A Saturday New York Times article notes that pilots for regional airlines are poorly paid, scramble to get enough sleep between flights, and often fly hungry. So maybe aviators don’t live up to every glamorous stereotype—but do they at least wear cool aviator sunglasses?
Some do. Virtually all pilots wear sunglasses of some kind when they’re flying by day. The Federal Aviation Administration recommends certain types of shades over others: A gray tint, for example, is a good choice because it distorts color less than yellow, amber, or orange. (The colored lenses can make it difficult to distinguish navigation lights and signals.) And polarized lenses are a bad choice, because they blur digital instrument displays. The government doesn’t play favorites when it comes to the shape of a pilot’s frames, but there are some general guidelines: Styles with small lenses are less than ideal, as are any designs that might interfere with communication headsets. This leaves pilots with a good amount of leeway. Many aviators do, in fact, end up sporting aviators. But other styles are common, too.
The moniker aviator glasses is historically accurate. In the 1920s, the U.S. Army Air Corps put out a manufacturing call for anti-glare goggles suitable for high-altitude flying. The optical instruments company Bausch & Lomb delivered the Anti-Glare Aviator Sunglasses, which had metal frames, large teardrop-shaped lenses to shield peripheral vision, and a green tint—then considered the best way to protect the eyes without affecting color perception. These sunglasses, which today we’d call aviator-style, became standard issue for pilots.
Bausch & Lomb rebranded the Anti-Glares as Ray-Ban sunglasses (so-called because they banish rays) in 1937 and started selling them to the general public. (Ray-Bans weren’t the first mass-produced sunglasses. A man named Sam Foster introduced cheap shades to America in 1929, in Atlantic City, N.J.) They received a big PR bump when Gen. Douglas MacArthur was photographed wearing them in the Philippines during World War II, and they were kept in the limelight by celebrities. Notably, Tom Cruise wore Ray-Ban Aviators (Model No. 3025) in the 1986 film Top Gun.
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Explainer thanks Chris Dancy of the Aircraft Pilots and Owners Association, Michael McDougall of Bausch & Lomb, and Alex Spencer of the National Air and Space Museum. Explainer also thanks reader Dan Kaplan for asking the question.