Can You Become a Pilot with LASIK?
The thought of LASIK has crossed many pilots’ minds who don’t naturally meet the vision requirements to obtain their medical certificate.
After all, why go through the hassle of using corrective glasses or contact lenses day in, day out when an hour of surgery and few weeks of recovery can eliminate the need for them entirely?
It’s a good question, and there are many, many pilots out there who are very happy with the results they have obtained.
However, considering that there is no quality more important to a pilot than their vision, it is important that as a pilot you understand the full picture of LASIK, including any dangers and complications.
So it’s not so much a question of can you become a pilot with LASIK (because you absolutely can, including serving as a pilot in the Air Force and Military), but should you get LASIK.
Dangers & Complications of LASIK as a Pilot
LASIK is generally extremely safe and effective.
According to WebMD, 96%-98% of LASIK patients end up with 20/20 vision, and 40-50% end up with vision that is better than 20/20. This fulfills the vision requirements for third-class, second-class, and first-class medical certificates.
Keep in mind, though, that even if the surgery is considered a success, in some cases pilots may still not enjoy perfect vision, and require corrective glasses or contact lenses to correct residual refractive errors, or reading glasses in the event of overcorrection.
Serious vision-threatening complications at under 1% are low, though of course still exist.
However, it’s the more likely, non-serious vision-threatening adverse effects and complications that pilots are usually more concerned about, considering that they could have a significant effect on visual performance in the cockpit.
Adverse effects and complications that can affect a pilot’s ability to fly include:
- Worsening of the variability of vision
- Haziness of vision
Typically, for the vast majority of pilots, any haziness or worsening of the variability of vision stabilizes within 3 months, and night-glare fully diminishes within 6 months. That can still be a long-time if you are a commercial pilot and receive compensation for flying, though.
Other Factors Pilots Should Consider Before Undergoing LASIK
Besides the dangers and complications mentioned, there are several factors and questions any pilot should ask themselves if interested in undergoing LASIK surgery.
- Career Impact – Is the risk vs reward worth it in the event the surgery does not go as perfectly as planned?
- Eye conditions – Do you have or have you ever had any conditions that affect your eyesight other than those that require the use of corrective glasses or contact lenses?
- Corneal Thickness – Not every pilot has sufficient corneal thickness for LASIK
- Medications – Do you currently take any medication that can impact healing?
- Refraction – Is your prescription particularly strong? Do you only require the use of contact lenses and glasses some of the time?
- Overcorrection/Undercorrection – Are you willing to accept that overcorrection or undercorrection may occur, and more than one surgery might be required?
- Length of Results – Long-term results are not guaranteed, so if you hope that this will be the first and last time you have LASIK, even if the surgery is a success, you may be disappointed
FAA Regulations After Surgery
The FAA expects a pilot not to resume flying until an eyesight specialist has determined that vision is stable, there has been no significant complications or adverse effects after surgery, and the appropriate FAA vision standards for the pilot’s particular license have been met.
Furthermore, the eyesight specialist must document their determinations in the pilot’s health treatment record. This record must be forwarded to the Aerospace Medical Certification Division, and a personal copy should be retained.
Airline Regulations After Surgery
There are no universal regulations that all commercial airlines follow until they allow their pilots to get back to work.
Some allow pilots to resume duties as soon as an Aviation Medical Examiner says they can; others allow for a 6-week healing and stabilization period; while others still require a period of 12 weeks or even longer.
Monovision LASIK for Pilots
Some pilots are interested in undergoing Monovision LASIK, which is correcting one eye for distant vision and the other for near vision.
In these cases, the FAA requires a pilot to initially wear corrective glasses or contact lenses for near vision while operating an aircraft. It is only after a 6-month period of adaption that a medical flight test can be taken that, if passed, the monovision requirement is removed from their medical certificate.
LASIK vs. PRK for Pilots
PRK is another option pilots can consider, though most opt for LASIK.
LASIK is considered the better option due to its faster visual recovery, less risk of vision haze or corneal scarring, less potential discomfort, faster healing, and lower risk of poor night vision.
Pilots with higher refractive error are also a better match for LASIK.
LASIK for Military Pilots & Fighter Pilots
Air Force (Can Fighter Pilots Get LASIK?)
The Air Force state that any applicant who has undergone LASIK or PRK is eligible to apply, as long as it has been one year from the date of surgery.
Vision requirements differ between before starting flight school and after finishing.
Before starting flight school, near vision acuity of 20/30 without correction is required, and distant vision acuity of no worse than 20/70 that is correctable to 20/20 is also required.
Once flight training has been completed, vision must not deteriorate beyond 20/400, and must also be correctable to 20/20.
Military (Navy, Marine Corps, and Army)
The Navy and Marine Corps both have different vision requirements than to the Army, but one thing they all have in common is that they allow for LASIK and PRK.
For the Army, applicants must have no worse than 20/50 vision, which is correctable to 20/20. Once flight training has been completed, vision must be no worse than 20/400 and must be correctable to 20/20.
For the Navy and Marine Corps, applicants must have no worse than 20/40 vision, which is correctable to 20/40. Once flight training has been completed, vision must be no worse than 20/400 and must be correctable to 20/20, otherwise, the pilot will be restricted to operating aircraft with dual controls.