They’re iconic and immediately recognizable: aviator sunglasses. They’re the default Rockstar sunglasses, having been worn by everyone from Michael Jackson to your local state trooper. And like so many timelessly cool things, aviators began their life as a solution to a problem. Since 1903 pilots had worn flight goggles, mostly to protect them from the wind and elements while in an open cockpit. As time went on and planes flew higher, pilots were exposed to more UV light and glare from the intense sunlight at increased altitudes. Traditional flight goggles tended to fog up, so a modernized version was needed. The Army Air Corps worked with Bausch & Lomb in 1929 to develop a solution. The result was a pair of sunglasses called “Ray Bans” since that’s exactly what they did: “ban” the rays of the sun, or so the story goes. In fact, the first versions were called “Anti-Glare” and were plastic frames instead of metal and had green lenses.
The first Aviator sunglasses were contracted from American Optical called in 1935 the U.S. Army Air Corps D-1 Sunglasses. As sunglass technology evolved, the new “flying sunglasses (comfort cable)” were adopted in 1941. These were used by both pilots and sailors; they also had a distinct “AN” at the beginning of their spec. number denoting Army/Navy. These glasses were green tinted at first but proved to be insufficient for the glare pilots experienced and were changed to a darker “rose smoke” type 2 lens. The shape was very similar to what we recognize today as aviators with teardrop-shaped convex lenses allowing pilots to look down at their instrument panel and providing maximum eye coverage.
Lenses would change throughout the AN6531 sunglasses era until their replacement: the HGU-4/P were introduced in the 1950s.
It wasn’t until after world war 2 however that aviator sunglasses became available to civilians via military surplus. And It wasn’t long before companies started producing unique civilian models, often without the brow bar and with different earpiece and lens options.
In 1958 military optometrists recommended a new model known as the HGU-4/P sometimes referred to as the Navigator, which were more rectangular than the classic teardrop aviators and featured bayonet temples which slid on easily when wearing a helmet. These sunglasses began being issued to the military in 1959 and were also used by NASA astronauts.
If aviators are functional enough for the military and cool enough for James Hetfield, you might be wondering which you should buy. Well luckily there are plenty of options these days and likely a style to suit your taste. You can find everything from reproductions of the original to heavily modified versions, but Aviator and their squared off sibling Navigator sunglasses typically feature a double or triple bridge, thin metal frames, and large convex lenses. I had always been curious about the “brow bar” and reached out to the engineers at Randolph Engineering to find out its intended purpose. Is it for keeping sweat and debris out of your eyes? They told me that the bar is actually for overall frame strength, and the other benefits are just a bonus.
So which brands should you consider for a good pair of aviators?
Ray Ban. The civilian division of Bausch & Lomb was a brand you’re probably familiar with called Ray Ban and their metal-framed aviator sunglasses were patented in 1939 which were marketed not as a fashion accessory but as sporting equipment. In fact, an aviator variant known as the Ray Ban shooter which was introduced in 1939 featured a circular cigarette holder in the bridge of the sunglasses. Their aviators range from the low $150 range to over $200 depending on options. It should be noted however that Bausch & Lomb sold Ray Ban in 1999 to Luxottica, and the glasses are now made in Italy.
American Optical has been supplying the military since 1914 when they made flight goggles for pilots. They supplied over 5 million glasses to the US military during World War 2 and you can still get their glasses today in a few different styles. I went with their Original Pilot model in silver with gray lenses, and they’re decent for the price. You don’t get a lot of the features you’ll find in higher end glasses, but if you want the look and are on a budget then American Optical is a good value and American made option.
Randolph Engineering began producing the HGU-4/P for the US Military in 1978 and are built to the strict guidelines of MIL-A-25948 standards. This is a 20-page document which specifies the exact standards to which military sunglasses must be built. Like the specification that neutral gray lenses must transmit 12%-18% of incoming daylight while still providing accurate color and contrast. You can go to their website and buy these exact sunglasses right now if you wish for $219. If you want a more refined and better built classic aviator like the old G-2 model, Randolph’s Concorde is another great option for $279. A pair of these in black were my first Randolph sunglasses and they’re still going strong today.
Even though this isn’t an aviator sunglass, I wanted to include the Randolph P3. This model was designed to fit under the gas mask of submariners around 1960 without interfering with the seal. Just a cool little tidbit I wanted to pass along. And you can a pair of your own for $229.
Being civilian models, there are many more customizations like the option of frame material and finish, along with many, many lens choices. Of the three, Randolph is my favorite by far. Not only are they made in the USA, but the materials and finishing are a level above the others I mentioned. One of the real selling points is the slip resistant nose pads which keep the sunglasses in place even when you sweat.
Whichever brand you choose it’s safe to assume that aviators will be just as cool for the next hundred years as they were for the last hundred. They’re a staple which means that if you buy a good pair, you will probably be wearing them for many years to come.