Fly­ing Jack­ets

HIS­TORY’S LOVE AF­FAIR WITH THE AVI­A­TOR’S BEST FRIEND

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Dave Par­sons

His­tory’s Love Af­fair with the Avi­a­tor’s Best Friend

A CRIT­I­CAL LOOK BACK on air­craft de­sign and avi­a­tion flight cloth­ing re­veals con­tin­ual ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy that yielded higher per­for­mance, safety, and com­fort. Yet over the last 80 or so years, the leather flight jack­ets worn orig­i­nally by U.S. Navy, Ma­rine Corps, and Army Air Force avi­a­tors in the 1940s have re­mained rel­a­tively true to the orig­i­nal de­signs, de­spite con­sid­er­able ad­vances in ev­ery as­pect of avi­a­tion flight cloth­ing and pro­tec­tive equip­ment.

Flight Gear at the Begin­ning: World War I

As the war clouds of WW I loomed on the hori­zon, avi­a­tors did not have spe­cial flight cloth­ing and typ­i­cally flew with what­ever uni­form was pre­scribed as the uni­form of the day. Through­out the world’s air forces, this wide­spread prac­tice dates back to the ori­gins of flight when Orville and Wil­bur Wright flew their Flyer wear­ing suits and ties; WW I avi­a­tors flew in their ser­vice dress jack­ets with “choker”-style col­lars. It was no won­der that silk scarves were in­tro­duced to pro­tect necks from chaf­ing.

The com­mon-day suit of the time suf­ficed for the early flights of lim­ited du­ra­tion, speed, and al­ti­tude. As speeds in­creased and air­craft pushed ever higher for longer flights, avi­at­ing be­came pro­gres­sively more in­hos­pitable ow­ing to wind blast and the cold tem­per­a­tures at al­ti­tude. Avi­a­tors turned to the only avail­able sources of ro­bust pro­tec­tive cloth­ing: sports-equip­ment sup­pli­ers and “out­fit­ters,” whose tai­lors had pro­duced spe­cial­ized cloth­ing for years for use by ex­pe­di­tions ven­tur­ing into the Arc­tic cold and the high al­ti­tudes of un­con­quered sum­mits.

One of these firms, Wil­lis & Geiger, is cred­ited with de­vel­op­ing the G-1 de­sign for the Navy. It is still in ex­is­tence. Auto rac­ing, which had a slight lead on avi­a­tion, as well as the fledg­ling game of foot­ball had en­cour­aged sports sup­pli­ers into the de­vel­op­ment of pro­tec­tive hel­mets, which

avi­a­tors adapted for their use. Avi­a­tors still had to im­pro­vise un­til avi­a­tion be­came widely ac­cepted. At that time, leather—the univer­sal choice for pro­tec­tive cloth­ing for auto and mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing—was ideal for avi­a­tion use, as it pro­vided a bar­rier against the cold air and pro­vided an outer shell so that the in­ner gar­ments could re­tain body heat.

Af­ter WW I, air­craft per­for­mance con­tin­ued to ad­vance yet ef­fi­cient cock­pit and cabin heaters lagged, so avi­a­tors re­sorted to full-length leather pro­tec­tive cloth­ing lined with shear­ling. Fash­ion was not a fac­tor; stay­ing warm was the goal. Dur­ing the Golden Age of avi­a­tion, cab­ins be­came pro­gres­sively hos­pitable and cock­pits be­gan to fea­ture en­closed de­signs. Avi­a­tors now needed a range of outer gar­ments, for the low tem­per­a­tures of higher al­ti­tudes and light- and medium-weight flight jack­ets for op­er­a­tions at var­i­ous tem­per­a­ture con­di­tions. This led to a flurry of light­weight, waist-length flight jack­ets that uti­lized large but­tons as fas­ten­ers. Al­though they were still pro­tec­tive cloth­ing, these jack­ets por­trayed a rugged, ad­ven­tur­ous look for squadron pho­to­graphs and could be worn on the ground with­out dis­com­fort. The Army Air Ser­vice A-1 was typ­i­cal of this style of de­sign and led the way for the more stylish A-2 and Navy G-1 flight jack­ets.

Leg­ends Are Born: The A-2 and G-1 Jack­ets

Dur­ing the Golden Age, the mil­i­tary waged an in­tense ef­fort to en­cour­age pub­lic in­ter­est in avi­a­tion, which led to in­creased con­gres­sional sup­port. The stage was set for flight jack­ets to be­come syn­ony­mous with the dash and élan of the air. In 1929, the Army con­tracted for the first A-2 jacket, which fea­tured epaulets that functionally re­tained para­chute straps. It also uti­lized the by-then-avail­able heavy zip­per as a fas­tener, which was more func­tional than the large but­tons used in ear­lier flight cloth­ing, and a dif­fer­ent col­lar. It was an in­stant hit with avi­a­tors. By 1931, it was the stan­dard flight jacket for Army avi­a­tors. The Navy fol­lowed suit a few years later with the G-1 flight jacket, which was sim­i­lar in over­all de­sign but fea­tured goatskin leather, a mou­ton col­lar, and a bi-swing back that fa­cil­i­tated move­ment in the cock­pit. Goatskin, with its dis­tinc­tive, peb­ble­like fin­ish, was cho­sen be­cause it is lighter with­out sac­ri­fic­ing strength and, more im­por­tant, more pli­able at lower tem­per­a­tures, un­like the horse­hide and cowhide used in the A-2 jack­ets (they be­came very stiff in cold cock­pits). The G-1 flight jacket also be­come an in­stant hit with avi­a­tors and was worn over the avi­a­tion green uni­form in squadron spa­ces in lieu of the more for­mal avi­a­tion green jacket. Al­most im­me­di­ately, the jacket be­gan to ap­pear in squadron pho­tos, show­ing its pop­u­lar­ity and es­tab­lish­ing it as a sym­bol of naval avi­a­tion.

