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