Every pilot needs a great pair of sunglasses.
In fact, they’re one of the most critical pieces of equipment a pilot owns.
Pilots always have to keep their heads on a swivel, and squinting is not an option.
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Pilot sunglasses are different from everyone else’s sunglasses. You don’t have to wear Aviator-style shades—unless you want to. But there are specific factors you’ll need to look for when shopping for your next pair of shades. In this article we’ll explore factors you should consider when picking out your sunglasses and share some of the best sunglasses for pilots available today.
The Importance of Sunglasses
Sunglasses are one of the most vital pieces of equipment in a pilot’s gear bag. Pilots rely on their eyes for all sorts of things—looking outside for traffic and when looking at instruments, tablets, and charts. The sun always comes at difficult angles, and glare is a constant annoyance.
Good glasses are more than a convenience—they’re safety equipment.
A pilot cannot see and avoid traffic if they are squinting and unable to look in a particular direction.
All it takes is one late afternoon landing on Runway 27 to convince you that great sunglasses should be on every pilot’s Minimum Equipment List.
Say No to Polarized
Polarized glasses are very popular with many folks for their ability to control glare. Boaters and beach bums love this because it helps them see through clear water or stop the eye strain caused by reflections. Unfortunately, polarized sunglasses aren’t the right choice for us pilots.
Polarized glasses can cause unpredictable, annoying, and even dangerous effects for pilots. Remember, the Aviator-style of glasses does not mean that they are not polarized—many brands sell the style with polarized lenses.
Polarized glasses work by limiting lightwaves’ direction through the lenses.
You can experiment with the effect by tilting your head in different directions when wearing polarized glasses. You’ll see light waves from different directions and block out others as you rotate the lenses.
The problem with this is the simple fact that they make random objects invisible.
What if the light they block came from the sunlight glinting off the wings of another plane?
Normally, that flash of light would draw your attention, and you’d see the traffic. Unfortunately, if you’re wearing polarized glasses, you might not get that initial clue.
Blacked Out LCDs
Polarized glasses also have the annoying tendency to make LCD and electronic displays impossible to read. Often these screens have their own polarized filter and can cancel when using two polarized lenses.
There’s also the fact that pilots often look at their displays from different angles. If a display is telling you something, you want to see it no matter which way your glasses are pointing.
Our eyes roam around as we scan the cockpit, and it shouldn’t matter which way our sunglasses are oriented.
Windscreen and Glass Anomalies
Finally, polarized glasses often create colored and dark patches and distortions through treated glass and plexiglass laminates- like those used in aircraft windows.
These dark patches are mostly annoying, but anything that limits a pilot’s vision out of the cockpit is bad news.
So in summary, the best sunglasses for pilots are ones that are non-polarized.
Things to Look For — Pilot Sunglasses
Aviators and Other Styles
The Ray-Ban Aviator was designed back in the 1930s to help pilots battle eye fatigue. That’s right; there’s more to it than just a name. The teardrop design and metal frames were purpose-built to reduce glare at high altitudes. Tom Cruise and the Aviator’s fashionability came much later.
You don’t have to wear Aviator-style glasses, but take a few clues from the design. For one, these glasses have large lenses that leave few (if any) gaps. You want the glasses to work no matter what angle the sun is coming at you. Wraps or Wayfarers are other good options for pilots.
Sunglasses come in a dizzying array of colors and lens options.
Generally, the best lenses are neutral grey and do not cause any color distortions. In addition, the best darkness allows between 15 and 30 percent of the light to come through.
Photochromatic lenses that darken automatically are not recommended since they take too long to react when the sunlight gets more intense.
All sunglasses you consider should block 100 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet light—this is key to protecting a pilot’s eyesight over the long term.
The best lenses are those made of glass by reputable manufacturers.
These tend to have the best clarity and superior optical qualities.
Polycarbonate lenses are more impact resistant and lighter weight, and the high-end brands make some excellent choices.
Generally, there aren’t any requirements for the frames other than those that are sturdy and can take daily use. However, the one exception is the earpieces, which must work comfortably underneath a pilot’s headset.
Sunglasses with very wide earpieces may create gaps in the headset seal, letting in more noise than necessary. And large earpieces can also get pressed into the pilot’s head, causing uncomfortable pressure or even pain after a few hours of flying.
The pilot should be able to put on and remove the glasses quickly and easily, even when wearing a headset.
Five Great Pairs of Pilot Sunglasses
The original—need we say more? Not everyone can wear them as well as Maverick, but we can all try.
Ray-Ban actually sells quite a few variations of the Aviators, with different sizes for different faces and slight variations on the style. In my experience, these are the best sunglasses for pilots. The Caravan has square lenses, while the Outdoorsman has wire temples that wrap around your ears for better security. You can also find them with mirrored lenses.
Randolph Engineering Aviator
Randolph initially built the Classic Aviators glasses for the US military to rugged standards. There are also a few other styles, including the Sportsman and the Concorde.
Randolph’s lenses are mineral glass and non-polarized. They block 100 percent of UVA and UVB light, along with BlueWave Light Blocking technology.
They’re hand-built in the US and feature bayonet-style temples that work well under headsets. The lenses also have an anti-reflective coating to reduce eye strain.
If you’re worried about the fashion component, both GQ and Men’s Journal have ranked them as the best aviator sunglasses out there.
Serengeti Velocities were designed for drivers and flyers to reduce glare and eye fatigue. Their claim to fame is their scientifically-advanced gradient lenses, which filter out blue light to reduce blurring and minimize haze.
The lenses are made of mineral glass and are not polarized. The frames are made out of robust titanium.
The Velocity is a wrap-style design, but the same excellent Serengeti lenses are also available in an Aviator style.
Looking for a more modern take without sacrificing those important pilot qualities? The Oakley Holebrook is a Wayfarer-style wrap that uses a thin plastic frame and polycarbonate lenses. They offer 100-percent UV protection and are not polarized.
Ray-Ban Predator (Non-Polarized)
Finally, here’s a modern take from a classic brand. While some might prefer the 1950s-chic Wayfarer plastic frames, Ray-Ban Predators strike most pilots as impractical. Those broad plastic frames and flat lenses create problems with your headset and let a lot of errant light in.
So instead, opt for a tighter wrap like these Predators. The plastic frames are narrow and fit well with most headsets. The lenses are plastic but well designed, and they offer a fair amount of coverage for light coming in at funny angles.