As we’ve said, vision can be everything for a pilot. I mean, that is how Rebuild Your Vision started – with one visually challenged person’s dream to fly for the US Navy. My own dilemma and eventual solution are all listed front and center on the RYV site if you’re interested in reading the full story, but the main point is this – eye health can make or break a career in the air.
Pilots rely on vision more than any other sense, and unlike other professions or hobbies, they need to have multiple visual competencies. Reading delicate instruments in a cockpit requires acute near-field vision – farsightedness or blurry vision can easily prove dangerous if they interfere with accurately perceiving readouts.
On the other hand, taking off, landing, and navigating all call for precise distance vision. On top of that, eye comfort and overall health are both crucial for remaining effective during a long flight. There are many particular threats to pilots’ eyes, but some of them can be treated naturally.
Dry Eye and Rubbing
Dry eye is probably the most innocuous-sounding complaint you’ll find on this list, but don’t be fooled – chronically dry eyes can be a nightmare for anyone, much less a pilot. Dry eye can be caused by a variety of factors. Exposure to sun or wind, prolonged computer work, or air conditioning can all quickly have your orbs crying out for aid. Like just about every disorder we’ll discuss here, it’s also more and more of a problem as a pilot ages.
Airplanes are almost designed to cause dry eye. The desiccated atmosphere in a pressurized cabin can quickly suck the moisture out of eyes, leaving them itchy and irritated. Not only that, but dry eyes can result in blurred vision, obviously a serious safety threat while flying. It also puts pilots at risk for more serious disorders.
Rubbing an itchy eye is an unconscious gesture and anyone trying to work through dry eye will wind up rubbing more or less constantly. This, unfortunately, provides a direct path for bacteria on your hands into the welcoming environment around your eyes. Eye infections are nasty – painful at best, permanently damaging at worst – and they should be avoided at all costs.
Rubbing can even physically change the shape of your eye. Do it enough and you risk wearing down the cornea, rendering it more conical. The resulting condition is called keratoconus, a condition that often spells irreversibly impaired vision in the afflicted eye.
In order to avoid flying dry, pilots may want to consider stocking up on lubricating drops. While they’re not a perfect cure, they can make for a much more comfortable, and safer, flight.
If you do wind up using them, be aware that they come with a few side effects. Most contain preservatives to prevent bacterial growth and consistent users often develop sensitivities to these chemicals. Also, be sure you’re using the right product. Lubricating drops are often sold next to decongestant and antihistamine drops, both of which can cause discomfort and even damage if used improperly.
Some people have found success controlling dry eye without pharmaceutical assistance. Eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids seems to help your eyes produce their own lubricant, hopefully keeping them comfortable without resorting to outside help.
Loss of Dynamic Accommodation
Changing focus from far-field items to near-field is an important part of anyone’s daily life. The ability is known as dynamic accommodation and, as you might guess, it’s vital for pilots. As with most other visual skills, it does decline with age, which can be of particular concern for veteran fliers.
A pilot’s eyes need to be able to refocus quickly during takeoff and landing, since their view will constantly be shifting from outside to the interior instruments.
Unfortunately, many older individuals will encounter problems with slow accommodation. As people age, they lose some of the lens elasticity that younger individuals have, limiting their ability to focus. This particularly applies to near-field items. If you’ve ever seen an older friend holding a menu at arm’s length just to read it, then you’ve seen a case of presbyopia, or age-related loss of near-field vision.
Dealing with the problem isn’t easy either. Corrective lenses, such as bifocals or progressives, do offer multiple focal areas and may allow rapid switching of focus.
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One of the worst and most worrying eye disorders among older Americans is age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. AMD occurs either when small deposits form on the back of the eye, or when abnormal blood vessels grow near the retina. Either form is potentially sight-robbing.
AMD is a particular threat to pilots because the changes it causes are irreversible and can make flying extremely risky. Central vision is the first thing to go when AMD goes unchecked, which can make reading instruments extremely difficult and accurately perceiving distant objects all but impossible.
The best defense against AMD is a consistent schedule of eye exams. If caught early, interventions can slow the rate of damage caused by the condition, leaving a patient with most of their sight intact. Cases that are allowed to progress are difficult to treat, but some recent procedures, such as the implantation of a telescopic device into the eye, may allow pilots to stay in the seat for the coming years.