Goggles for Open-Cockpit Flying

Updated Sept 2014


Well, I've posted about leather jackets, I've posted about silk scarves....time to talk about goggles.

First off, do you need them?

It really depends on how sensitive your eyes are, and how your airplane is set up.  I find it very irritating when draft flutters my eyelashes, and my eyes seem to dry out quickly.   If you're not as sensitive (for instance, if you wear contacts), you may not need goggles as bad.

The other factor is how your cockpit is set up, and the size and shape of your windshield.  You might not really have a lot of draft by your head...or you might have cascades of air twirling around your baby blues.

Most goggles have the drawback of giving you a bit of "tunnel vision"...they tend to block your peripheral vision.  It depends a bit whether you wear normally wear glasses.  Most of the goggles I've worn give me vision slightly beyond the frame of my glasses...where I normally can't see anything, anyway.  Some goggles still give you good peripheral vision...check out the picture of me to the right.
drew goggles
But if you don't wear glasses, normally, you can probably find some of the bubble-type skydiver glasses or head-strap type sunglasses designed for active sports.  Here's a shot of Drew Fidoe in "Stringbag".  He says, "In my Fly Baby, my non-standard windscreen affords excellent protection from the breeze, and I normally fly with the goggles up, only wearing them when the temperature drops to about freezing as my eyes tend to dry out.  I normally use a pair of tinted sport goggles in the Fly Baby, a thoughtful posting gift from crew-mates of my last ship, as they double as sunglasses."

Drew is also doing some test-flying for a Pietenpol owner.  That plane doesn't have as good of wind protection as Stringbag.  "I use a pair of RAF goggles, (either Mark VI or Mk VIII, can't remember) when flying the Pietenpol for maximum protection'" says Drew.  "I find I need them in the Piet any time the engine is running as the pilot is quite exposed."

So...there's a wide variety of options.

Over the years, I've used five different types of goggles, from varied sources, with varied results.  I have three main criteria:  They have to keep the draft off my eyes, they have to be fairly easy to put on over my glasses, and they have to look good.    By "look good," I mean, they have to be somewhat vintage in appearance.

The middle criteria is important, especially tied in with the last one.  There are sources that sell nice replica of WWII RAF goggles. However, most historical goggles won't work with glasses...because military pilots had to have eyesight good enough that they didn't need glasses!  So if you wear glasses, be very careful when you buy goggles.

My Goggle History

My original set of goggles are those I'm wearing on the first picture on this web page  They met all of my criteria.  Those were ski goggles, purchased at a local sporting-goods store.  They worked pretty well.  But like just about all goggles, the lenses are made of plastic, and they tend to get scratched over the years.  The elastic was getting a bit loose, too.  When I bought Moonraker, I figured it was time to replace the goggles.

I really wanted something that had a real, solid, military look to them.  Someone suggested a motorcycle shop, so I went by and found a pair that looked pretty good and fit over my glasses.  If I remember correctly, they cost about $40 (mid-90s).

These were so-so. The air seal wasn't that good...it had a bit of padded cloth for a seal, instead of a strip of foam weatherstripping, and they tended to leak a bit.  where the strap attached.

I had a big of a surprise on the first (and only) time I flew at night...the "break" in the lenses caused  weird lighting affects.  When my strobe fired, the wing would light up, and the light would refract in the break and make it look like there was another strobe close by.  When I taxied on the ground, the runway or taxiway lights in my peripheral vision took an abrupt turn when they reached the break...a bit distracting.

The final straw was when I showed them to a buddy.  "Looks like a SCUBA face mask," he said.  I realized he was right.  They were big enough to fit my glasses comfortably, but they were really a lot taller than military goggles had been.

So...back to the drawing board.

I had such good luck with the ski goggles the first time around that I went back to the sporting-goods store to get another.  All they had were swoopy-looking ones in multiple colors,  with the manufacturer's names molded in bright contrast, and multicolor headbands.

Me, I just wanted a set of plain, oval goggles. 

I really wanted to replace the motorcycle ones, so I bought a mid-priced set of ski goggles (about $35).   They fit nice, but they certainly didn't meet my 'look good" criteria.  They had the manufacturer name ("SCOTT")  molded in white across the bridge (for the record, my name ISN'T "Scott"), and a red, white, and blue strap.

The strap was easy to fix..I bought some 1" elastic from the local sewing store, plus some of the little plastic fittings to make them adjustable.

