I've made several posts, over the
years, about my leather jackets. With fall coming on, it's
about time for a bit of history, and a bit of guidance, for when
you're aiming to look like a well-dressed open-cockpit aviator.
A Bit Of History
First off, where did the leather-jacket tradition come from?
It's pretty simple, really: Prior to the era of modern synthetic
fabrics, leather was the only flexible, wearable material that
the wind couldn't penetrate. The early pilots didn't
discover "wind chill," but the speeds of even the early
airplanes gave a full-up demonstration of its effects.
Early aviators needed clothing that the wind couldn't push
through, and leather was elected.
The early aviators were generally rich men;
they owned automobiles which were practically as open as the
aeroplanes of the day, and hence probably already owned
leather coats like our natty Curtiss pilot above. When
World War I came around, most of the pilots in the service
weren't rich men...and, even back then, leather was more
expensive. Here's an ad (courtesy of OldMagazineArticles.com
that shows a 1918 Sears and Roebuck catalog page for Aviator
Notice there ARE leather substitutes (Waterproofed gabardine,
"Leathotex"), but notice the price difference between the faux
leather and the gent in the genuine leather article.
Which one is the one in real leather? The one all the guys
in fake leather are looking at admiringly... the only guy who's
boldly looking straight at the person reading the catalog.
Advertising psychology was NOT invented in the 1950s....
The other reason leather remained popular (in
spite of the price) is how it withstood the rigors of the
cockpit environment. Cockpits back then weren't smooth
vinyl-plated cocoons. There were bolt heads, panel edges,
and sharp-edged pointy things everywhere. Waterproofed
Gabardine and the Leathotex undoubtedly looked fine out of the
box, but they probably got torn to pieces relatively
Most flying togs were made from cow or horse leather, which are
pretty stiff and hard when they complete the tanning
process. It takes concerted effort to actually cut
leather; you can scratch it, but it won't affect its
Plus, of course, real leather won't burn.
The horse and cow leathers were tough, but also incredibly stiff
when new. They needed to get worked in, to make them more
flexible. There are stories of aviation cadets sleeping
atop their brand-new leather jackets to work on softening them
up. Much good THAT did. According to a modern
expert, those coats could take ten years to break in.
Horse-leather became a lot cheaper as the 20th century wore
on. People were selling their carriages to buy cars, and
the militaries were even getting rid of their cavalry horses.
Horses and cows weren't the only leather contributors.
Goatskin was popular as well; it's a bit softer (and hence
doesn't have as much of a breaking-in problem) but is actually
more durable. Sheep provided their input too, culminating
in the Irvin and B-3 jackets of WWII. The biggest problem
with these types of coats is that the goats and sheep are pretty
small...it takes more of them to make a jacket, which
complicates your supply process and matching the various skins.
For a real extreme, check out Roscoe Turner to the right...he's
wearing a lion-skin flying coat. Note the paws have been
turned into gloves. Turner used to fly with a lion cub
named "Gilmore"... wonder what Gilmore thought of this coat?
(Note: Modern leather-preparation techniques have, to a
large part, lost this armor-like ability. People want
"soft" leather now, and these more-supple preparations seem to
make the coats more vulnerable to damage. Be warned....)
By the 1930s, the world's militaries were getting away from open
cockpits. They might open the canopy for takeoff and
landing, but the bulky leather coveralls or long coats were no
longer needed. The US Army Air Corps, the US Navy, and
Britain's RAF all developed standardized flying jackets.
These have come down as the "bomber jackets" still popular
today, and are still the primary styles available to the
US Army Air Corps: The A-2 Flying Jacket
The specification for the A-2 was issued in the 1930s,
calling for horse-hide leather, a spun silk lining, knitted wool
at the cuffs, and a zipper for closure. It also had
knitted wool around the bottom, sealing the jacket from drafts
from below It was similar to the earlier A-1 jacket, with
the major changes being the replacement of the buttons with a
zipper, and replacement of a knit crew-collar with a
conventional one. It's the jacket you'll see in almost all
photos of WWII US Army aviators.
