Crappy Sunglasses

sunglasses

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.

Flying Eyes Sunglasses

Flying Eyes sunglasses with the standard temples replaced by the strap.

I don’t know what is it about pilots and sunglasses, but we seem to be obsessed with them. No matter how many pairs we’ve got, it’s never enough. I myself have got a half-dozen sets of shades floating around in my car, flight bag, office, and elsewhere. Ray Bans, Vedalo HDs, even a few cheapies bought in a pinch at a random gas station.

Yet, like a moth to a flame, I never fail to check out what other pilots are wearing. I’ll read reviews and browse shop windows when I see Revos, Oakleys, Maui Jims, or Ecos peering back at me through the glass. There’s just something about sunglasses…

And yet they seem to be a constant disappointment in the cockpit. Maui Jim sunglasses are all polarized. Oakleys are too thick for the headset seal. Even the Vedalos, which are specifically made for pilots, seem to fall short because not only are they somewhat fragile, but the design I fell in love with are hinge-free and do not fold up so there’s no way to clip them onto shirt or store them in a jacket pocket.

So the search continues for the Perfect Pair. I was just thinking about that the other day when friend and fellow pilot Dean Siracusa emailed me to announce he was starting up a new company called Flying Eyes which (wait for it) manufactures sunglasses specifically designed for aviators.

I’ve known Dean for a long time; he’s quite the renaissance man. From owning the world’s largest stock transportation photography agency to directing TV commercials for major auto companies to running the infamously temporary airport at Burning Man, he’s been just about everywhere. One of Dean’s biggest pet peeves about flying was the way sunglasses would dig into the side of his head under the clamping pressure of a headset. Who hasn’t felt the wonderful sensation of a vice-induced headache or been frustrated by the ANR disturbances and increased noise allowed past the headset seal by the temples on a pair of otherwise lovely sunglasses?

The Clarity Aloft headset

It’s interesting to see how various people solve this issue. My own personal answer has been to tackle it from the headset side. I’ve been using the Clarity Aloft headset for years and love it. It’s the only aviation headset I’ve seen that works in every single aircraft. It looks perfectly at home on the flight deck of the Gulfstream, yet has sufficient passive noise attenuation and low enough mass that I can wear it during strong negative-G aerobatics without it flying off. It has no traditional head band, so it can be worn with any type of hat — perfect for flights in RVs and other glass canopy style aircraft. It’s light and compact, so it stores easily when not in use. And finally, it’s relatively inexpensive.

Nonetheless, there are people who don’t like having foam earbuds in their ear canals for hour after hour. The Clarity is also a pain to put on and take off because the earpieces take time to expand and create a good seal, so a perfect pair of sunglasses would still be a welcome addition to my collection.

The Flying Eyes sunglasses with standard temples installed. Nothing exotic about them… yet.

I also thought about how many different types of airplanes I fly and figured I’d be a good guinea pig, so I told Dean I’d like to try a pair. And low & behold, they actually work! The Flying Eyes sunglasses are reminiscent of the Oakley Hijinx, but without polarization. The lenses are high quality, neutral density, anti-UV, and have most of the other standard features you’ll find on a pair of quality sunglasses.

What sets Flying Eyes apart from competitors is the temples. That’s what causes the headset interference and headache in the first place, so it’s a logical place upon which to focus. In fact, I’m surprised nobody’s tried this before now. Dean came up with a system whereby the temples are detachable. They can be replaced with a thin strap which provides no barrier to the ear seals found on a traditional headset.

Flying Eyes sunglasses with the standard temples replaced by the strap.

The difference in ANR performance with “active” headsets can be dramatic. For years I’ve had trouble using the trusty Bose X in just about any DiamondStar while wearing sunglasses because something about that airplane just doesn’t play well with the Bose’s circuitry. But when wearing Flying Eyes sunglasses, not only is the passive attenuation improved but the ANR cutouts are eliminated.

I also like the way the rubber nose piece is molded into the frame. This not only provides a wide bridge to distribute the weight of the glasses, but also eliminates the snagging, bending, and lost/broken parts issues I’ve had with the Vedalo HD and other such products. In theory, a quality pair of sunglasses would be kept in a solid case when not in use… but how many of us actually do that? In the real world, sunglasses take a considerable amount of abuse and while I haven’t owned them long enough to comment on the scratch-resistance of the lenses, the Flying Eyes seem to be built to withstand the punishment.

Speaking of lenses, all the comfort in the world is worthless if the optical portion of the glasses don’t perform, but the Flying Eyes design passed that test as well. In fact of all the sunglasses I own, this pair provided a better seal around the eye area than any other, blocking out most of the harsh light that often creeps around the edges of other glasses when the sun is off to the side or behind the wearer.

Dean and his classic Meyers 200D

I ran into Dean a couple of weeks later at the AOPA Summit in Palm Springs. He and his wife had a nice booth set up right next to their freshly overhauled ’66 Meyers 200D (a worthy subject for a future post). From what I could see, they seemed to be doing great business and generating substantial interest in their new product. I wish them well and look forward to telling people I was one of the first to discover these “convertible” gems.