Too bad you’ll never be a pilot

Too bad you’ll never be a pilot as much as you love airplanes.

I heard that many, many times as a young man. You see, I was born with 20/400 vision in my right eye. Today we call that a lazy eye condition. It could have been corrected before the age of five if only they had known. In school when I took a vocational aptitude test, pilot came out on top. Surprisingly enough, minister and funeral director came out on the bottom. I wonder how many pilots would like to make their avocation the church or a funeral parlor? So, I was doomed to a life behind a desk, or so I thought.

In the summer of 1957, I worked in the flight test engineering group at Sikorsky Aircraft. Can you believe that? An irresponsible and immature 21-year old with three years of engineering behind him and an attitude that would get you fired at Sporty’s! My boss was a member of the Sikorsky Flying Club. After telling him about my eye and how much I wanted to fly, he told me there was a waiver process. He took me to see an FAA person in the building who had a pilot’s license and sure enough, it was true.

Hal Shevers
Hal Shevers, teaching a 3-day ground school in the 1960s

When I got back to Purdue in September, I went to a crusty, old, ex-military flight surgeon who was practicing in Lafayette, Indiana. After my eye examination, he laughed and said, “Son, you’ll never be able to be a pilot.” I told him there was a waiver process and he said to forget it. I convinced him to complete the physical and send it to the FAA. As I was leaving he said, “Son, if you get a medical, bring it down here, I want to see it.” He was sure he would never see me again, but three weeks later one brassy kid, even brassier than I am now, showed up with a third class medical (for student pilot purposes only) and bragged to this crusty, old (like 45 or 50) flight surgeon.

That was a mistake!

He essentially lost his cool, told me I was a smart-ass kid, and never to come back. That’s when I learned that people in general don’t want to learn the facts — especially if they have been wrong. Four months later I was a private pilot.

This is how my flying career got started. As a kid my family would take Sunday afternoon car trips to destinations one of us would pick — I always popped up with “an airport.” We went to such airports as Flushing, Armonk, LaGuardia and a few others I can’t remember. I think my mother was bored as hell, but Dad seemed to enjoy it. Not until Dad passed away, and I found stock certificates for Brunner Winkle Aircraft Company on Long Island, did I realize he had invested in the company in the 1920s. I also have vivid memories of a blimp flying over our home in the late 1930s and seeing the people in the gondola waving to me. It may have been just before the accident in Lakehurst.

As you can see, flying is in my blood. That’s why “having to” go to the airport every morning for the last 50 years is something I looked forward to. And you know, I hope I “have to” do it for another 50 years! Don’t tell the FAA that my right eye is 20/400….my waiver states 20/200! I can almost see the big E.

17 Comments

  • http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/avs/offices/aam/ame/guide/app_process/exam_tech/et/31-34/mv/
    That link explains monocular vision in pilots and how you can still receive a medical certificate of any class.

    I wanted to be a pilot since I could speak. I flew RC planes throughout my childhood, studied and obsessed over airplanes my entire life. I was told by pilot after pilot and examiner after examiner that i’d never be able to fly. Long story short I have a lazy eye and I can hardly even see the eye chart with my right eye. Now I have a first class medical, I’m instrument rated and a multi-engine commercial pilot. Truly a dream come true. Just had to meet the right people who actually knew what they were talking about.

  • Thank you for this article. Although I received a wavier for a lazy left eye (20/400 corrected to 20/40) I never thought that I would be able to achieve a First Class certificate because of a less than 20/20 correction. Time to rethink that line of thought!

  • Great job persevering to both Hal and Brandon! I think the best takeaway from this was Hal’s observation that people in general don’t want to know the facts. I find I am running up against this in trying to persuade family members about what is coming down the pipe (in terms of the looming currency reset) and what to do about it. But, my admonitions merely fall on deaf ears. I think the best advice is to seek the truth as best as you are able, and hope to lead by example.

  • Hal, great article, I hope it reaches some young people who can benefit from it. I believed “them” when they told me my lazy eye meant I’d never work as a pilot, and now, at 50, I’m stuck behind a desk, but I finally have that 3rd class with student priviliges only, and will be working to earn my private by the end of summer. After parents, teachers, school counselors, and an Air Force recruiter all told me a person with less than 20/20 in both eyes would never fly, I actually started to avoid airports, planes, and anything aviation related, until recently I mentioned to a friend who flies, my lifelong disappointment. He set me straight, and I’m on my way. I’ve never really had a job I liked, and I envy those who make a living flying anything, but that first time I successfully went around the pattern without help is a feeling I’ll never forget.

  • There is SO much misinformation out there . . .

    At age 17, I was told “You wear glasses, you can’t be a pilot.”

    The FAA disagrees – and I’ve been a pilot for over 30 years.

    Always check for yourself, “common knowledge” is invariably wrong.

