The medical was something I hadn’t immediately considered. The government decides if you are physiologically fit to fly, and if you’re not, I guess its time to find a new hobby. The motor vehicle licencing archetype – the car / motorcycle, only requires a simple on-site vision test.
The aviation medical must be conducted by a doctor from a prescribed list of Transport Canada Aviation Medical Examiners. Aviation forums gave suggested some examiners in the general area who were reputed to charge less for the medical; in the end I chose the doctor who was closest to my workplace.
In Canada the medical certificate has varying periods of validity depending on your age, and the category of medical certificate. A Category 1 is the most stringent and is required for a commercial licence. A few extra items are added to the test battery, such as an electrocardiogram and XXX tests.
I opted for the less stringent Category 3.
The doctor was in an office tower in the town’s secondary business district. I discovered on entering that he was also in the cosmetic enhancement business, and the office showed that it was quite profitable, or at least striving to be. The waiting area was decorated with sleek sofas, coffee tables, and glossy high end lifestyle magazines.
A strawberry blonde in scrubs – who I’ll call Miranda – stood at the reception desk.
“I’m here for an aviation medical” I said. I felt badass, though they must do them all the time.
Miranda welcomed me and asked me to fill out a Transport Canada form – the first of many. I filled in my particulars and wrote “mitral valve prolapse” when it asked about heart conditions. I produced a urine sample. On the way back from the bathroom with my brown paper bag I ran into the doctor off to fetch something from his car. He wore scrubs, trendy running shoes and the key to a BMW.
The office was probably profitable.
Miranda took the sample and ushered me into the back for a vision test. I stood at a prescribed length and read off the letters without the aid of my eyeglasses. Near the bottom rows of the smallest charts I told her I was just guessing.
After the vision test I underwent a colour vision test. Colour vision is usually tested using “Ishihara plates” – a standardized set of coloured dot patterns contained in a circle. Dr Ishihara published the tests in 1917.
The dots have different hues, and on some of the plates a subset of the dots are arranged in a certain pattern with slightly differing hues to to show a number. On other plates there is nothing embedded in the pattern, although persons with deviant colour vision may suggest there is a number therein or mistake one number for another, or perhaps report a empty pattern when there is in fact a number present.
Miranda produced a well worn hardcover book of plates and asked me to simply state the number contained in the pattern, if there was one.
The first few were easy.
“Seven” I said.
She flipped the page.
“Three” I said next.
“Four” came afterwards.
Eventually she showed me a circle of dots that seemed like just a circle of dots – no pattern – no number.
“Umm, there’s no number in that one.” I ventured.
She flipped the page.
“Six” I said.
The next one was more ambiguous still. I thought I saw the curve of the number three, but couldn’t be sure. I thought perhaps the curves repeated and created the number eight. I strained my eyes out of habit, but this wasn’t a problem of focus. It was a question of anatomy, and there was nothing I could consciously do about it. I felt a little hopeless. There was certainly no way to cheat.
“Umm, I really don’t know. I think it’s a three.”
Miranda flipped to the back of the book and told me that I’d answered incorrectly on 2 of 14 plates. That would be a decent score on any conventional test, but this test required a perfect mark to pass. I had first encountered the Ishihara plates in a high school biology textbook and had noted with some amusement then that I couldn’t see what I was supposed to see in some of them. Now it was official.
After the colour vision test I waited for the doctor, and perused the different cosmetic enhancements on offer, in glossy brochures produced and distributed by the vendors of the enhancing technology. I opined in a few cases that the patients should have saved their money. “Surrender gracefully the things of youth,” the poem goes. In fairness some have had a youth easier than others.
The doctor came in and asked the same questions I had answered with my pencil a few minutes ago. I lay flat while he listened for signs of my mitral valve prolapse, but no murmurs, gurgles or other hydraulic abnormalities were heard. I was measured and weighed.
“You’re a pretty skinny guy” he remarked.
He suggested that I go to an optometrist for a more sophisticated colour vision test, called the “Farnsworth D15” – and noted optimistically that most people who fail the Ishihara plates can pass the D15 test. I thought “Farnsworth D15” sounded exactly like the sort of psychological experiment that has been banned by advances in published scientific ethics.
“Just have the optometrist fax me the results before I send my results to Transport. If you have a failed colour vision test it’ll be endless hassle for you later on.”
I thanked him, paid, and left. Back at the office my coworkers immediately – in jest, I think – started holding up random objects and asked me to state what colour they were. I said, based on my Google research, that I could not tell the difference between dark green and black, and if there had been questionable coordination choices in my wardrobe they should have said so earlier. They also offered to help me study for the D15 test but this was decidedly a hardware-level problem, and not something that could be amended by a patch.
I called around several optometrists in the area and inquired about the availability of the Farnsworth D15. Each office offered it, but at wildly different prices. I chose the cheaper one at an office with good internet reviews.
A few days later I took the D15. The optometrist produced a set of coloured pucks in a case. There was some confusion when she wasn’t sure whether I was to do the test in the monocular or binocular mode. She consulted some manuals first, but eventually the optometrist and the functionary in her chair resorted to our common fount of knowledge, Google. I found the citation on the Transport Canada site first. Growing up with the internet and working as a bureaucrat for two years had some dividends.
The test was simple. The coloured pucks had hues ranging from a light red to a violet-blue, passing through green. Starting with the light red puck, I had to arrange the pucks in order of hue, ending up with the violet-blue puck.
I broke the problem down. The light reds and the violet-blues of the spectrum were easily ordered. The intervening greens were problematic. I had a well ordered red spectrum and blue spectrum and somehow I had to bridge them correctly using the greens. I experimented with the remaining three pucks until it looked right.
The optometrist suggested that I take my line of pucks out to the window to confirm my arrangement under all colour temperatures. Seemed OK to me. I figured this wasn’t the kind of test where there would be veiled warnings if I were wrong.
She flipped the pucks over. On each puck there was a number. The numbers ascended in order from 1 – 15. I’d passed! I paid for what was probably the easiest-ever test to administer.
A week or so later, my medical certificate arrived.
Although the aviation medical examiner had offered to wait for my secondary colour test results to come in, some bureaucratic mix-up was made and Transport Canada sent me a medical certificate restrictions.
“Day VFR with operating 2-way radio only.”
In plain language it meant that I could only fly during the day, in an airplane with a radio, under weather conditions that allowed me to see the ground. At night, and / or during the day in an airplane with no radio, pilots must be able to interpret coloured light signals from the ground and other airplanes, and since Transport Canada thought I had degraded colour vision, they had issued me a certificate confining me to day flight with a radio only.
Some phone calls to the doctor’s office, the optometrist, and Transport Canada cleared things up and they issued me an unrestricted medical. Civil Aviation Medicine was surprisingly – civil. A human being picked up the phone immediately. There was no waiting on hold. One employee even recognized my voice on the phone. If all government service could be like that our taxes would probably be higher.
The medical was one hurdle cleared. Although you do not need a medical certificate to begin flight training, you do need one to be licenced. The flight instructors had encouraged everyone to get the medical early in case there was some hidden condition precluding a licence. One instructor recounted the story of an unfortunate student who suffered from seizures. Since he only required medication for it once a month, he had thought nothing of it. When Transport Canada could not issue him a certificate, he had already spent several thousand dollars on training.