For the name, I took a single-edge razor blade to the molded letters and shaved them down.  Really wasn't that hard to do.  It still was somewhat readable, but at least it was no longer in glaring white across the black frame.  It wasn't noticeable unless someone was real close, and if they're that close, I've got the goggles propped up atop my helmet, anyway.

These worked quite nicely.  They sealed well, they slipped on over my glasses easy, and the modifications brought them at least into the "acceptable" category.

Was I satisfied?  Of course not.

I still wanted a set of  military-type goggles.  I was wandering through a military-surplus store a few years later, and found a set of  US Army "Goggles, Sun, Wind, and Dust."  The neat thing was, they seemed very similar to the Army Air Force's B-8 goggle, one of the types our pilots wore during WWII.  See this picture of  WWII P-38 pilot Ed Baquet, for example.

The price has gone up quite a bit in the last ten years, but they still go for just $35 or so.  You can find them online at several sources, such as the US Cavalry Store.

They are just about perfect.  They look good, they seal well.  The only drawback is that they were a bit small, and it was a bit awkward getting them over my glasses.  Yes, they are designed to fit over glasses...MILITARY-ISSUE glasses.   My civilian-style frames were a bit bigger than what the goggles were designed for.  I eventually got a pair of sunglasses with smaller frames just for flying, but even then they needed a bit of fiddling when putting the glasses on.

Finally, I found a goggle that meets all my criteria:  the Uvex Rallye Goggle.  They look good, with a two-lens design that fits easily over my glasses, and they seal with no problem.  The lenses are actually two pieces of plastic with an air gap between them to reduce fogging, instead of  the light thin plastic of most goggles.  They even sold replacement lenses for them, so it's easy to restore the operation without spending a lot of money.

As of ~2014, though, it appears these goggles are no longer available.   Mine were over ten years old at that point; the lenses had been replaced once, but the frames themselves were showing some wear.  I also had a new helmet that I wanted to keep as a spare, complete with goggles.  So I went goggle shopping again.

I'd always like the RAF Mark VIII style, and the local motorcycle had a set of Emgo goggles that was a pretty close match.  Cheap, too, about $30.  They're available in chrome and flat black.  They've got a similar style that has smooth curved lenses rather than the angular ones on the Mark VIII.

Unfortunately, both styles put padding around both eyes individually, which means they can't be worn over glasses.

But....geeze, they only cost $30.  Why not try some experimentation?  I bought a pair of the "Red Baron" style.

Looking at the back of the goggles, the padding was in a figure-8 pattern, with a single barrier shared between the two lenses.  I put on the sunglasses I normally wear for flying (which I had done in a small frame specifically to fit beneath goggles), donned the goggles, and pressed down a bit.  The eyeglass bows made an imprint on the padding.

Out came the Exacto knife, and I cut away the padding where the imprints fell.  The padding on these goggles is a thin vinyl skin with foam rubber underneath.  Cutting the "skin" didn't seem to make the skin want to continue to tear.  I dug out the foam rubber to leave a  nice "trench" between the eye pieces.  I also cut notches at the outer periphery for the ends of the eyeglass bows.

This picture shows the modifications, highlighted in yellow:

These fit over my sunglasses just fine...in fact, with the remaining padding, are quite comfortable.  Not sure how the cut areas are going to withstand the ravages of time...I might expect the vinyl skin to start peeling back at some point.  I've considered stabilizing them with a thin coat of RTV, but I'm afraid something like that might make the edges of the cut padding a bit stiff and possibly uncomfortable.

But...they're only $30, they're widely available, and I can buy a new set every few years if I need to.


Are you in the market for goggles?  Buy a pair of the military-surplus ones.  The odds are, they'll work for you.  I like my Rallye Goggles, but the mil-surplus ones are just about as good.  I wore my old ones on a recent flight, and other than a bit of fiddling to get them over my glasses, they worked great.

Style-wise, I like both the mil-surplus goggles and the Emgo goggles.  Both have the nice vintage feel, and both are pretty cheap.  Both will work with glasses/sunglasses with moderate to small-size frames.

If you wear larger glasses when flying you can wear ski goggles.  These are widely available at sporting-goods stores. 

I've actually got a special pair of eyeglasses I wear when flying:  They're sunglasses, and I picked a smaller frame to make them more compatible with a wider range of goggles.

Ski goggles have a big advantage:  The wrap-around style has the least impact on your peripheral vision.  Another option would be skydiver goggles; these usually have little or no frame, and are designed to fit snugly against the face. 

Or, if money is no object, you can do what a lot of the old-time pilots did, and get prescription goggles:


Ron Wanttaja

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