  • Hi. I am from South Africa and would realy love to become a pilot. Does anybody have any advice about where I could go in SouthAfrica for that waiver?
    I have a lazy right eye aswell…

    • Dear Hein,
      65 y/o pilot in US. that traveled in 1970 via motor cycle in your country to the Congo and back to ZA IN FOUR months.

      Rode with Bill Bramwell of Roberts Construction Company,JBH, in a Cessna 411, right seat, to Kitwie Zambia and past Royal Airforce flight ace in the Battle of Briton, Dan Murchand. Had pilot certificate for three years then.

      Loved seeing JBH and Kariba dam and lake from the air.
      Also flew over the Falls. Google Earth has it all now.

      Never give up on the flight. Wife, son and I are all pilots and have Piper Arrow. Love your country in the 70’s Have friend in Ladysmith.

      Do not give up.

  • As a high school student, an optometrist expressed dismay over my plans to become a physician– because of my high myopia (marked nearsightedness, about minus 10 diopters). Although his comment was disturbing, I persevered, and am now retired from a long career in academic medicine and medical management in industry. Moreover, in the early 1980s, I earned my private pilot and instrument tickets, and have owned all or part of 3 airplanes– currently the temporary custodian of a nice ’46 Aeronca Chief. To any aspiring airman with physical limitations, the stories told above make the point: get the facts, not the opinions of the ignorant-but-well-meaning. You might be pleasantly surprised and live that dream despite all.

  • Good article! I too have one poor eye and was told to forget being a pilot at 16 – an on numerous occasions afterwards. Well – I’m now 45 and hold a UK National Private Pilot’s Licence (qualified last year) and I’m still pinching myself!!! (and still smiling – ever since the day I went solo – a day I had so many *experts* telling me would never happen!. It will shortly transfer to the new European Sport Pilot Licence and my doc, who’s now also an AME, thinks there may be a way through to getting the JAR licence.

    • Hi Iain, I to am from the UK (Aberdeen) but was hoping to get a 3rd class medical to fly in the US. I have a lazy eye quite bad maybe 20/60. Can you tell me who to contact about the medical if possible. Many Thanks for your help in advance.

      • Aaron, as an ophthalmologist and former AME, I’d recc an AME who is an ophthalmologist and can certify and fill out the waiver with one visit. Any AME could do this, but would require an additional visit to an eye professional to fill out the waiver.

  • Well, great story Hall!
    Can I tell you guys mine? So, I’m a 21 years guy that wanna become a brazillian fighter pilot. When I was 14 me and my parents went into an airshow – the air demonstration squad show – of very skilled airforce pilots. When they arrived and that engine sound started to pass through my body it was like if I could see a window to my future. After that I started to go studying and reading the rules such as psychological and Physical requirements and medical restrictions. A friend of mine lent me a book with all of that to enter into EPCAR, a military high school that prepares students to the airforce academy, where they form brazillian airforce oficial pilots.
    But guess what? I had a problem, a certain line specified that was prohibited whatever eye problem you had. I went into tears and “gave up” on that dream. What I didn’t notice was that the airforce academy had an exame that everyone could took from the ages of 18 to 21. Till I got 19 when a friend of mine talked about that exam, so i starded to look after information about the exam itself, course and a way to get rid of my eye problem. Then, everything changed. I said to my parents that in parallel to my college I would study hard to become a fighter pilot. At that moment I was 20 years old already and near the exam, so there was no time to study hard to make it happens. I did the exam to test myself, and went really good, but not enough. I started to study really hard, getting rid of excuses and focusing on my objective. I began to take physical exercices every single day. One last chance, one shot to make the difference. I went two times into an eye surgery, got succes with that.
    Everything was going right, I didn’t mentioned a long talking about my dreams to my grandad and how he gave me hope. But at the same year he went away, it was a big nightmare to me at that crucial time where I should focus on my studies.
    Today, I’m 21 years old and didn’t became a pilot yet. My last chance? Maybe gone, but now i’m going to take another path, the brazillian navy has a small(really small) fighter squad which is harder to get in. They offer no suport and only 2 cadets from the naval school can pass into the course, and besides, there is a few flight hours. Most of the work is done into the carrier/base.
    But you know what? I’m not going to give up on my dream, takes what it takes! I was born to fly.

    ps.: It’s only a resume guys…PEACE!

  • Hi, I’m from Colombia my dream has always been to be a pilot, but I have in my left eye amblyopia (20/70) but my right eye (20/20) and my binocular vision (20/20). My question is if there is any way to have a Class 1 medical certificate. I heard about SODA one excepcion test, this would help? thanks. sorry for my English

  • Hi great article, I was in an options today’s getting my eyes tested I have always used glasses full time since I was around 8 I am mow 17. I was talking to the women doing my eye test and she ask me what I wanted to do after I leave school and I said I wanted to become a pilot and she said you eyesight would not meet the FAA requirement standard I don’t know do maybe she didn’t know about standard of becoming a pilot
    Any edvice or do you think I should go see a aeromedical doctor about this??
    Hope to hear for you soon

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