The History of Aviator Sunglasses, Part 7 – The Air Force HGU-4/P

Gordon Cooper and Charles "Pete" Conrad, back from orbiting the earth.

Gordon Cooper and Charles “Pete” Conrad, back from orbiting the earth.

The familiar WWII era AN6531 Comfort Cable aviator sunglasses were still issued in relatively unchanged form long after V-J day. With darker lenses than the 1941 originals they would become known as Type G-2 aviator sunglasses. Specification numbers had changed as the Air Force became an independent branch of the service in 1947, but issue sunglasses retained the same basic shape they’d had since 1941. This lasted through the Korean conflict and into the late 1950s.

Helmets, on the other hand, had advanced quickly in design. At the start of WWII helmets were made in various combinations of leather and fabric. They didn’t look too different from football helmets of the era. By the late 1940s injection molded plastics were being used, with communications systems and oxygen masks being factored into the design. Visors were added in the 1950s to guard against potential wind blast. The traditional aviator sunglasses were simply too bulky to fit under the new style helmets.

A new design was developed that had a more comfortable library temple, was easier to put on and take off with helmets and headsets and was more compatible with oxygen masks. They were designated as the U.S. Air Force Type HGU-4/P aviator sunglasses and recommended for use on November 5th 1958.

Here’s a page from the evaluation:

Comparison Air Force Aviator Sunglasses Blog

And so the Type HGU-4/P aviator sunglasses were duly adopted by the Air Force. They were in use by astronauts throughout the heyday of NASA’s Mercury and Apollo missions in the 1960s, were said to be the first sunglasses worn on the moon, and continue to be used today, although aviator sunglasses have largely been supplanted by tinted visors in flight helmets.

The first contractor was American Optical, who developed the style. They were joined by Randolph Engineering in the 1980s. They’re still made in the USA and available at a reasonable price since Government contracts are awarded to low bidders.

American-Optical-Flight-Goggle-58

They’ve been mil-spec for over 50 years compared to about 17 for the AN6531 shape. What’s odd is how WWII type AN6531 aviator sunglasses remain more iconic. As discussed in Part 6 of this series, the AN6531 was immediately adopted by civilian manufacturers. Most had been producing these aviator sunglasses under contract to the military and didn’t have to retool to get them out quick to consumers. By comparison the HGU-4/P has flown below the radar.

Regardless it, too, is an iconic shape. In a way I think it might be more influential in that most aviator styles sold at optical stores seem to derive from it.

Here are links to the first six installments of the History of Aviator Sunglasses:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

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13 Responses

  1. Lucia says:

    I am trying to find out about a pair of vintage Ray Ban aviators. They are marked 14k on the bridge. They have no other stamps on the frame. They do have the serial number 008 – M6257M / IR / GD on the clear plastic ear piece. The right lense has Ray Ban in top corner and each lense has the small BL. Do you know anything about these and if they are real. The frames are not attracted to a very strong magnet. Thanks so much for any information.

    • Moss Lipow says:

      Those were produced in 1999 or earlier, since Bausch & Lomb engraved their initials on the lenses. I believe Ray Ban did a small run of solid gold aviators back in the 1980s or 1990s. Do a gold test. They sound beautiful.

  2. Glyn says:

    Great stories! I have a pair that came in an old Ray-Ban case but not a single mark or trade name on them. They look vintage WW2 but who’s to say.

    • Moss Lipow says:

      The WW2 aviators generally had silver frames. Reading the military specs I was mildly surprised to learn they were plated in rhodium, at least by 1958. I’d always figured they were all plated in nickel.

      I think all the contractors put a maker’s mark on the bridge of the frames, but who knows? Aviator sunglasses and A2 and G1 flight jackets sure left a mark on fashion.

  3. Carlie Gray says:

    Neat information! Can we get some samples for the cadet of the Harrisburg International Somposite Squadron 306! I know that is far-fetched buth hey it’s worth a try. And if you can afford it through in a frww pair for Capt. Daryl Rutt and myself SM Charlie Gray, and the 6 other Senior Members!

    • Moss Lipow says:

      Civil Air Patrol. Doesn’t the Air Force supply you with uniforms and gear? They have more pull with their contractors than I do.

  4. Dmytro says:

    Thanks for the stories!
    I have a question though.
    I cannot find any info on who was eligible to wear sunglasses in US Army of WW2. My understanding is that theae were officers and pilots, but no NCOs. Correct me if I am wrong pls.

    • Moss Lipow says:

      I believe the aviators technically were for flight crews. So were A2 jackets, but McArthur had aviators and an A2. I’m sure some others high on the food chain were able to get some as well. That worked both ways, though. Flight crews were issued B3 jackets, but I’ve heard many got their hands on D1 ground crew jackets because they were less bulky in a cockpit.

  5. Victoria Speed says:

    I have a question. Back in 1975 I lived in an apartment complex very near the Columbus AFB in Mississippi. A young pilot from the Academy gave me a pair of aviators he was wearing and the case. I have had them ever since. Problem is my28 year old grandson now WANTS them. I want to purchase the same glasses for him because he is not getting mine. So are my glasses AO or Randolph? And what is the closest model to them?

    • Moss Lipow says:

      You should find the name of the contractor that produced them stamped on the bridge. I don’t think they were issuing gold filled frames in 1975 any more. Those are expensive on the secondary market. I know Randolph still produces sunglasses made to mil-spec. I’m pretty sure AO does, too. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

  6. Bill says:

    Hey, hope you still look at this page for questions. I picked up a pair of HGU-4/P aviator sunglasses, marked Martin Copeland and has their stylized logo, in size 5 1/2. I was issued Randolph Engineering framed glasses when I was on active duty, and I know that American Optical had the contract first until 1978. When did Martin Copeland make military eyewear? Thanks!

    • Moss Lipow says:

      I think Martin Copeland closed in the early 80s. They were a Rhode Island company. So you might figure they had the contract sometime between 1978 and 1982 or so. Thing is, though, they might have been awarded a contract and produced simultaneously with AO. You can be sure they were issued before Grenada.

      Strangely I knew a guy who wound up with some of Martin Copeland’s machinery and does small scale production up in Rhode Island. I remember when he was trying to acquire the machines; I also met the old technician from Martin Copeland that had them. Interesting people.

  1. August 4, 2014

    […] Draper’s use of Vietnam era issue HGU-4/P sunglasses – a style we recently discussed in THIS POST – has had a pronounced effect on their vintage market. American Optical and Welsh 12K gold […]

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