What are the specific problems in modern jet airliner cockpits or in piloting operations that would prevent a person with any type or severity of color blindness from completing his/her job to the same degree as a pilot without color blindness?

As a follow up, are modern airliners designed to allow for pilots who have any type or severity of color blindness in case regulations change to allow them to work?

  • $\begingroup$ related: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/16098 $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Jul 6 '15 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I know this is related but it doesn't answer my more specific question so I continued with the post. $\endgroup$ Jul 6 '15 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Now that I think about it, I'm surprised that nobody in the US has attempted to challenge the aircraft/airport/navigation chart lighting/coloring schemes under the ADA. I'm not, in any way saying I would approve of or support such a challenge, just that in our litigious society, it's surprising nobody's tried. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jul 6 '15 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan I wouldn't be surprised if someone has tried to challenge it, but, given all of the problems it would cause, any such challenge would be very unlikely to succeed. Furthermore, federal law itself isn't really subject to ADA, since Congress can just override the ADA at will (or delegate authority to do so to executive agencies.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 6 '15 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan The ADA requires reasonable accommodations. Changing ICAO standard lighting colors all over the world is not "reasonable" by any sane standard, nor is making the US a Special Snowflake. By extension allowing a pilot to fly when they can't perceive the standard lighting colors is inherently unsafe & therefore not "reasonable" either. I know a lot of lawyers, but none crazy or drunk enough to take that case :) $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Jul 7 '15 at 5:59

There are lots of problems.

  1. Sight is just generally important when flying. Even in airliners, most approaches are still flown manually and often visually. Any significant degradation of sight is going to be a problem when flying any type of airplane.

  2. Red/Green/White light signals are used by air traffic control in the event of a radio failure. The inability to differentiate red from green in this case would be an enormous safety hazard (e.g. did tower just clear me to land or tell me to keep circling?)

  3. PAPI/VASI lights use colors to indicate whether you're above, below, or on the proper glide slope for a runway. While it's possible to land without them, it's a significant reduction in safety.

  4. Lights at airports are color-coded to indicate whether a particular road is a runway or taxiway, how close you are to the end of the runway, that a runway is in use, etc. Landing on a taxiway is usually a bad idea, so it's best if you can tell the difference.

  5. The navigation lights on airplanes themselves are color-coded. The right wingtip has a green light, the left wingtip has a red light, and the back has a white light. This lets other pilots easily determine which way you're going and, in case of conflict, who should yield (seeing a red light on another aircraft means that they're to your right and, therefore, you should yield to [i.e. divert around] them.)

  6. Colors are used on aviation charts to indicate all kinds of things, including class of airspace, type of special-use airspace, whether a field is controlled or not, type of route, elevation of terrain, where you should expect to see city lights at night, etc. You need to be able to distinguish these things quickly and accurately, even in low-light conditions.

  7. Some cockpit instruments use colors to indicate various things. These include color bands on airspeed indicators, color of annunciator lights or their on-screen equivalents (i.e. red for warning, amber for caution, green for gear down, etc.,) echo intensity on a weather radar display, etc.

  • $\begingroup$ On point 1 - that's more to do with visual acuity, rather than color blindness. There are plenty of pilots that use corrective aids (glasses, etc). You can have 20/20 vision and still be color blind. $\endgroup$ Jul 6 '15 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ Most of your other points make sense of course, I'm not arguing that color blind people should be allowed to fly! I just want to know where the problems are. So it seems even if cockpits were designed to be 'color blind friendly', most of the problems areas lie in lighting outside of the cockpit. $\endgroup$ Jul 6 '15 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulRedmond Regarding the first point, I meant just any sort of degradation of eyesight, whether that be a problem with acuity, astigmatism, color blindness, cataracts, etc. All of these are unhelpful when trying to pick out a runway from its background (or another airplane from the background,) for example. Picking out a runway from its background can actually be harder than you might think. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 6 '15 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ The big one here is in #2, #3, and #5: The ability to differentiate three colors (Red, Green, and White) is critical to the safe performance of a pilot's duties. There are a few other colors that show up (yellow in light gun signals, blue for taxiway lights), but red/green colorblindness is the usual situation. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Jul 7 '15 at 5:57
  • $\begingroup$ I will mark this as the correct answer as you have provided a number of points (2, 3 and 5 in particular) that answer the question. $\endgroup$ Jul 7 '15 at 9:39

I believe the answer largely lies with history. Aircraft position indicators are red/green; airports can have white and green beacons at night. Being color-blind was a disadvantage in the past. Cockpit designers use color intentionally to help get a pilot's attention. I doubt any airline wants to go to court after an accident knowing they had a color-blind pilot involved. If there was an incredible shortage of pilots they might consider arguing for relaxed standards, but they have little incentive to do so currently, as far as I can see.

  • $\begingroup$ I get the point of 'Why would we hire a color blind pilot when we have hire a pilot that's not color blind?', I'm more interested in the specifics of what problems a color blind pilot could encounter these days. For the aircraft position indicators, is there something to be misinterpreted? I don't think the red/white lights would be a problem to distinguish for most people with color blindness, but I could be wrong. $\endgroup$ Jul 6 '15 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @PaulRedmond Yes. Red vs. green needs to be distinguished (see my answer.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 6 '15 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ If you had to, would it be POSSIBLE to rework all aviation standards so they'd all work for colorblind pilots? Probably, yes. For any single instance, there is probably some work-around that could be applied to make information available, more-or-less adequately, to someone who is colorblind. Maybe not AS effective as using a full color solution for those with normal color vision, but more-or-less adequate. But the question is, why WOULD you do this? Could the costs ever be justified by any benefits gained? And could the less effective displays (for everybody else) be justified? Doubtful! $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jul 7 '15 at 2:22

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