Roberto is a commercial pilot for a major airline company and currently flies the ATR72-500.
For every 1,000 feet increase in altitude, exposure to UV radiation from the sun increases by around 5%. Pilots flying mile-high are exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from the sun, and flying without proper sunglasses is definitely career-ending. Not only radiation, but the best sunglasses for pilots should also take care of excessive exposure to bright light, which can strain the eye so much that it might take several hours in adapting to dark in night flying conditions.
In this article, you will learn about the various parameters a pilot should keep in mind when choosing good aviation-friendly sunglasses. These standards are taken from the official guidelines of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Civil Aviation Authority of UK, Canadian Civil Aviation Medicine Branch and real world pilots.
Beyond Radiation and Bright Light
Pilots are not only exposed to increased radiation (both InfraRed and Ultraviolet Rays from the sun penetrate the atmosphere and reach the earth), but are also exposed to sudden physical impacts. What if there is a sudden birdstrike and the windscreen gives away? Scattered objects after sudden decompression, turbulence, banking, and debris from bird strike are all too familiar hazards. (On a side note, it is also important that pilots take special care to prevent any eye damages when performing activities like sports, household works, DIY carpentry or wood work and even mowing the lawn).
Basic Requirements of Sunglasses for Pilots
Pilot's Sunglasses Requirements List
- Non-Polarized Lenses
- Neutral Colors
- Blocks most of the harmful radiation up there
- Should be a snug Fit
How serious is the radiation exposure up in there?
Infrared (IR) and Ultraviolet rays (UV) are the main sun radiation hazards to the eyes in the sky. Even looking directly into the sun for a few seconds may cause the IR rays to cause completely career-ending effect in the eye. There are three types of UV rays: UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. Fortunately, UV-C are completely blocked by the ozone layer, so sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays perform the job in blocking the radiation.
What do the authorities recommend?
FAA recommends anywhere from 70% to 85% visible light reduction. Any blockage of light more than 85% is not recommended for flying as it may cause difficulty in reading instruments and written materials inside the cockpit. Fortunately, most stylish aviation-themed sunglasses block no more than 85% visible light while blocking 99%+ of UVA and UVB rays. FAA recommends 90% to 100% UVA and UVB protection.
Tints and Color - do they matter for sunglasses for flying?
Yes. The authorities and seasoned pilots recommend going for a neutral-density filter such as gray color. Why? Because gray color distorts any other colors the least.
Some pilots also find gray-green and brown tints useful as they boost vividness in colors and also minimize blue and violet lights. This greatly boosts contrast in hazy conditions. Speaking of hazy, it is to be noted that although there are tints like yellow, orange, red, amber-red and pink (which look stunning) that block scattered blue lights and help to sharpen vision, they significantly distort colors. Pilots have been known to have struggled to differentiate between colors in navigation lights, signal lights and even in instrument panel displays. Hence, such tints are to be avoided.
No Polarized Lenses, please!
Although polarized lenses provide excellent blockage of glare from water or snow (I know, we have all been there during the sunrise and sunset landings), they also eliminate visibility of instrument panels and other screens (iPads, instruments with anti-glare filters etc.). Moreover, the windscreen of an aircraft is already partially polarized, so further polarization may also be troublesome in figuring out light reflected from a potential hazard: light reflected from another aircraft’s wings, shiny surfaces and so on. FAA says that this severely reduces the reaction time and may quickly turn fatal.
Frames are personal choice - thank god!
Choosing the sunglasses frame is a personal choice for pilots and FAA doesn’t have stringent guidelines for it. However, make sure that the frame fits perfectly and does not become loose when performing aerobatic maneuvers. Some pilots also like to have necklace chains to tie their sunglasses for convenience.
1. Randolph Aviator Sunglasses
Pros of Randolph Aviator Sunglasses:
- Handcrafted especially for pilots
- Lifetime Warranty on joints and soldering
- Sturdy bayonet temples
Cons of Randolph Aviator Sunglasses:
- Frame style may not provide 100% peripheral blockage depending on the position of sun and aircraft maneuvers
- Slightly expensive at $199
2. Oakley Gascan Rectangular
The Oakley Gascan Rectangular frame sunglass provides 100% coverage of the eye, thus eliminating all possible exposures even in peripheral regions. The frame material is sturdy (O-matter) that is quite resistant to rough bumps and stresses. It also completely blocks UVA, UVB and UVC rays.
3. Classic Ray Ban Aviator with Gradient Lens
- Transport Canada Aviation: Safety Letter 3/2003
- Guidance on the use of Sunglasses for Pilots | UK Civil Aviation Authority
- Federal Aviation Administration: Sunglasses for Pilots - Beyond the Image
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Roberto Eldrum
Catriona Johnston from Northern Ireland on October 04, 2019:
This is a great article and a topic that we feel very strongly about at Safety Protection Glasses.
In 2014 the FAA announced that laser strikes on pilots were also on the increase with up to 11 per day, double the number from the previous two years.
This growing problem cannot be taken lightly, as all pilots including commercial, military, and those of us who take to the air as individuals can be distracted and temporarily blinded by high-powered, long-range lasers.
Along with the appropriate sunglasses as above please also consider the dangers of laser strikes from the ground on your eyesight. There is specific eyewear that can be worn over prescription glasses, under headsets, and under helmets, that is light weight and can help to save your eyesight if the worst should happen!