Both in film and in real life, Pilots usually have a great look – but it doesn’t get more iconic, important, and functional than a pilot’s sunglasses. This may leave you wondering ‘what sunglasses do pilots wear?’
Most pilots wear non-polarized Aviator sunglasses, either in the classic ‘teardrop’ or ‘squared’ shape. The sunglasses usually fit well, and feature high quality grey tinted lenses to protect their eyes from the sun’s UV rays, and thin temples to allow headwear to be worn on top.
It’s especially important in aviation, as the higher you go, the less atmosphere there is to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays, which can lead to slight problems.
Read on for more information about the sunglasses styles and specifications worn by pilots, guidelines that they should follow, if pilots should wear polarized lenses, and famous looks from film and TV.
Which Sunglasses Do Pilots Wear?
When you think of a stereotypical pilot, you probably either picture Tom Cruise, or a man in a uniform – in both cases, they’re probably wearing a pair of Aviator style sunglasses.
In this case, the stereotype isn’t a lie – metal Aviators with grey lenses are one of the most common sunglasses styles among pilots, both in the ‘teardrop’ and ‘squared’ shapes.
Specifically, the sunglasses most commonly worn by the air force and fighter pilots in (military) history have been:
- Ray-Ban Teardrop Aviator
- American Optical/Randolph Engineering Squared HGU-4/P Aviator
And the reason for this is really in the name – they are ‘Aviators’, because they were designed specifically for aviation (covered more in depth later).
However, despite the popularity of Aviators from their military heritage, unless there’s a strict dress code, or you’re supplied with a pair, most pilots wear any sunglasses style they want – some like wrap around sports sunglasses, and some like Wayfarers.
Adding to this, there isn’t one dominant brand – many pilots have been known to wear sunglasses from:
- American Optical
- Randolph Engineering
- Oliver Peoples
What Sunglasses SHOULD Pilots Wear?
Regardless of their style and make, pilots should wear sunglasses that follow a set of generally accepted guidelines when flying.
Following these guidelines is important, as a pair with unrecommended specifications could make flying harder, or put the flight at risk.
The Civil Aviation Authority and Federal Aviation Administration have outlined some things to look for, which I’ve compiled below:
- Your lenses should NOT be polarized.
- Your lenses should provide 99-100% UVA and UVB protection, and should be made from a high quality and reputable lens material, such as glass, polycarbonate, or CR-39 plastic. Most sunglasses use one of these.
- The sunglasses should have a neutral tint and should have minimal colour distortion. Grey is recommended, as it distorts colour the least.
- The lens shouldn’t absorb more than 85% of light, which falls within category four lenses. Therefore, the sunglasses should have category three lenses, or below.
- The sunglasses should fit well and comfortably – you could be wearing them for a long time, so shouldn’t be too tight that they start hurting after a while, or too loose that they fall off.
- Your sunglasses should provide as much coverage as possible, including the sides – when you’re in a cockpit, light comes at you from all angles, especially in the sky where clouds disperse light. Small lenses allow too much light and UV rays to pass around the edges of the frame, so should be avoided.
- Your sunglasses shouldn’t have transition or ‘photochromic’ lenses. Among other reasons, as transition lenses darken in response to UV rays, and cockpit glass blocks UV rays, they are less effective – you will need sunglasses with permanently tinted lenses.
- You can wear gradient lenses, where it’s more tinted at the top, and less at the bottom.
- You can wear any frame style, but they must not interfere with headsets or other protective equipment.
Though unrelated to the type of sunglasses a pilot should wear, they also mention that you shouldn’t wear sunglasses over prescription spectacles, or during night flying – though, that’s really common sense.
To add to this, enthusiasts bring up other non ‘official’ points, that you may want to consider:
- You should wear sunglasses with high quality frames, as they will get thrown around a lot, and need to be able to take a beating.
- Look for sunglasses with fin/bayonet tips (like the Randolph Engineering HGU-4/P), to help them fit more comfortably over a helmet or headset.
- Buy sunglasses with slim earpieces, to reduce the potential of them painfully pushing into the sides of your head when wearing them under a helmet or headset.
- The colour of your lenses has an affect on how your sunglasses will benefit you:
- Red, green or brown lenses make contrast easier to see, but slightly distort the perception of colour. As colour vision is important in aviation, depending on how intense the colour distortion is, they may interfere – generally though, they don’t interfere that much.
