The Eye and Aviation (1918)

By Capt Conrad Berens, M. C .

Experience has shown that the men who wrote the first blake for the examination of the Aviator were wise when they demanded that the flier’s eyes be free from disease and that he should have normal sight, color vision and the power to judge distance quickly and accurately. In many instances where a waiver was granted for some ocular defect, serious and even fatal accidents have occurred to those very individuals in whose favor the waivers were granted.

Fortunately for those of us who are trying to keep the eyes in condition for flying, the necessity for keen vision, normal color vision and the proper coordination of the ocular muscles in the judgment of distance, is well recognized by the fliers; particularly by the men who have been over the lines. Many of the best fliers say that the two most important things in getting the Huns it to see him first and to shoot straighter than he does. Naturally, the eye plays the master part in both of these acts, although knowing how and where to look is also a factor. However, even though you know how and where to look you will be at a great disadvantage if you can’t see as well as your antagonist does. There is some confusion in the average mind as to the meaning of farsight and as the farsighted man does not necessarily see well at a distance, it is better to to use the scientific term hypermetropia in speaking of this condition. At first little attention was paid to hypermetropia but it was soon realized that the men who were very hypermetropia were in many cases unsafe as pilots, due the weakening effect of altitude, upon the muscles of the eyes and therefore extremely hypermetropia men are disqualified.

Our collection, America and World War I: American Military Camp Newspapers, addresses a topic and period that continues to be of the widest interest and importance to scholars, students, and the general public – America in the World War I Era. Camp newspapers make important original source material—much of it written by soldiers for soldiers—readily available for research.

Color vision has been the cause for disqualification of many men even though the tests used were not devised to detect color weakness, for only the definitely red-green blind are barred as pilots. The percentage of colorblind among men is three or four in a hundred and it seemed hard to disqualify men because they could not distinguish colors when they were otherwise physically perfect. But when we realize that not only the pilot’s life or observer’s life but also the lives of others may depend upon his prompt recognition of the color of a signal light, there is but one coupe to be followed. Furthermore, color vision is an aid in the reading of maps, recognizing uniforms and planes, discriminating between the different types of landing places and in orientating oneself by means of colored roofs and buildings.

“The day has passed when armies on the ground or navies on the sea can be the arbiter of a nation’s destiny in war. The main power of defense and the power of initiative against an enemy has passed to the air.” — Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, November 1918

Every aviator knows that the power to judge distance quickly and accurately is a great help in making landings and in combat, and therefore if he is sure that he is lacking in this power he is willing to seek a different branch of the service or a part of the Air Service, which does not require rapid and accurate judgment of distance. The sterescopic test and the balance and strength of the ocular muscles are used as a standard for determining a man’s ability to judge distance. Weakness in power of bringing the eyes together, particularly when it is combined with excessive power to separate the eyes may result in derangement of the function of judging distance, which often means a crash or a bad landing. The associated action of the eyes is an important factor in judging distance, although we know it is a part of the mechanism. There are instances on record of excellent fliers who have only one eye who, in spite of this defect, judge distance accurately and quickly. It is a well recognized fact that some men with only one useful eye learn to judge distance well while others, after the loss of an eye, are never able to play the games that require skill in this respect. However, learning to judge distances with one eye usually takes time and therefore if the power to use the eyes together is rapidly lost in the air, as we know it often is, a fatal accident may result.

Collection: America and World War I Part I. American Military Camp Newspapers
Source: Plane News, November 23, 1918

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