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.
You can get your own piece of flying history from Goodwear Leather for $1,299.
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.
If you want a really good A-2 repro (and you should) check out the one above from Eastman Leather, which is available for £749.
The G-1 picked up where the A-2 left off. It was adopted by the Army and Navy as early as the 30s, but didn’t replace the A-2 among the Air Corps pilots until 1943. It was originally called ANJ-3, but received the G-1 designation after the end of the war.
This new jacket featured a mouton collar and a bi-swing back for greater arm movement (a detail you can see in the above picture). Although also a zipped jacket, the G-1’s zipper lacks the A-2’s “wind flap” detail.
And yes, it’s the jacket from Top Gun. If you were scanning this article to find the Top Gun jacket, this is it.
You can own your own piece of military history (patches not included) from Buzz Rickson. Available for £999.
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.
A heavy-duty jacket designed for the sub-freezing temperatures of high-altitude flying, the B-3 is a great, time-tested option. Schott NYC makes their own repro, which is available for $1,335.
The B-3 peacefully coexisted with its slimmed-down cousin, the B-6. The B-6 arrived on the scene around 1943 and reflected the improving conditions in the bombers for pilots. With cabins slightly warmer, the B-6 was a slightly lighter weight version of the much bigger jacket.
You can see in the above picture that the B-6 fit quite a bit more like the other slim flight jackets, while still retaining many of the most important features of its predecessor. Namely the sheepskin/sheep’s fur combination. With just slightly less shearling for a slimmer fit and only a single throat latch, the B-6 was a somewhat more wearable garment.
This slimmer, shearling masterpiece is available from The Real McCoy’s for $2,245.
Somewhat of a one-off, the B-7 Parka was designed specifically for the men flying in unheated cockpits in the bitter cold of Alaska. The three-quarter length jacket is made from shearling like its B-compatriots and has a coyote fur lined hood. It was only made for one year from 1941 to 1942 and discontinued due to its high production cost.
If you’re committed to “collecting them all” or would just rather spend your money on a jacket than a heating bill this winter, you can pick up a reproduction from Cockpit USA for $1,800.
The B-10 jacket arrived in 1943 and phased out the previous B- models. But as can be seen in the last couple of photos, the timeline for these comings and goings can be a little messy, with different units wearing different versions of jackets and many different contractors designing slightly different models of the same jacket. But, back to the task at hand.
The B-10 was a cloth jacket that came with an alpaca fur collar and lining. It very closely resembled the G-1 jacket, with the same style pockets and the zip-closure without a wind flap. This lighter-weight jacket was not nearly as warm as the sheepskin jackets it discontinued, which must also be seen as evidence of advancing technology, or at least warmer plane cabins. The jacket was released in various olive drabs and navy blue and became incredibly popular even outside of the Air Corps.
The Real McCoy’s has released their own interpretation of this light-weight and versatile flight jacket, which effectively ended the leather era of flight jackets and it’s available for $850 at Standard & Strange.
The B-10’s brief reign ended in 1944 with the flight jacket that would endure for the rest of the 1940s and become what most people today view as a proper bomber jacket. The B-15 had a mouton fur collar and the wool knit waist and cuffs of many of the previous models but was produced in a variety of different shell materials, including nylon and a cotton-rayon blend. Also new was a pen pocket high on the left upper arm of the jacket, a detail that would remain (and grow) for decades to come.
This jacket went mainstream just as the so-called jet age began, with Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947 and The United States Air Force becoming its own independent military branch in the same year. Planes had changed quite a bit since the quaint little Wright Flyer left the ground and so had the clothes of the people that flew them.
For a B-15 reproduction made with the “rough wear” cotton-rayon blend outer, check out Eastman again, which offers the above jacket for $690 at History Preservation.