Vision and Aviation: Consider LASIK for Pilots and Astronauts

Vision and Aviation: Consider LASIK for Pilots and Astronauts

April 20, 2023

Table of Content

Pilots need precise near, intermediate, and distant visual acuity to navigate blind spots, areas of low visibility, and open areas with minimal visual references, as well as seamlessly navigate cockpit controls. Do you need perfect vision to be a pilot? Or, rather, do you need 20/20 vision to be a pilot? Yes, you do. Can you be a pilot with glasses? Yes, you can, however, there’s a better option: LASIK surgery.

In fact, it’s acceptable for astronauts to also have LASIK surgery. Often called refractive eye surgery, LASIK offers freedom from glasses and contact lenses. There’s no fear of losing or breaking your glasses or issues of dryness and discomfort associated with contact lenses. With LASIK surgery, the eyes of pilots and astronauts are always corrected for optimal vision.

In this blog, we answer some common questions like “Can fighter pilots wear glasses?” and provide vision requirements for different types of pilots.

How Is Visual Acuity Tested?

The Snellen eye chart is used to measure visual acuity, this measurement refers to how well a person can see without any visual aids. It contains rows of letters that become progressively smaller and is read by covering one eye and reading aloud the letters on the chart, beginning at the top and moving toward the bottom.

The chart is typically placed at a standard distance of 20 feet away from the reader. If they can read the smallest line, then they have 20/20 vision. Vision less than average, e.g., 20/40 means the subject sees letters at 20 feet that a person with normal vision can see at 40 feet, and so on.  Someone with 20/80 vision can read newspaper headlines, whereas a person with 20/200 vision is considered legally blind.

Having 20/20 doesn’t necessarily mean your eyesight is perfect. Other vision skills like peripheral awareness, eye coordination, depth perception, and color vision are also taken into consideration. For instance, some people have good distant vision but are unable to bring nearby objects into focus.

Pilot Vision Requirements

Pilot Vision testing

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires pilots to undergo a comprehensive vision test by an Aviation Medical Examiner to get a First-Class FAA Medical Certificate. First of all, do pilots need 20/20 vision? According to the FAA, the eyesight requirements for a pilot are as follows:

  • Distant vision should be 20/20 or better, with or without corrective lenses, in each eye.
  • Standard visual acuity (16”)  is 20/40 in each eye, separately.

While the FAA has no policy on LASIK per se, they do require a minimum of six weeks recovery time after surgery for healing and stabilization.

Military Requirements for Pilot

The vast majority of Army Pilots are actually Helicopter Pilots because the army has very few fixed-wing aircraft. Can you be a pilot with glasses in the military? Yes, provided you meet the following requirements:

  • Uncorrected visual acuity of 20/50 or better in each eye.
  • Corrected visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye.
  • Normal field of vision, color vision, and depth perception.

Is LASIK allowed for pilots? Yes, however, after training, their eyes cannot degrade beyond 20/400 without correction, and their corrected visual acuity must remain at 20/20. Therefore, in some cases, Army pilots can have LASIK eye surgery to remain in service.

Air Force Pilot Vision Requirements

Can you be a fighter pilot with glasses? Yes, although Air Force pilot eyesight requirements are more complex:

  • Normal color vision.
  • 20/30 nearsighted vision without correction.
  • 20/70 farsighted vision without correction.
  • Corrected distance visual acuity of 20/20 or better.
  • Meet other refraction, accommodation, and astigmatism requirements.

So, can you be a fighter pilot with LASIK? Absolutely. The Air Force allows fighter pilots to undergo the procedure, so long as they receive clearance from their commanding officer and are prepared to be non-deployable for one month after LASIK.

Navy Pilot Eyesight Requirements

Navy Pilot Eyesight Requirements

Navy Fighter Pilot vision requirements have to do with ensuring pilots have good enough color vision to identify important aircraft position lights, airport beacons, radar, flight charts, and associated chart symbols. The FAA sets out the following Navy Pilot eyesight requirements:

  • Uncorrected distance visual acuity of 20/100 – 20 / 400 or better in each eye, depending on the service class.
  • Corrected distance visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye.
  • Corrected near visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye.
  • Anisometropia may not exceed 3.50 Diopter in any meridian.
  • Normal oculomotor balance, a field of vision, depth perception, and intraocular pressure.

Can you be a Navy pilot with glasses? Yes, the Navy allows pilots to correct their vision using glasses, contact lenses, and LASIK.

Marine Corps Pilot Vision Requirements

The Marine Corps’ vision requirements are as follows:

  • Uncorrected distance visual acuity of 20/200 or better in each eye.
  • Corrected distance visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye.
  • Corrected near visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye.
  • Limitations on type and strength of prescription glasses.
  • Normal field of vision, color vision, and depth perception.

You may wear contacts or glasses as a Marine Aviator. However, it’s much easier to meet the vision requirements with LASIK surgery.

Army (Helicopter) Pilot Vision Requirements

In order to enter Army Helicopter Flight Training, the following Army pilot vision requirements must be met:

  • Uncorrected visual acuity of 20/50 or better in each eye.
  • Corrected visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye.
  • Normal field of vision, color vision and depth perception.

After training, the helicopter pilot vision requirements specify that eyesight cannot degrade beyond 20/400 without correction. The corrected visual acuity must remain 20/20.

Army aviation LASIK is one way to meet the vision requirements. If vision degrades beyond 20/400 without correction, army helicopter pilot LASIK eye surgery can be used to remain in the service.

