The $2,400 pair of sunglasses

“Hey! You wanna see a $2,400 pair of sunglasses?” The C-17 crewman yelled and  waived a pair at me on a trip to Afghanistan.

“No!” My official United States Air Force escort screamed. The crewman plugged his pie hole and sulked away, and that’s the last I saw of either the glasses or the crewman.

Laser in cockpit
Laser attacks are on the rise – can some fancy glasses prevent the problem?

See, there was the military’s $640 toilet seat, its $748 pliers, and now those high-priced glasses. But before you curse the Pentagon for out-of-control spending or fire off an angry note to your Congress member, consider this: they’re not overly expensive sunshades or even brand-name trifocal sunglasses, but they will keep laser beams from blinding pilots.

It’s a huge problem in the United States. Normally used to point at a chalkboard or tease housecats, laser pointers temporarily wreck a pilot’s night vision from up to two miles away. Incidents of pranksters flashing civilian aircraft have skyrocketed from nearly 300 in 2005 to 3,700 in 2012.

So far no one has crashed, but anticipating that Afghan insurgents might get their hands on a few pointers and do their damndest, Defense Department officials have contracted Teledyne to supply the Air Force with 8,500 pairs of glasses.  They filter laser wavelengths and light levels, reducing the flash from brilliant to merely annoying, while allowing instrument and runway lighting to still glow through.

Just don’t ask anyone from the Air Force or Teledyne to explain the shades. I tried, and after multiple calls and multiple emails, no one deigned to comment. Apparently they’re super-duper-top secret, even though one anonymous airline has tested them. The closest I got to an analysis of the glasses, I was sitting in the jump seat of a C-130J on my second trip over. Both pilots said they’d heard of the glasses, but they didn’t have any in the cockpit. Besides, they preferred their good-ol’ night vision goggles, bolted to their helmets.

“NVGs are just as good,” the command pilot said, slipping his helmet on his head on approach to darkened Bagram Air Base. “They will cut down on the dazzle.” But he also knew that he was being interrogated by the enemy–an American journalist. Loose lips sink ships, as the saying goes.

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