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air safety

Jul 14, 2014

An Australian senator’s defence of ‘colour blind’ pilots

Senator David Fawcett takes a stand against unfair bureaucratic pursuit of not so 'colour blind' pilots by a dubious and discredited CASA bureaucracy

One of the claimed virtues of parliamentary democracy is the protection of the rights of individuals from the abuse of power by the state or its instrumentalities.

In aviation there are two matters at this moment where it can fairly be said that Governments, present and past, have variously exhibited indifference or even hostility to individual cases of persecution or misrepresentation by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and in one instance the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

The cases are that of the Pel-Air crash near Norfolk Island in 2009 and the current campaign against colour vision deficient pilots on the basis of claimed scientific evidence which has not only not been produced, but not peer reviewed.

The abuse of bureaucratic power is arguably, part of life. However the unwillingness of Government to do anything about it, other than to regurgitate statements by the same authorities that are accused of the original wrong doing, is something that ought to be of concern.

The defective and shameful Pel-Air crash report issued by the ATSB remains in place because of this Ministerial and self protective bureaucratic inertia. And this is unjust, and contrary to the public aviation safety interest.

So much for the ‘Labor way’ of screwing individual rights, and the indifference of its reformist Coalition successor.

In the Senate last week Liberal Senator David Fawcett (South Australia) made some comments about the public administration of aviation safety in this country.

It began with some good news, in that the Coalition has made an encouraging appointment to the board of CASA, consistent with one of the recommendations of the recent Forsyth review of Aviation Safety Regulation in Australia.

That review, by a distinguished figure in aviation engineering and safety in this country, was a Coalition initiative.  It’s a good start, but there is a very long way to go.

This is the Hansard of Senator Fawcett’s speech, which comes with the powerful advantage of being protected by parliamentary privilege even if it may be too much information for lay readers.

Senator FAWCETT (South Australia—Deputy Government Whip in the Senate) (18:55): I rise to make a few comments this evening on the state of aviation and its regulation in Australia. But first I wish to note the appointment of Jeff Boyd to the CASA board by the government, which I welcome. Mr Boyd has a long history in the aviation industry, as a layman—understanding the engineering and the mechanical side—as an in-flight instructor and with his ownership and running of Brindabella Airlines. He has a depth of experience which will be very welcome on the board, and I look forward to the government’s appointments of other board members in the near future—particularly as the board will have a key role in implementing the recommendations, as the government approves them, from the Forsyth review into aviation safety regulation.

The issue I would like to touch on tonight though is about a small group of people in the aviation environment. One of the characteristics of a plural liberal democracy such as we have here in Australia is that we respect and look after the rights of minorities. Amongst the pilot population in Australia—the estimates vary, but it is well over 30,000—there is a small group, numbering in their hundreds, potentially around 400, who have a colour vision deficiency. For many years—in fact going right back, I think the first publication that dealt with this was in 1926. People made the assumption, as they looked at aircraft deriving from the days of sailing ships and steamships where they had red and green lights for navigation lights, that if a pilot could not discriminate colours, then he was not safe to fly by night. And since 1926, that document has formed bodies of thought that have flowed through into regulation.

The current ICAO—the international organisation that looks after aviation—document recognises that, to use climate change terms, the science is not settled. They are not actually sure what difference a colour vision deficiency makes to an individual’s ability to safely pilot an aircraft by day or by night. Despite that, regulators around the world have tended to err on the side of safety and say, ‘We won’t let people fly by night unless they pass one of a number of tests’. What that has meant is that for around nine per cent of the male population around the world, those who would aspire to be pilots or even air traffic controllers, are often denied that opportunity.

That changed here in Australia about 25 years ago. In the Administrative Appeals Tribunal there was a case that has become known as the Denison case where a colour-vision-deficient pilot took the regulator to the tribunal saying: ‘This is unfair. I can demonstrate that I’m competent to fly.’ The Commonwealth, because of the degree of interest, funded the applicant as well as the defence, through the then CAA, and so you had a test case where both parties brought in lots of experts. At the end of it, the judgement was made that in fact pilots who had a colour vision deficiency should be able to demonstrate their competence and be licensed to fly. The only condition that was put on that was that they could not captain high-capacity airline aircraft.

As a result of that, Australia is unique in the world in that we now have some 25 years of experience of people with a colour vision deficiency who have been flying, and they have been flying everything from light aircraft by day through to regional type airliners; single pilot, for example overnight freight or the Royal Flying Doctor Service, through to co-pilot roles, particularly in regional type aircraft. We also have—because a number of the principal medical officers within the Civil Aviation Safety Authority have sought to facilitate people with a colour vision deficiency to fly and have implemented things like practical flight tests for people to demonstrate their competence—some people now captaining large capacity aircraft and they have been doing so quite safely for a number of years and in some cases have well over 10,000 hours of flying. That says that, despite the theory, much of which has its origins in that 1926 document, practice shows that people with a colour vision deficiency can operate aircraft safely.