- Grey lenses are best for keeping light out, and minimally interfere with the perception of colour. These are good for pilots who don’t know if they want coloured lenses or not.
Should Pilots Wear Polarized Sunglasses?
When normal omni-directional light (which has light waves vibrating in all directions, horizontally, vertically, and in between) bounces off of a reflective surface, it can become ‘polarized’. This means that all of the light waves fall into sync, and vibrate only in one direction, usually horizontally.
This polarized light generally produces an intense bright glare, which can be dangerous and uncomfortable – polarised lenses filter out these intense light rays that have fallen into sync.
Despite the benefit of glare reduction, the CAA and FAA suggest that pilots shouldn’t wear sunglasses with polarized lenses, as they can distort a pilot’s vision of certain things essential for flying. Therefore, polarized sunglasses are not good for pilots.
There are a couple of reasons for this, but it all stems from the fact that polarized lenses only let in light waves at certain angles:
- As most aircraft windscreens are already polarized, viewing them through polarized lenses at certain angles leads to an oil slick like distortion, which drastically reduces visibility.
- It is easier to spot other aircraft when there is some sort of sun glare reflecting from them.
- Modern airplanes use LCD displays, which already have an anti-glare filter, and emit polarized light. Therefore, as polarized sunglasses only let in either horizontal or vertical light waves, they block the LCD light when you view it from certain angles, meaning you may only see a black screen. For example, if your sunglasses only let in horizontal light, horizontal polarized LCD light waves will pass through, but if you tilt your head to a clockwise 90 degree angle, the filter is now vertical, and blocks out the emitted light.
- They change the appearance of clouds, and reduce ground reflections, which are sometimes useful.
All in all, polarized lenses either make things harder to see, block things entirely, or distort things – in any case, they’re not helpful.
Here is a good video talking about the science behind this in greater detail:
Which Sunglasses do Pilots Wear in Film?
Like in most areas, as aviation in film usually borrows from its mainstream perception, most film pilots wear some form of Aviator style.
In Top Gun, arguably one of the most famous films about pilots, Tom Cruise wears a pair of Ray-Ban’s famous gold framed ‘teardrop’ Aviators.
Alternatively, the American Optical and Randolph Engineering squared style is also popular, and is seen worn by Brie Larson in Captain Marvel.
Other sunglasses are seen, though the above Aviator styles are most common.
Why are Aviator Sunglasses So Popular Among Pilots?
As a quick history lesson, in 1936, a prototype of the ‘teardrop’ style was developed by a collaboration between the US Air Corps, and Bausch & Lomb (now Ray-Ban), as a more practical alternative to flight goggles that didn’t fog up at high altitude.
Originally featuring a plastic frame, it was redesigned with a metal frame and introduced into the military in 1939, in time for the Second World War (though, it wasn’t worn during flying), and became known as the ‘Ray-Ban Aviator’.
It was at this point that they started selling this teardrop style to the general public, making it one of the first sunglasses styles released commercially.
Their use in the military continued until 1959 when the ‘Flight Goggle 58’, produced by ‘American Opticals’, was introduced, which followed the new US military ‘Type HGU-4/P’ Aviator sunglasses standard.
These sunglasses borrowed many features from the original teardrop shape, but most notably had a more rectangular frame (which gave slightly less coverage), and were slightly lighter.
This new design allowed pilot’s visors to easily close with the sunglasses on, and featured bayonet temples to make wearing it over a helmet more comfortable.
In 1982, a different company, ‘Randolph Engineering’, became the contractor for producing the same HGU-4/P style sunglasses, and to this day still produce standard issue Flight Goggle 58 sunglasses for American military pilots.
So, given both of these styles have had, and continue to have, wide use in militaries, like most things, it’s no surprise that the Aviator style (and these brands) have become popular amongst all pilots, and are really the definitive pilot sunglasses style.
On top of this, as they’re some of the oldest sunglasses shapes, they are considered ‘classic’, making them timeless and ‘stylish’. Furthermore, they have gained popularity from many films and public figures over the years, who have championed the styles.
So, now you know which sunglasses pilots wear, the specifications they should follow, and if you should wear polarized sunglasses.
Now all that’s left to do is to find a pair that fits the bill, and take to the skies!