you should ask if there is any question about their being suitable for you. They are OK to wear in flight as long as they meet vision specifications for your medical class. If you meet vision requirements with either bifocal glasses or bifocal contacts, your medical certificate will have the limitation, “Must wear lenses for distant, have glasses for near vision.”

So what about near-vision contact lenses? As we said presbyopia, the inability to see things close up, is very common in folks above 40.

One way to correct for this problem among contact lens wearers is to refract one lens for distant vision and the other for near vision.

If your brain can block out the fuzzy signal from one eye and concentrate on the clear signal from the other, you’ll get pretty good vision both near and far. Not all folks brains can pull this off. If, however, your brain is among those optically clever ones, there still is a price to pay. Your depth perception can degrade dangerously. Part of how we judge how close or far away an object is, is by comparing the visual

signals from our two slightly separated eyes. Without that discrimination we can only judge distance by how big or small the object is.

Obviously this can sometimes be misleading. This was dramatically demonstrated one dark and stormy night at LaGuardia in New York. On Oct, 19, 1996, a Delta flight was flying the ILS down to minimums on Runway 13. Although an experienced pilot, in transitioning to visual the pilot misjudged the height above the runway, clipped the rabbit ears on the approach lights, shearing off the main landing gear and slid 2,700 feet down the runway, rotating 180 degrees in the process. Thankfully no-one was seriously injured but there was a whole lot of bent metal.

As you might guess the pilot was wearing near vision contact lenses. On investigation, the NTSB felt they had contributed to his misjudging his height above runway. Looking back in their files they found a couple of additional incidents that also were associated with the pilot wearing these lenses. Thus, the birth of Question 17b and the FAA forbidding the use of near vision contact lenses.

So if you are currently wearing near vision contact lenses, don’t! Get yourself some regular contacts for distant vision and an appropriate strength pair of reading glasses for the charts. That way you’ll stay out of the rabbit ears! Fly wisely. See you next month.

As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome: jdlakinmd@gmail.com.Also, we’ve moved our office to Airlake Airport’s FBO (KLVN)! Call 952-469-4414 or email hannah@wpflights.com for a flight physical appointment.

 

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