Sunglasses are to a pilot as tanning beds are to the cast of Jersey Shore. Many — perhaps most — aviators buy expensive shades, and I understand why. It’s not just about the look (although that’s certainly important), it’s about comfort. Comfort with a headset, comfort on a 10-hour flight. It’s about preventing headaches and protecting one’s eyes when you’re above much of atmosphere and therefore exposed to more of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.
Me, I do it differently: I buy the cheapest pair I can find. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the optical clarity, build quality, and style of expensive shades. I do. But over the years I’ve developed a theorem called Ron’s Law of Sunglasses Longevity. It simply declares that the length of time a pair of glasses will last is inversely proportional to how much you paid for them. I bought a $10 pair of sunglasses at a gas station and they lasted for 6 or 7 years. On the other hand, I’ve paid $200 for a set of non-polarized Maui Jim sunglasses (polarization doesn’t mix with computerized cockpit displays) and had them disappear or break within weeks.
Not only do I lose sunglasses, but I often manage to do it in the most creative way possible. It’s almost an art form. One time I put my sunglasses and a book on the ground for a moment while I checked something on an airplane. Naturally, they were forgotten about until the main landing gear ran ’em over, shattering the polycarbonate lenses into a million pieces. Thankfully the tire was not harmed — that would have really been expensive!
Another time a famous celebrity stole my shades. I don’t want to mention any names, of course. They were one of the cheap pair from that same gas station. I had duplicates in storage for just such a scenario (at $10 a pop, even the most poorly compensated among us can afford backups), but these were record-holding in terms of how long I’d had them. It must have been eight or ten years by this point. I almost couldn’t get rid of them even if I tried. Like a bad penny, they’d somehow find their way home.
Anyway, the aircraft had a galley in the aft section and I had set my sunglasses down on the counter there while offloading some baggage from the cargo area. When I returned, they were gone. I think the flight attendant figured they belonged to one of the passengers and they had walked off with the celebrity. She tried to get them back on a subsequent leg, but in the melee of a multi-day trip it just never happened. I sometimes wonder if that celebrity isn’t wearing those sunglasses today, unaware that they were an ancient $10 Chevron special with Twilight Zone-ish longevity.
The last example — the one which prompted this post — was a wholly new and innovative way to dispose of a decent pair of specs. I’m fond of saying that every situation in life can be directly related to a Seinfeld episode, and this is no exception. If you’re a fan of the show you’ll know exactly which one I’m referring to.
We were returning from New York without any passengers, so everything was casual on board the jet. No uniforms, just a pair of jeans and a V-neck t-shirt. A couple of hours into the flight, I excused myself from the cockpit to visit the aft lavatory. As is my custom when I’m not wearing them, the sunglasses were clipped to my shirt when I entered the restroom. (You can probably guess where this is going, right?) So there I was, standing over the toilet “taking care of business” when I reached up to close a vent which was blasting cold air and somehow managed to knock the them off my shirt. The next couple of seconds passed in slow motion. The sunglasses twirled through the air, bounced off the granite counter, and completed the swan dive with a perfect hole-in-one into the bowels of the toilet.
The lav is pretty simple on a Gulfstream; it’s basically just a tank full of “blue juice”, so there wasn’t much risk of the glasses jamming up any drain lines or whatnot. The only thing down there is a valve which is manually actuated from a panel outside the aircraft. It allows the old gunk to be drained and fresh liquid pumped in by the ground service personnel.
Nevertheless, I was going to have to fess up to what I’d done. The look on my face must have said it all, because when I exited the restroom, the flight attendant asked what was wrong. I gave her the “short” version, and she proceeded to shock the hell out of me by asking in a very matter-of-fact way if I wanted her to retrieve them. I thought she was kidding, but it turns out there were long rubber gloves on hand for just such an occasion. I offered to do the dirty deed myself, but she said “no problem, it’s not the first time something’s fallen down there” and before I could even think of a clever retort she had fished them out!
I’ve given a fair number of gifts, tips, and thank-yous over the years, but I’m wondering: how much does one owe another person when they stick their hand into a dirty airplane lavatory in order to retrieve your pair of $10 sunglasses?
In case you’re wondering, the glasses were double-bagged and sealed until I got home. The next day, I thoroughly cleaned them with multiple rounds of hot water, soap, sanitizer, and anything else I could get my hands on. I half expected the metal frame to be partially dissolved or corroded by whatever was in that toilet tank, but they came out as good as new. Ron’s Law of Sunglasses Longevity at work again!
There was a definite moment of pause before putting them back on my face for the first time, but today those Chevron Special’s are back at work. I wish I knew who manufactured them, because they build a hell of a product. While they might not repel bullets the way some sunglasses do, there’s no doubting they’ve been through the proverbial wringer.