THE TALE OF TWO JACKETS
A VERY DIFFERENT RESCUE
There is a certain brotherhood among naval aviators. It is an unspoken code that has at its core this thought: “I will cover your six.” It covers a variety of situations, but in the case of this story, it took on a very different meaning.
There I was in the antique store in downtown Oklahoma City, in my business suit, after work hours, in full search mode for those treasures that can be found in such environments. On an earlier mission, I had found a Douglas Aircraft globe lapel pin and a genuine Pan American Airways circular slide rule, a precursor to the modern E-6 navigation tool. It was a target-rich environment: models, books, lapel pins, even flight gear from an earlier time.
As I rounded the end of an aisle, I came upon a tantalizing target set: two pristine Navy flight jackets, fully outfitted with genuine “I’ve been there” patches; the “Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club” and several centurion patches, documenting 100 traps each in the RA-5C Vigilante jet, proudly decorated them. I thought, “What a find!” Salivating at the price of $40 each, I was ready to buy, then the brotherhood spoke to me. Whoa!
These treasures could only be here for two possible reasons. First, the owner had passed away and his family had no regard for his service or the value of these treasured artifacts, or second, they were stolen from him. I leaned toward number two. With the name John Carter on each, it seemed that it would be impossible to find the owner, his true story, and the real deal on these treasures. I am a “big airplane” kind of aviator, not a Tailhook guy, but here I was finding a fellow naval aviator’s lost treasures. As I was still standing right there in front of the flight jackets, I called another fellow naval aviator who had flown the Vigi.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “John Carter, call sign ‘Big Bird,’ was one ‘Sierra Hotel’ pilot, who went to the airlines after all those traps. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma. Don’t have his phone number but here’s his email. I think he is in good health.”
I bought the jackets and resolved to connect with Big Bird and return his treasures forthwith. He was out of the country, unfortunately, and did not see his email for days on end. Finally, I got his “OMG” email response. “Yes. Those are stolen! Tell me how I can get them back.” We agreed on meeting during my next trip to OKC.
To make a long story short, he and his wife Diana bought my dinner that night, but I would not take payment reimbursement. I later paid a return visit the antique store and chewed them out, only to hear, “We just buy stuff and resell it. We don’t ask where it came from.” Clearly, you have to be in the brotherhood to understand the deep-seated attachment to such treasures that rode along with you hour after hour in the jet and made all those carrier landings. As I already mentioned, there is a certain brotherhood among naval aviators. It is an unspoken code that has at its core this thought: “I will cover your six.” So that day, my brain said “Big Bird, I’ve got your six.”— Capt. Vern Lochausen, USN, Retired
Reproductions and Repurposed Artifacts: A Viable Alternative
Let’s face it, even though there may have been hundreds of thousands of leather flight jackets made and similar numbers of uniforms, belt buckles, etc. produced, WW II is three-quarters of a century gone, so the supply of almost everything vintage and original is limited. This, coupled with the rising interest in aviation history and the re-enactor movement, has given rise to a growing industry in producing accurate replicas of the more popular items from bygone eras. The leader in that area is the leather flight jacket, which started the reproduction movement.
Although it is dangerous to point to an individual or company that actually launched the 1970s’ reintroduction of the leather flying jacket, certainly Jeff Clyman and Avirex (now Cockpit USA) were in on the ground floor. Reportedly, in the mid-’70s, Clyman, who flew a T-6 Texan and always wore his dad’s old A-2 leather jacket, recognized a market in the inordinate amount of interest airshowgoers paid to his jacket. As a collector and trader in such jackets, he recognized the demand and also recognized that the supply of originals couldn’t possibly keep pace with it. The solution? Begin manufacturing those jackets himself, and a company, which has lasted the 40 years since, was born. In the process, Clyman pioneered processes of producing the exact texture and finish of the various leathers used in the originals so that they appear, well, original. As would be expected, Cockpit USA’s success didn’t go unnoticed, and others jumped into the replica jacket fray, until today, all one needs do is search for “leather flying jacket” on the Internet to get a bewildering array of suppliers.
Today’s suppliers, such as flight jackets.com, supply more than flying jackets and, in fact, not only can pretty much clothe the flight crew but also offer items like the unique caps and sweaters maintenance crews wore. If it was worn during WW II, someone, somewhere is reproducing it. This even includes wood propellers as marketed by aviationart hangar.com and asimplertime.com.
The purpose of reproductions of any kind is to offer less expensive but still usable versions of items we now see mostly in yellowing photographs. At the same time, the memorabilia market features decorative items, such as wall clocks and airplane models, that recall the era if not the detail.
Virtually every jacket company has the legendary A-2 in its line, but some are more authentic than others. (Photo courtesy of Cockpit USA)
What’s cooler than desk or wall clocks that look like an altimeter? (Photos courtesy of sportys.com)
Reproductions of the B-2 fleece-lined hat are perfectly wearable today, as are some of the leather flying helmets being produced. (Photos courtesy of flight jackets.com)