Civilian Pilot Eyesight Requirements

Civilian Pilot Eyesight Requirements

Just as each of the United States Military branches has its standard vision requirements for pilots and navigators, so too do civilian pilots. Can you get LASIK and be a civilian pilot? You guessed it; you can.

Vision Requirements for Airline Pilots

Both airline pilot vision requirements and commercial pilot eyesight requirements are the same:

  • Distance visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye, with or without correction.
  • Intermediate visual acuity of 20/40 or better in each eye, with or without correction.
  • Near visual acuity of 20/40 or better in each eye, with or without correction.
  • Satisfactory color vision.

Eyesight Requirements and Regulations for Commercial Pilots

To hold a first or second-class medal certificate, Federal Aviation Regulations require a pilot’s vision to be 20/20 or better, with or without correction, in each eye. The standard for near visual acuity is typically 20/40.

Pilots fifty years or older also have an intermediate visual standard measurement of 20/40 or better in each eye. Keep in mind; third class medal certificates require a 20/40 or better for near and distant vision. There is no intermediate vision standard for third-class certification.

Nearsighted pilots, who have blurred vision when viewing distant objects, must wear corrective lenses (glasses or contact lenses) during aviation duties — LASIK surgery can also meet this requirement, so long as it corrects distant vision to 20/20 in each eye. Farsighted pilots or presbyopic individuals, who require reading glasses as they age, are also required to wear corrective lenses during aviation duties.

Pilots with cataracts whose vision does not correct to 20/20 at distant vision may be rectified to fly and control airplanes after having intraocular lenses inserted/implanted via surgery. Such individuals may also have to wear glasses for optimal visual acuity.

Private Pilot Vision Requirements

Private pilot license vision requirements differ slightly from those of commercial or airline pilots. They are slightly less stringent as described below:

  • Distance visual acuity of 20/40 or better in each eye, with or without correction.
  • Near visual acuity of 20/40 or better in each eye, with or without correction.
  • Satisfactory color vision.

Pilots LASIK Eye Surgery Qualifications

Pilots LASIK Eye Surgery Qualifications

For pilots with a substantial glasses prescription, LASIK eye surgery may be the only way to meet flying requirements. Even those who have an uncorrected vision that meets the requirements, enjoy the freedom from glasses and contact lenses that LASIK provides.

To qualify for refractive surgery, the following stipulations must be met:

  • Good general health.
  • Ocular maturity (generally 18 years of age).
  • Glasses prescription stability of at least two years.
  • Free of eye infection, injury, or disease.
  • Sufficient corneal thickness.

Is LASIK Safe for Pilots?

Generally, LASIK is a speedy surgery and offers a rapid recovery.  Many pilots are stunned by how fast their eyesight improves following surgery.

Recovery Time

After LASIK surgery, you’ll need to sleep for about four to six hours upon arriving home. This allows your eyes to recover without constant blinking. You may experience some blur and discomfort, but by the next day, you’ll have a highly functioning vision.

We’ll schedule an appointment the day after your surgery to ensure your eyes are healing appropriately. Most patients return to their normal day-to-day activities within 24 hours of surgery. From that point onwards, follow-up appointments will vary depending on the individual’s progress.

Also, bear in mind the military may require a longer waiting period before returning to full duty. The wait time for LASIK usually varies from branch to branch.

Possible Risks

Possible Risks

As with any surgery, LASIK carries a slight risk of infection. Although exceedingly rare, you will be given antibiotic eye drops to help minimize the likelihood of developing an infection. After LASIK, it is normal to experience dryness, discomfort, and redness of the eyes during the initial healing period. A very small percentage of patients may experience visual fluctuations which require an enhancement procedure. In addition, it is quite normal to experience halos, starburst, and glare. These symptoms often get better with time as your eyes continue to heal.

PRK vs. LASIK for Pilots

Both LASIK and PRK use lasers to reshape the cornea; LASIK creates a thin flap in the cornea, whereas PRK removes the outer layer of the cornea, which grows back over time. LASIK has a few advantages for pilots over PRK, including minimal “central haziness” and the ability to achieve 20/20 vision more quickly — the minimum eyesight required for pilots. Most pilots opt for LASIK because there’s less corneal scarring, less potential discomfort, and a lower risk of poor night vision.

Alternatives to Laser Eye Surgery

While certain conditions prevent pilots from having LASIK surgery, there are suitable alternatives for vision correction:

  • Implantable Collamer Lens (IPCL) Surgery: IPCL surgery involves making an incision in the eye and planting a soft contact lens in front of your natural crystalline lens. The lens is not visible to anyone and does not need to be removed or replaced. It’s customized according to the shape and size of each eye.
  • Refractive Lens Exchange Surgery: This type of vision correction surgery uses ultrasound to replace your natural lens with a multifocal or bifocal lens to minimize the use of glasses and contacts. Refractive Lens Exchange Surgery is commonly reserved for those who are fifty years old and above.

Conclusion

To conclude: Can pilots have laser eye surgery? Yes, they can. Can you be an Air Force Pilot with LASIK? Certainly! LASIK gives pilots and astronauts the freedom to fly without the burden of wearing glasses or contact lenses. Astronauts don’t have to worry about losing their glasses due to microgravity, and pilots can fly fighter jets without vision aids. Contact us for your no-cost, no-obligation consultation today.

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Dr. Colman R. Kraff

Committed to advancing new technologies in the field of ophthalmology, Dr. Colman Kraff helped to pioneer laser vision correction. In February of 1991, as part of a five-site, U.S., FDA clinical trial team, Dr. Kraff successfully performed the first excimer laser procedures in the Chicagoland area using the VISX Excimer Laser.

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