A Pilot’s Guide to Aging Eyes: Vision Challenges in Aviation

The aviation industry has always demanded precision, sharp instincts, and a keen awareness of the inconstant elements aloft. Commercial and private pilots navigate the skies knowing their vision is an invaluable asset. Yet, the more miles they fly and as time itself flies, pilots face the inevitable effects of aging eyes. This natural progression can introduce challenges, from reduced visual acuity to increased sensitivity to glare, impacting a pilot’s performance and safety.

In this guide, Arizona Retinal Specialists will focus on age-related vision concerns, the value of annual eye exams, and eye care strategies for pilots to maintain their careers, safety, and passion for aviation.


Aging Eyes and Vision Problems Among Pilots

As clear as the skies might be on most days and nights, flight commanders still need clear and accurate vision. After all, they are responsible for several lives at a time.

Early detection and treatment of the following vision problems enable pilots to continue flying safely:

1. Presbyopia

One of the earliest signs of aging eyes is presbyopia, which becomes noticeable in one’s early to mid-40s. Presbyopia makes it difficult to focus on nearby objects, such as instrument panels or charts, without corrective eyeglasses or contact lenses

Can a pilot with presbyopia still fly?

According to Wayman Aviation Academy in Pembroke Pines, Florida, as long as a pilot’s vision is correctable and can meet the required vision standards, he or she remains eligible to fly.


2. Cataracts

Cataracts form when the eye’s natural lens becomes cloudy, leading to blurred vision. Aging is a primary risk factor for cataracts. This clouded area in the lens can impact a pilot’s ability to see clearly, especially during red-eye flights.

In addition, pilots are at risk for microwave radiation-induced cataracts if they repeatedly face a weather radar on the ground. Similar devices (e.g., cellular phone transmitters, video display terminals, etc.) release pulses of electromagnetic energy, which can damage the lens and cause cataracts.

Can a pilot with a cataract still fly?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows pilots with early cataracts to fly, provided they undergo regular eye examinations and, following surgery, use monofocal lenses that meet the required vision standards without complications. Pilots who opt for multifocal lenses may need to observe a short waiting period before resuming their flying duties.


3. Glaucoma

Intraocular pressure may rise while flying an aircraft. Unfortunately, aside from advancing age, eye pressure is a significant risk factor for glaucoma. Glaucoma is a group of chronic eye diseases. It damages the optic nerve, leading to vision loss without treatment. Even the slightest loss of peripheral vision from early-onset glaucoma presents risks to a pilot’s career and to aviation safety.

Can a pilot with glaucoma still fly?

Pilots who have undergone glaucoma-filtering surgery or combined glaucoma/cataract surgery may continue flying if they are stable and free from complications.


4. Macular Degeneration

Also known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), this progressive eye disease affects 1 in 10 Americans aged 50 and older. This condition impairs the macula, a small but critical part of the retina in charge of central vision and detail perception.

As pilots age, they become vulnerable to the following types of AMD:

  • Dry AMD (Non-Neovascular): This form is more common and often progresses slowly. The accumulation of yellow deposits (drusen in the macula) characterizes dry AMD, resulting in a gradual loss of central vision. Pilots with this eye disorder may experience blurred or distorted vision when looking directly at objects. Consequently, it can affect tasks requiring sharp visual focus, such as reading instruments or identifying distant landmarks.
  • Wet AMD (Neovascular): Although less common, wet AMD progresses faster and can cause severe vision loss. It occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow beneath the retina, causing bleeding and scarring. Pilots with wet AMD may face significant challenges in maintaining clear central vision, which is necessary for activities like reading instruments and recognizing other aircraft or objects in the sky.

Can a pilot with macular degeneration still fly?

Pilots diagnosed with dry or wet macular degeneration, whom the FAA deems safe to fly, must obtain a Special Issuance (SI) due to the condition’s progressive nature. The condition’s stability and degree of functional impairment will determine the SI’s duration.


How Aging Eyes Impact Pilot Performance

In general, the above conditions can pose the following vision challenges and dangers to aging pilots:

  • Decreased visual acuity: Aging often leads to a natural decline in visual acuity, making it difficult to discern fine details. For pilots, imperfect vision can impact their ability to read instrument displays, identify runway markers, or spot other objects in the sky.
  • Reduced depth perception: Depth perception plays a crucial role in aviation, especially during landings and takeoffs. Aging eyes may struggle to gauge distances, increasing the risk of misjudging altitude or runway approach.
  • Increased sensitivity to glare: The sun and bright lights “hurting the eyes” due to aging is completely normal. In one’s 60s, resting pupil size shrinks, meaning the eye only receives one-third as much light as usual. Unfortunately, this heightened sensitivity to light can be dangerous during dawn, dusk, or nighttime flying, as anything bright can disrupt a pilot’s vision and judgment.


Strategies for Pilots with Age-Related Vision Changes

Pilots in Arizona, whether from the Arizona Air National Guard, flight schools, or commercial and private airlines, can mitigate age-related vision changes and ensure optimal performance in the cockpit by implementing these eye care tactics:

1. Wear Haze-Cutting Prescription Sunglasses

For pilots exposed to varying light conditions and glare from the sun, investing in haze-cutting prescription sunglasses can be a game-changer. These special sunglasses reduce the impact of haze and glare, improving visibility and comfort during flight.


2. Use Supplemental Oxygen

Oxygen levels tend to decrease at higher altitudes, potentially reducing vision capabilities. Using supplemental oxygen can counteract this effect. Supplemental oxygen helps improve vision at night and at altitude, ensuring a pilot maintains optimal visual acuity during flights.


3. Get a Dilated Eye Exam in Sun City, AZ

Given that eye conditions can develop without noticeable symptoms or warnings until later, it is possible to have an underlying vision problem without self-awareness. Therefore, irrespective of one’s perceived eye health, Arizona Retinal Specialists recommends getting a dilated eye exam to reveal the optic nerve and retinal status. Contact us at 623-474-3937 to schedule an appointment in Sun City.


A Quick Reminder Before Your Next Flight

Being a pilot is a rewarding but visually demanding job. All aviators, beginners or seasoned pros, must take good care of their eyes if they want a long and successful career.

By understanding how aging affects vision and recognizing the importance of routine eye exams, sky navigators can fly past the ocular challenges and reinforce the safety of those they transport.


www.arizonaretinalspecialists.com is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on www.arizonaretinalspecialists.com