Vision in Flight

Of all the senses, vision is the most important for safe flight. Most of the things perceived while flying are visual or heavily supplemented by vision. As remarkable and vital as it is, vision is subject to limitations, such as illusions and blind spots. The more a pilot understands about the eyes and how they function, the easier it is to use vision effectively and compensate for potential problems.


The eye functions much like a camera. Its structure includes an aperture, a lens, a mechanism for focusing, and a surface for registering images. Light enters through the cornea at the front of the eyeball, travels through the lens, and falls on the retina. The retina contains light sensitive cells that convert light energy into electrical impulses that travel through nerves to the brain. The brain interprets the electrical signals to form images. There are two kinds of light-sensitive cells in the eyes: rods and cones. [Figure 17-12]

Figure 17-12. The human eye.

Figure 17-12. The human eye. [click image to enlarge]

The cones are responsible for all color vision, from appreciating a glorious sunset to discerning the subtle shades in a fine painting. Cones are present throughout the retina, but are concentrated toward the center of the field of vision at the back of the retina. There is a small pit called the fovea where almost all the light sensing cells are cones. This is the area where most “looking” occurs (the center of the visual field where detail, color sensitivity, and resolution are highest).

While the cones and their associated nerves are well suited to detecting fine detail and color in high light levels, the rods are better able to detect movement and provide vision in dim light. The rods are unable to discern color but are very sensitive at low-light levels. The trouble with rods is that a large amount of light overwhelms them, and they take longer to “reset” and adapt to the dark again. There are so many cones in the fovea that are at the very center of the visual field but virtually has no rods at all. So in low light, the middle of the visual field is not very sensitive, but farther from the fovea, the rods are more numerous and provide the major portion of night vision.

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Vision Types

There are three types of vision: photopic, mesopic, and scotopic. Each type functions under different sensory stimuli or ambient light conditions. [Figure 17-13]

Figure 17-13. Types of vision.

Figure 17-13. Types of vision. [click image to enlarge]

Photopic Vision

Photopic vision provides the capability for seeing color and resolving fine detail (20/20 or better), but it functions only in good illumination. Photopic vision is experienced during daylight or when a high level of artificial illumination exists.

The cones concentrated in the fovea centralis of the eye are primarily responsible for vision in bright light. [Figure 17-12] Because of the high light level, rhodopsin, which is a biological pigment of the retina that is responsible for both the formation of the photoreceptor cells and the first events in the perception of light, is bleached out causing the rod cells to become less effective.

Mesopic Vision

Mesopic vision is achieved by a combination of rods and cones and is experienced at dawn, dusk, and during full moonlight. Visual acuity steadily decreases as available light decreases and color perception changes because the cones become less effective. Mesopic viewing period is considered the most dangerous period for viewing. As cone sensitivity decreases, pilots should use off-center vision and proper scanning techniques to detect objects during low-light levels.

Scotopic Vision

Scotopic vision is experienced under low-light levels and the cones become ineffective, resulting in poor resolution of detail. Visual acuity decreases to 20/200 or less and enables a person to see only objects the size of or larger than the big “E” on visual acuity testing charts from 20 feet away. In other words, a person must stand at 20 feet to see what can normally be seen at 200 feet under daylight conditions. When using scotopic vision, color perception is lost and a night blind spot in the central field of view appears at low light levels when the cone-cell sensitivity is lost.


Central Blind Spot

The area where the optic nerve connects to the retina in the back of each eye is known as the optic disk. There is a total absence of cones and rods in this area, and consequently, each eye is completely blind in this spot. [Figure 17-14] As a result, it is referred to as the blind spot that everyone has in each eye. Under normal binocular vision conditions (both eyes are used together), this is not a problem because an object cannot be in the blind spot of both eyes at the same time. On the other hand, where the field of vision of one eye is obstructed by an object (windshield divider or another aircraft), a visual target could fall in the blind spot of the other eye and remain undetected.

Figure 17-14. Central blind spot.

Figure 17-14. Central blind spot.

Figure 17-15 provides a dramatic example of the eye’s blind spot.

  1. Hold this page at an arm’s length.
  2. Completely cover your left eye (without closing or pressing on it) using your hand or other flat object.
  3. With your right eye, stare directly at the airplane on the left side of the picture page. In your periphery, you will notice the black X on the right side of the picture.
  4. Slowly move the page closer to you while continuing to stare at the airplane.
  5. When the page is about 16–18 inches from you, the black X should disappear completely because it has been imaged onto the blind spot of your right eye. (Resist the temptation to move your right eye while the black X is gone or else it reappears. Keep staring at the airplane.)
  6. As you continue to look at the airplane, keep moving the page closer to you a few more inches, and the black X will come back into view.
  7. There is an interval where you are able to move the page a few inches backward and forward, and the black X will be gone. This demonstrates to you the extent of your blind spot.
  8. You can try the same thing again, except this time with your right eye covered stare at the black X with your left eye. Move the page in closer and the airplane will disappear.

Figure 17-15. The eye’s blind spot.

Figure 17-15. The eye’s blind spot. [click image to enlarge]

Another way to check your blind spot is to do a similar test outside at night when there is a full moon. Cover your left eye, looking at the full moon with your right eye. Gradually move your right eye to the left (and maybe slightly up or down). Before long, all you will be able to see is the large halo around the full moon; the entire moon itself will seem to have disappeared.

Empty-Field Myopia

Empty-field myopia is a condition that usually occurs when flying above the clouds or in a haze layer that provides nothing specific to focus on outside the aircraft. This causes the eyes to relax and seek a comfortable focal distance that may range from 10 to 30 feet. For the pilot, this means looking without seeing, which is dangerous. Searching out and focusing on distant light sources, no matter how dim, helps prevent the onset of empty-field myopia.

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