By the time the United States en­tered the fray in WW II, both the A-2 and G-1 jack­ets were firmly en­trenched as the flight jack­ets of choice for fly­ing in mod­er­ate cock­pit tem­per­a­tures and were vir­tu­ally the only choice be­fore and af­ter fly­ing. Heav­ier leather flight jack­ets were avail­able for colder cock­pit sit­u­a­tions, but as ev­i­denced by the 8th Air Force B-17 and B-24 air­crews fly­ing out of Eng­land, pi­lots at­tended brief­ings in their A-2s (of­ten dec­o­rated with nose art on the back of the flight jacket). The crews would switch to their full-body leather fly­ing suits for their mis­sions and change back to A-2s

on their re­turn. As for the Navy air­crews, Pa­cific flight op­er­a­tions any­where near the equa­tor were a bit warm for wear­ing the G-1, but it was needed at al­ti­tude. SBD Daunt­less air­crews wore the G-1 into bat­tle at Mid­way.

De­spite the pop­u­lar­ity of the A-2 jacket out­side the cock­pit, the stiff­ness of its horse or cowhide leather did not sit well with the chief of the Air Ser­vice, Gen. “Hap” Arnold. He par­tic­i­pated in a re­view of flight cloth­ing in early 1942, af­ter his staff briefed him on the crit­i­cally low sup­ply of leather raw ma­te­rial and the po­ten­tial for the newly de­vel­oped, mul­ti­p­ile fab­rics that would in­su­late the avi­a­tor bet­ter and not ex­hibit the stiff­ness of leather when sub­jected to cold tem­per­a­tures. When shown a ta­ble with the en­tire range of flight cloth­ing laid out for his ex­am­i­na­tion, he picked up the A-2 and threw it to the floor, ex­claim­ing, “Get some­thing bet­ter.” As an early-avi­a­tion pi­o­neer, he knew first­hand the lim­i­ta­tions of leather in keep­ing

BY THE TIME THE UNITED STATES EN­TERED THE FRAY IN WW II, BOTH THE A-2 AND G-1 JACK­ETS WERE FIRMLY EN­TRENCHED AS THE FLIGHT JACK­ETS OF CHOICE FOR FLY­ING IN MOD­ER­ATE COCK­PIT TEM­PER­A­TURES AND WERE VIR­TU­ALLY THE ONLY CHOICE BE­FORE AND AF­TER FLY­ING.

WW I–era flight garb was a mix­ture of what­ever pi­lots could find—typ­i­cally, from com­mer­cial sources—to pro­tect them­selves from wind blast and tem­per­a­ture ex­tremes. This avi­a­tor wears a fly­ing coat from Har­rods, of Eng­land; a Rus­sian hel­met; and gloves from Green­baum, Weit, and Michaels. Note that the but­tons are at the side to block the path of a frontal wind blast. The slash open­ing on the chest is for maps and dis­patches. (Photo cour­tesy of the Naval Avi­a­tion His­tor­i­cal Cen­ter via the au­thor)

Af­ter WW I, to gain pub­lic in­ter­est and con­gres­sional fund­ing for avi­a­tion, the mil­i­tary staged air­shows and races. Sec­ond Lt. Lau­rens Claude poses with a me­chanic dur­ing the Novem­ber 1920 Pulitzer Air Race. This style of leather coat was fine for lower al­ti­tudes and tem­per­ate weather, but it was not worn with uni­forms out­side the squadron ar­eas. (Photo cour­tesy of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum via the au­thor)

As air­craft speed in­creased, pi­lots were ex­posed to lower tem­per­a­tures, which re­quired more ef­fec­tive pro­tec­tive cloth­ing (few air­craft had heaters, and they were far from ad­e­quate to the task). Here, in 1928 at Wright Field, Capts. Stevens and St. Clair Streett are ready for high­alti­tude test­ing of elec­tri­cally heated full-body flight suits. (Photo cour­tesy of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum via the au­thor)

As cock­pits were en­closed, the Army in­tro­duced the A-1 leather fly­ing jacket; it was not only func­tional but also stylish enough to be worn when not fly­ing. Here, in 1929, af­ter set­ting the en­durance record in Fokker C-2A Ques­tion Mark, the crew pose for the pho­tog­ra­pher. At the far right is fu­ture Lt. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, who went on to com­mand the 8th Air Force in Europe in WW II. (Photo cour­tesy of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum via the au­thor)

Be­low: WW II in Europe saw the A-2 jacket be­come the pre­ferred outer ground gar­ment. Here, avi­a­tors gather in­side a Quon­set hut af­ter a mis­sion. One still wears his B-3 shear­ling-lined jacket, and a B-2 is draped over a garbage can. (Photo cour­tesy of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum via the au­thor)

Right: Gen. “Hap” Arnold (left) poses with guest Will Rogers some­time in 1931 when Arnold was in com­mand of March Field in Cal­i­for­nia. In the open cock­pits of the time, avi­a­tors needed heavy can­vas or leather fly­ing suits such as these. Note the heavy fur gloves. (Photo cour­tesy of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum via the au­thor)

The USN is­sued the M-445A sheep­skin flight jacket for win­ter wear. It was of­ten paired with M-446A sheep­skin trousers. (Photo cour­tesy of In­ter­na­tional Mil­i­tary An­tiques)

When this photo was taken in 1934, Arnold’s A-2 flight jacket had only re­cently en­tered ser­vice. Note the hand-painted Eskimo totem-pole in­signia cre­ated for the B-10 Alaska flight. (Photo cour­tesy of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum via the au­thor)

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