American Flight Jackets From 1927 to 1946
Four miles south of Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright were probably too busy celebrating the success of the world’s first functional fixed-wing aircraft to realize the impact their invention would have on the way people dressed. The airplane, as it would come to be called, would prove to be devastatingly effective on the battlefield and become a crucial part of any modern mechanized war effort. But it was later, in the American armed services, that the now-essential piece of outerwear we call the flight jacket was invented.
Even after the wars were over and the pilots went home, their jackets stayed important, becoming something of a phenomenon especially with those who hadn’t flown. It wasn’t just because these jackets were warm and fit well, but because there was something otherworldly iconic about the people who wore them as members of the newest and least-tested branch of the armed services. As technology advanced, sending pilots higher and faster into the unknown, their uniform changed, but this aura of idealized American ingenuity and military might remained.
As the American military began to expand into the unrivaled behemoth it is today, its know-how with outerwear grew apace. This article examines the first flying jackets produced by the U.S. military from the first standardized garment in 1927 through the beginning of the jet age in 1950.
A Little Bit of History
The Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps was the military branch that helped the American doughboys fight the Germans during World War I. But the first step toward the modern flight jacket was made until 1917 with the founding of the Aviation Clothing Board. The planes of the time had open cockpits, so it was absolutely essential that pilots be well-garbed for duty. All told, it was undoubtedly a wet, cold, and unpleasant business being a pilot in the early days of military flight.
The Aviation Section became the Army Air Service in 1918, which would in turn become the United States Army Air Corps in 1926. As planes improved, so too did the structure and bureaucracy of the military branch commanding them. Even the uniforms got better.
First produced in 1927 and decommissioned in 1931, the A-1 was a vital first step in the creation of the iconic flight jacket. Made by a number of contractors, details vary widely on these jackets, but most had several things in common.
The A-1 had a knit waistband and cuffs, which not only insulated the jacket from cold air, but gave it a particularly flattering fit, high on the waist. The A-1 also had flapped pockets near the waist, but the size and stitching of these are all over the place depending on the contractor or whether they were used by the Air Corps or Navy. The original jacket had seven buttons and a knit collar, details that did not live on in the following models. There is some disagreement about what leather was used for these jackets, but it seems that goatskin, sheepskin, and horsehide were all used at different times and by different contracted factories.
Although the A-1 is not nearly the most iconic of the jackets discussed here, its value cannot be underestimated. As planes became more complex and pilots more daring, the link was forged between the courageous pilot and his jacket. Above, Charles Lindbergh wears a well-worn A-1 style jacket before completing the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927.
The A-2 Flight Jacket arrived on the scene in the early 1930s and became standard issue for the Air Corps. First made from a “seal brown” horsehide leather with a silk lining, quality of the jackets fell somewhat with wartime rationing and the transition to a goatskin leather with cotton lining.
Despite the technological advances made in the previous years of aviation, the A-2 was still optimized for an open-air cockpit and so featured heavy duty fasteners and again had the knit waist and cuffs. The zipper and the collar are the biggest differences from the A-1 and despite the fact that the cut is relatively similar, there is something more debonair about the A-2.
The A-2 was finally phased out in 1943, but the jacket worn by the Air Corps daredevils of World War II would become perhaps the best known of the ones on this list. They were so cool, in fact, that when Steve McQueen played Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape, he of course needed an A-2.
While some of the above jackets are mistakenly referred to as “bomber jackets” by laymen, the B-3 was a jacket designed specifically for the high-altitude needs of bombers. This was a bulky sheepskin jacket with a heavy-duty sheep-fur lining meant to keep folks warm 25,000 feet in the air.
For extra protection, the wide sheepskin collar could be closed with two leather straps. Far bulkier than the flight jackets, the B-3 does not have the knit waistband and trim fit that made the other jackets famous. Rather its warmth and durability made it a hit, even with Army General George S. Patton.