Flying in Color
As someone working toward a private pilot's license, I have been going through many of the things that everyone else does...straight and level, traffic pattern, paperwork etc. There is a system for learning to fly a general aviation plane and another system for being allowed to fly by the FAA. These systems are generally the same for everyone, but I have one small personal issue that affected my own process, and when I went looking for people with similar experiences online, I didn't find much there. So I wanted to write some of this down in the hope that it will help others in the future.
I am color blind.
Almost all of my life I have known that I have a small abnormality with my color vision. I have the most common form which is called red/green color blindness. This first became apparent when I was a little boy and was coloring things a little funny with crayons. My parents had me checked out using the normal color blindness circle tests and I saw (and didn't see) what people see when they are color blind. (Usually this means not seeing a number or letter in a field of colored dots.) But this is a subtle variation and for the most part I see colors fine. It's hard to compare with what others see of course, but it hasn't really affected any part of my life.
Now comes the flying part. To be able to solo as a part of the training process, you need to get a Third Class Medical and Student Pilot Certificate from the FAA. This is essentially a medical test to be sure there isn't a medical reason you should not fly a plane. The kinds of things they look for are fairly well documented elsewhere on the internet and I will link to several here for reference. I was very aware that one of the tests as a part of this fairly brief exam, is a color blindness test... which needless to say I did not pass. If you're reading this, I'll assume you're learning to fly, are color blind and are wondering what to expect.
I can't say that my experience is typical, but I can tell you what happened to me.
My initial medical exam went perfectly well, except for the color blind test. Normally I would have left the doctor's office with my medical certificate in hand and been ready for my eventual solo day (you need the medical before you can solo during training.) However because of my color defect, the paperwork had to go to the New England Regional Medical Office in Nashua, New Hampshire for their processing. After what should have been a week but actually ran a full three weeks (with a few phone calls to connect the doctor's office with the folks in Nashua) I received my medical certificate with a note that excluded night flying or signal light navigation. The folks in the doctor's office said that this had happened before and that everything would likely be fine... although I wasn't so sure.
Nashua also sent a letter authorizing me to be able to take what is called an Aviation Signal Light Test. I was told to set-up an appointment with the FAA FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) to take this test. I would need to bring my "limited" medical certificate, the authorization letter and my ID. I was told that if I passed the signal light test I would receive a color vision evidence letter which would permanently qualify my color vision from now on. Sweet!
I did a little homework ahead of time to try to know what to expect during an Aviation Signal Light Test, but as I mentioned there wasn't a lot online. There are other color blindness tests that I assume are based on in-office kinds of systems for checking color vision. The ASLT is an actual real-world test of a pilot's ability to see the signal light gun being shined from a control tower. From the phone call to set-up the test, it was clear that they don't do this test a lot and I got the impression that I would go outside of a building and report what colors I saw from their window. I also got the impression online that I would be asked to point out three colors, red, green and white. Other than that, I knew nothing.
When I got to the FAA office building, I noticed that their windows were tinted, which gave me my first clue that I wouldn't be viewing the signal light at that building! Once inside, there was some confusion about what test I was there for, and was temporarily given a pass to enter the office. However, once things were clear, I returned the pass and was told we'd be heading over to a nearby airfield for the ASLT (my abbreviation, not theirs.)
The FAA examiner met me at a Signature flight building, and then called the control tower from his cell phone to set-up the testing process. We walked outside to near private airplane parking with a clear view of the control tower. It was probably 200 yards away from where we were standing. We stood there waiting for something to happen and I was told to keep my eyes on the tower and tell the examiner what I saw. It's hard to keep your eyes focused in one place for a long time, and so I kept blinking and hoping I wouldn't miss something. It was a crisp clear morning which probably has pros and cons.
After a few minutes we saw what appeared to be a person moving around inside the tower and then finally a light shined clearly in our direction. It was bigger and more pronounced than I had worried it would be, and quite easy to see in the morning light. And to my eye it was clearly green. So I said "green." The examiner said, "OK" and we waited for the next color. I felt good about my answer, but had no indication that I was right. There was no communication with the tower so we had to wait until he/she decided to change the light. The light went away after about 30 seconds and then another light came on, equally bright and clearly white. I said "white." Again, he said "OK." And we waiting another 30 seconds. Again I was still confident of my answers so far but wasn't sure how the test would proceed. Would there be 10 lights mixing up 3 colors in random order? No way to know. Then the next light came on. This one seemed smaller in diameter and darker and was definately red. So I said "red."
The examiner said "OK, you're done." I think I said something like "that's it? We're all set?" and he told me I had passed. So it was three lights correctly identified and really no doubt on my part that the answers were correct. He then exchanged my "limited" certificate for a non-restricted one and gave me a letter which proves that I passed the color blindness test and will not need to be checked in all subsequent medical re-evaluations.
So that's how it went. If you have any questions about the process I went through, just add a comment here. Hopefully this was helpful for those of you in the same situation.