Column: A clear, vibrant polarized view of the world

Great Outdoors by James Murray

The right wing tip of our Cessna 150 began to rise ever so slightly as we started to bank into a slow left turn.

The plane leveled off and we cruised over the Delta Marsh in South Central Manitoba. Below us were tens of thousands of ducks and geese. Some were in flight, others bobbed up and down on the surface of the water, their sheer numbers were awe inspiring. I asked the pilot if we could go down a bit closer for a better look. He informed me that any lower would be too close.

“If one of those birds were to hit our prop we’d be in trouble, big trouble.”

He pulled a pair of polarized aviator sunglasses out of his inside jacket and handed them to me. I tried them on and the whole world changed right in front of my eyes. What had been a pale blue sky suddenly turned a much richer, more intense blue. The tufts of small white clouds seem to jump out in contrast. I could see the birds beneath in much greater detail, the different colours of their plumage just seemed to shimmer and glow as the sun reflected off their backs and wings.

I had flown over water many times but that day the glare that had previously hindered my view all but disappeared. I saw the world beneath me in a way I’d never seen it before, in greater detail, greater contrast – the colours were mesmerizing.

We made several more passes over the marsh, which in those days was considered the largest waterfowl staging ground on the planet. Each time it appeared more alive, more vibrant, waves of movement and colour swirling and undulating beneath us. It was an experience I have never forgotten.

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Light from the sun is scattered in all directions; however, when beams of sunlight strike a flat, horizontal surface, that light is reflected by the surface and becomes polarized, meaning the reflected light beams now travel in a more uniform (usually horizontal) direction. This creates an annoying and sometimes dangerous intensity of light that causes glare and reduces visibility. Polarized lenses have a special chemical filter applied, or film laminated between two layers of lens material that blocks this type of light by filtering out the horizontal light waves. Polarized lenses also reduce eye strain as well as increase visual clarity and contrast.

The sun also emits ultra violet light or radiation (UV) which can damage the eye when subjected to long exposure. Most sunglasses are designed to block UV beams. Polarized lenses can further reduce UV beams.

The aviator-style sunglasses that we know today were originally developed in 1936 by Bausch & Lomb, specifically for military pilots. They have since become the sunglasses of choice among pilots. The design is believed to have originated with two test pilots, Major Rudolph “Shorty” Schroeder, chief test pilot of the U.S. Army Air Service Engineering Laboratory, and National Aviation Hall of Fame inductee Lt. John Macready.

In 1920, Schroeder was flying at an altitude above 33,000 feet when his standard issue goggles began to fog up, obscuring his vision. He removed them in order to see; however, his eyes froze over. Upon landing, Schroeder was helped out of the plane by fellow pilot John Macready. Both men felt the standard-issue goggles were simply not dark enough to protect a pilot’s eyes from the harsh rays of sunlight in the upper atmosphere. Macready subsequently began working in conjunction with Bausch & Lomb to design goggles especially suited to protect a pilot’s eyes from the sun. The now iconic teardrop shape was adapted because it would cover the maximum field of vision. The end result would become marketed under the name Ray-Ban. The rest, as they say, is aviation history.

I recently acquired a pair of Serengeti aviator sunglasses. Serengeti began making their high-end sepia toned photochromic, polarized aviator sunglasses in the 1980’s. These ones are probably from around that era. The original lenses are made by Corning and the frames, well, lets just say they were built to last.

The woman who sold them to me said they belonged to a pilot who wore them all around the world. I can only imagine the sights they’ve seen.

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