There are four key areas that people raise concerns about. One is to do with the tower. If you lose your radio and there is a control tower, you have to look for the red, green or flashing lights to tell you whether you can land, take off et cetera. People are concerned that if you cannot distinguish the lights then you would not be able to land safely. Again that was probably valid in 1926, but the reality is that on the top of the approach plates that I and other pilots use when we fly is the phone number for the tower. It says, ‘If you lose radio contact, phone the tower.’ The headset I use, like many others, has a bluetooth connection for a phone so you can quite safely, if you need to, have a redundant system that is specified in the publications to call the tower. So I think that argument is somewhat outdated.

There is also the argument that, with the advent of EFIS screens or glass cockpits, the increased use of colour means that you must be able to distinguish the colours in order to be able to operate safely. One pilot recently underwent a test in a simulator with a CASA flying operations inspector. He specifically asked to be tested on all the night sequences information from the cockpit and he was assessed as being quite safe to operate. In my own experience of modifying aircraft and certifying them for use with night-vision goggles one of the common applications in the cockpit is to put a large green filter over the glass displays so all the colour hierarchies are essentially diminished and yet we certify the aircraft, and pilots fly quite happily by day and night with no incidents. So, whilst the colour is nice to have, clearly it is not an essential characteristic of the cockpit.

There is also concern about traffic and whether you will see the position lights on aircraft. The reality is that many aircraft now have bright white strobe lights for collision avoidance. The interesting part is that the aircraft that most these people have been able to fly over the 25 years are aircraft that do not have automated systems to support the pilot. The one type of aircraft they are not generally allowed to fly in Australia—your larger airlines—has things like white strobes; predominately flies in controlled airspace where air traffic control provides a degree of separation; and has traffic collision avoidance systems, TCASs, that give automated warnings of proximity to other aircraft. So there appears again, both in practice and just conceptually, to be a problem with the restriction that has been placed on people there.

The last area is the PAPI, the precision approach path indicator, which is a glide slope indicator that is positioned next to a runway for pilots to use at night. Because it relies on a combination of red and white lights there is a concern that certain kinds of colour-vision-deficient pilots would not be able to interpret those lights. Again, the confound for that theory is that over 25 years hundreds of pilots have flown thousands of approaches at night using PAPIs quite safely, which says that either the PAPI itself has additional cueing, such as the intensity of the lights, or, more probably, there are enough redundant cues in the surrounding environment that the pilot can land safely. That is backed up by the fact that CASA will provide an exemption if the PAPI is unserviceable: you can still fly your aircraft and land it. That says that the PAPI is a nice thing to have but it is clearly not essential for landing an aircraft.

For this minority group of pilots there has been a change in CASA’s view. They have decided to review the safety of these people flying aircraft. They have written to the individual pilots and to employers saying that research, which they have not published, has shown that these pilots may be unsafe. But they have not clarified what that is. The history over the last 25 years shows that that is not the case. Previous principal medical officers in CASA have shown a willingness to support pilots. I am concerned that the attitudes of a few within the regulator may be putting at risk this group, albeit a minority group. In our democracy we look after the rights of minorities. There is an injustice being done to this group. I will be working with the government to fund either another test case or research to make sure that this group receives the justice that the last 25 years have shown that they are due.

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5 comments

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5 thoughts on “An Australian senator’s defence of ‘colour blind’ pilots

  1. Glen

    And what of the thousands of professional drivers on our much more dangerous roads, operating taxicabs, 50t behemoths, even crowded school buses, who cannot distinguish red from green traffic lights? Ban them, I say.

  2. ggm

    This feels like a beurocrats “precautionary principle” taken to the absurd extreme. That, and very probably a culture of “because we said so” which is being tested in the process.

    I expect when its overturned, CASA will say how delighted it is the test case established the limits to power, and how appropriate it was to do this..

  3. Dave Bell

    Did you know that the army sends you to sniper school if you are colour blind http://confabulator.blogspot.com.au/2006/01/hci-color-blindness-as-advantage.html.

    Colour blind folk are not fooled by camouflage and have better distance and night vision. Perhaps it is an advantage to pilots as well. Also perhaps why this genetic mutation is so prevalent – it was a competitive advantage to hunter gatherers.

  4. Fueldrum

    To fly across the sky is a privilege, not a right. To be protected against illegal discrimination is a right, not a privilege. The rights of one are the rights of all.

    Disability discrimination is illegal unless (a) the disability actually elevates the risk of an accident, and (b) no steps that can reasonably be taken will offset that elevation of risk. If CASA had any scientific evidence that colour vision defects elevate the risk of an accident, they would have published it by now. Certainly they had nothing resembling defensible evidence in the court cases 25 years ago.

    If CASA can, without evidence, exclude pilots with this insignificant disability from aviation, then pilots with diet-controlled diabetes, puffer-controlled asthma, and a hundred other insignificant ailments will not be far behind. We all remember what happened to our CVD colleagues in air traffic control.

  5. john mitchell

    Hopefully this will be the end of the Grand Poohbar of CASA medical and his pompousity.