Flying airplanes is one of the few occupations that has vision requirements. Pilots must do everything possible to guard their vision, which means wearing proper sunglasses that provide UV protection. The following interview with Captain James Beckman, a commercial pilot who has been flying for 39 years, reveals the importance of vision to a pilot.

How is vision important to pilots?

Vision is absolutely essential to a pilot. Good vision is required to pass the pilot’s medical exam. You have to be able to detect other air traffic, landmarks, airports, airport signs and markings.

What kinds of things do pilots need to see up close?

Sitting in the cockpit, you have to be able to see clearly flight and engine instruments, charts, checklists, abnormal and emergency procedures and aircraft manuals.

Do pilots ever have eye problems because of increased UV rays?

Pilots are generally more susceptible to cataracts because of increased UV exposure at altitude.

As a pilot, what do you learn about eye health from your occupation?

A pilot’s vision must be protected under all circumstances; for example, mowing the yard or wood working without proper eye protection could result in a career-ending eye injury — there are no one-eyed pilots flying out there!

Do all pilots wear sunglasses? Do you know any pilots who wear reading sunglasses?

Generally, yes, all pilots wear sunglasses because they are essential to protect vision. I look for sunglasses that provide clarity of vision — both inside and outside the cockpit — and UV protection. Many pilots, especially those who have been around for awhile, wear reading sunglasses if they normally need reading glasses.

 Sunglasses and Reading Glasses for Pilots

Although perfect vision is not necessary to be a pilot, the FAA describes vision as “a pilot’s most important sensory asset.” From a distance standpoint, pilots must be able to see far to detect other airplanes, to navigate their route, and to avoid potential dangerous situations. Up-close and intermediate vision are important for seeing close written material and instruments on the flight deck.

  • For a pilot, using sunglasses is essential for reducing strong and damaging sunlight. At the high altitudes where pilots work, harmful ultraviolet radiation is greater. The FAA says that for every 1,000 feet of altitude, the exposure to UV rays increases 5 percent.
  • Sunglasses for pilots also minimize fatigue of the eye and serve as a guard against the possibility of decompression and flying debris.
  • For the pilot who is told at their annual physical that they need reading glasses, reading sunglasses serve a dual purpose: UV protection and vision correction. A pair of reader sunglasses will minimize distractions for a pilot because they will not have to switch between pairs of glasses.
  • A good pair of sunglass reading glasses for pilots will have a narrow area of prescription lens at the bottom with a wide area of tinted sunglass above. If a pilot requires both near and distance vision correction, bifocal reading sunglasses serve a threefold purpose.

According to the FAA, aviation sunglasses, reading sunglasses, and pilot bifocal sunglasses should have the following features:

  1. 100 percent UVA and UVB protection
  2. A tint that optimizes vision and minimizes distortion of color; for example, neutral gray is recommended
  3. Sunglasses for pilots should not be polarized; polarization may interfere with cockpit displays

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