Is Corrective Vision Surgery for you?

It’s estimated that some 55% of civilian pilots use some form of vision correction, most notably, glasses or contact lenses.  But advances in corrective surgery are making laser procedures more and more attractive to pilots.  However, it’s not without risks when it comes to your vision and your medical certification.

It’s easy to be sold by the burgeoning number of television & radio advertisements for quick, painless, worry-free corrective vision procedures.  After all, this is capitalism at work and medical practices specializing in these procedures need to turn a profit.  I’m not suggesting that the motivation of most physicians performing these procedures is less than honest, but it would be naïve to assume other influences aren’t present.  What this means to you is to proceed with caution and consider the entire process.

There are a number of variations of laser eye procedures and the variations seem to be growing, but all include a laser resurfacing procedure which changes the way light focuses on the retina to form an image in the brain.  A list of approved surgeries and FAA guidance can be found here. The most popular procedure today is LASIK — Laser-Assisted In-Situ Keratomileusis.

The following selection criteria are used for LASIK:

  • Age 18 years or older
  • Stable refractive error (less than .50 diopters [D] change within the last year) correctable to 20/40 or better
  • Less than – 15.00 D of myopia and up to 6 to 7 D of astigmatism
  • Less than + 6.00 D of hyperopia and less than 6 D of astigmatism
  • No gender restriction, with the exception of pregnancy
  • Pupil size less than or equal to 6 mm (in normal room lighting)
  • Realistic expectations of final results (with a complete understanding of the benefits, as well as the possible risks)

Advances in the equipment and techniques used to perform these procedures have made complications less frequent.  The technological advancements coupled with proper patient selection (not everyone is a candidate for corrective surgery) also have made any potential side effects (varying vision acuity, haloes, glare, etc.) less severe.

The Medical — FAA requires that you stop flying after a vision correction procedure until it has been determined that your vision meets the standards of your medical and that there are no adverse side effects.  The recovery process also needs to be at a point where eye drops are no longer required.  Pilots should report to FAA using form 8500-7 (Report of Eye Evaluation).  The report can be submitted directly to the Medical Certification Division or to your AME at your next exam.

If the procedure was done 2 years ago or longer, the FAA may accept the Examiner’s eye evaluation and an airman statement regarding the absence of adverse side effects.

Find the right specialist — it’s important to find a reputable facility and eye care specialist to perform a vision correction procedure.  Consult the eye care specialist to determine whether you’re indeed a candidate and then consider the risks versus rewards.  It’s important that you possess normal ocular health and be free of pre-existing conditions to provide the best likelihood of success.

For more information, read the FAA brochure Information for Pilots Considering Laser Eye Surgery.

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It was his first airplane trip at age seven that made Eric decide to become a pilot. "While boarding the airplane, a flight attendant noticed my interest in the flight deck and urged me to go talk to the pilot. I give a lot of credit to that pilot for my career choice." He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and went on to an airline career. Eric now heads Sporty’s flight school and directs the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training Program. In addition, Eric serves as a Captain in Sporty’s corporate flight department.

1 COMMENT

  1. Dear Sporty’s,

    As a board certified ophthalmologist, ex-USAF Flight Surgeon and active pilot who specialises in refractive surgical procedures, I would just like to complement you on your recent article “Is Correcitve Vision Surgery for you?”. The article did a very nice job of addressing most of the major issues regarding refractive surgery and flying. Currently, two additional procedures are also available for vision correction however that were not mentioned in the article.

    They are both FDA approved procedures and with properly selected patients work extremely well, even for many patients who are “out of range” for other laser based procedures or CK. They are “Phakic IOLs (Staar Visian ICL & Verisyse Artisan) and “Refractive Lens Exchange”. Combined with the other refractive procedures mentioned in your article these procedures can literally correct over 99% of all refractive errors, and even have the potential to restore reading vision in patients over 40 years of age.

    Thanks again for the nice article.

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