Can Pilots Wear Polarized Sunglasses?

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Sanchez

Navigating the skies requires precision, clarity, and the right tools. Among these tools, sunglasses are essential for pilots, especially when facing the blinding glare of the sun. But can pilots wear polarized sunglasses?

Polarized lenses are champions at reducing glare from horizontal surfaces, they might not be the best co-pilots in the cockpit. These lenses can interfere with essential digital displays and even distort a pilot’s view through the windshield. The FAA, while not outright banning them, leans towards recommending against their use in aviation. 

Dive in as we explore the nuances of this intriguing topic.

The FAA’s Stance on Polarized Sunglasses for Pilots

Official Recommendations and Guidelines

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has clear guidelines concerning the eyewear pilots should use. While sunglasses are deemed essential for pilots, especially when dealing with the intense glare from the sun and reflective surfaces, polarized sunglasses are not on the recommended list. 

The primary reason is the potential interference these sunglasses can cause with cockpit instruments. Many of these instruments come with anti-glare filters, and polarized lenses can diminish a pilot’s ability to read them accurately. 

Furthermore, the increasing prevalence of LCD instruments in modern cockpits, which emit polarized light, can be challenging to read with polarized sunglasses.

Why Some Airlines Ban Polarized Sunglasses

Beyond the FAA’s recommendations, some airlines like British Airways have taken a more stringent approach by outright banning the use of polarized sunglasses. The rationale behind this prohibition is multifaceted:

  • Safety Concerns: Polarized sunglasses can be too effective at blocking glare and reflected light. This might sound beneficial, but in the cockpit, it can lead to distortions in vision, such as swirls and black spots.
  • Instrument Readability: Instruments treated with anti-glare coatings become hard to read when a pilot wears polarized sunglasses. The increasing use of LCD screens, which emit polarized light, further complicates this issue.
  • Windshield Visibility: The unique lamination of airplane windshields, designed to reduce glare, can interact oddly with polarized lenses, obstructing a pilot’s clear view.
  • Spotting Other Aircraft: In crowded airspaces, the glimmers or glare off another aircraft can be vital cues for pilots. Polarized lenses can block these reflections, potentially leading to dangerous situations.

Challenges with Polarized Sunglasses in the Cockpit

Impact on Reading Aircraft Instruments

Polarized sunglasses, while excellent at reducing glare in many scenarios, pose a significant challenge in the cockpit. Many aircraft instruments come with anti-glare filters. When a pilot dons polarized sunglasses, these instruments can become distorted or even unreadable.

This is due to the interaction between the polarized filter in the sunglasses and the anti-glare coatings on the instruments, leading to potential safety risks.

Polarization and LCD Displays: A Tricky Combination

Modern cockpits are increasingly equipped with LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) panels. These panels emit polarized light. When viewed through polarized sunglasses, the display can appear distorted or entirely blacked out. 

This is because the orientation of the polarized filter in the sunglasses can block out the polarized light from the LCD, making crucial information inaccessible to the pilot.

The Striation Effect on Airplane Windshields

Airplane windshields are designed with unique laminations to reduce glare and enhance durability. However, when a pilot wears polarized sunglasses, an unexpected interaction occurs. 

The polarized lenses can exaggerate the striations in these laminated materials, leading to visual distortions. This phenomenon can hinder a pilot’s ability to see clearly, especially during critical phases of flight like takeoff and landing.

Situations Where Glare is Essential for Pilots

Counterintuitively, there are moments when pilots rely on glare for safety. Glints of light reflecting off another aircraft’s surface can serve as a visual cue, alerting a pilot to the proximity of another plane. 

Polarized sunglasses can effectively block out these reflections, potentially masking the presence of nearby aircraft. In congested airspace, missing such cues could lead to dangerous situations.

Alternatives to Polarized Sunglasses for Pilots

While polarized sunglasses are celebrated for their efficacy in reducing glare, they’re not the best fit for pilots. The very mechanism that allows them to block horizontal light rays can interfere with a pilot’s ability to read aircraft instruments, especially those with anti-glare filters or LCDs emitting polarized light. So, what are the alternatives?

1. Neutral Gray Lenses

Gray is the most recommended lens color for pilots. It offers neutral color perception, ensuring that colors seen through the lens remain true to life. This is crucial when interpreting instrument readings where color differentiation is vital.

2. Non-Polarized Sunglasses

These sunglasses provide the necessary protection from sunlight without the complications introduced by polarized lenses. They don’t interfere with instrument readings or LCDs.

Can Pilots Wear Polarized Sunglasses?

The world of aviation is a realm where every detail matters, and even something as seemingly trivial as the choice of sunglasses can have profound implications. 

While polarized sunglasses are revered for their ability to reduce glare in everyday scenarios, they present unique challenges in the cockpit. 

The interaction between polarized lenses and cockpit instruments, especially LCDs and anti-glare filters, can compromise a pilot’s ability to access crucial information. 

Additionally, the unexpected visual distortions caused by these lenses can hinder clear vision during critical flight phases. 

In light of these considerations, while polarized sunglasses might be a boon for beachgoers or drivers, they’re not the optimal choice for pilots navigating the skies.