It's also what Douglas MacArthur preferred...most statues of him
show him with an A-2, even the one at West Point.
Strangely enough, one of the first steps of the new Army Air
Force (created in 1941) was to get RID of the A-2! They
stopped procuring them in mid-1942. However, they had such
a large stock on-hand, they were able to issue them to new
aviation cadets for the next two years.
A-2 replicas are probably the most common; just about any pilot
shop sells them. However, few of them...even the ones
claiming to be "authentic replicas" or "made to the same
specification"... totally match the wartime jackets. It's
a bit of a pet peeve of mind.
How do they differ?
Color: Take a look at the color picture
above and the one on the right, and compare the jacket hues to
most of the replicas available today. Most of the
replicas are a very dark brown, approaching black, but the
wartime ones are more of a russet color. There was a bit
of color variation, even then...the specification called for
"seal brown," and there was some difference of opinion as to
what that color actually should be. But look at the A-2s
in the museums, they're all the reddish tone of the picture
above. Some of that could be oxidation, but still....
Lining: Remember what the specification above
said, relative to the jacket's interior? A "spun silk
lining". They did NOT have the layer of insulation all
modern jackets include! The A-2 was what we'd call
a "windbreaker," only. It was not expected to warm the
wearer...that was what the multiple layers of wool uniform
worn UNDER the jacket was expected to do.
The difference is, the wartime A-2s weren't bulky.
Notice how the jackets fit their wearers smoothly.
Modern coats bulge where they shouldn't; like the Michelin Man
decided to take up aviation.
I don't think there's an A-2 sold today that isn't
insulated. Understandable, I guess... people expect
warmth from a leather coat.
Pocket Flap Shapes: OK, a minor issue. But
the lower edges of flaps on the pockets in front were NOT
straight. They were a series of gentle, attractive
curves. You can see it best on the gentleman on the far right
of the first picture in this section. Most modern
jackets don't duplicate this...straight lines, all the way.
Side-Entry Pockets: All right, the one "modern"
innovation I'm in favor of. For those who don't know,
you do NOT stand with your hands in your pockets when wearing
a uniform. The front pockets on an A-2 are accessible
only from the top, which makes it impossible for the wearer to
comfortably tuck his hands inside.
Modern A-2s add a side-entry pockets UNDER the front pockets,
so us civilians can ram our mitts inside to keep them
warm. This isn't as much of a historical faux pas as the
other items...many A-2 owners had such pockets added to their
Cut: Men wore their pants higher and thus the
coats coats back then were tailored shorter. Modern A-2s
are cut a bit longer than the historic ones. Seems
I've flown for the past ~20 years with a couple of A-2s, and
they've served me nicely. Replica A-2s and A-2 look-alikes
are commonly available. You can actually find some pretty
accurate coats fairly cheaply...my last one was just over a
hundred bucks, and it's lasted me nicely for over ten
years. Just about any leather store carries "bomber
jackets". Depending on what authenticity you want, you can
often find something fairly close at one of these places.
The look-alike A-2s tend to differ in one major area: The
collar shape. Some have a broad suit-like collar, others
have a knit collar like an athletic jacket (or the original
A-1). Either works fine in a Fly Baby, but if you're
trying to get something that looks close to an A-2 cheap and
close, pay attention to the collar. Regular A-2s have kind
of a stand-up collar with snaps. Regular A-2s have the
epaulets atop the shoulders, of course. Pocket
configurations can sometimes differ as well (some jackets
eliminate the external pockets).
Note, from the flyability
point of view, there's nothing
wrong with a jacket that departs from the A-2 standard.
It'll often just look like a civilian flying jacket from the
same era. The "Indiana
"-type jacket is a case in point...the moviemakers
deliberately didn't want Indy's coat to look like a "Bomber
jacket", but ended up with something that looked close to an
There's only one key feature to ensure your jacket has:
The knitted cuffs. Without them, the sleeves can act as
scoops and pull cold air into the jackets. The knitted
bottom of the jacket is nice, too, but in the seated position,
there's usually not much of a gap.
US Navy: G-1 Flying Jacket
The Navy's G-1 flying jacket is a bit newer than
the A-2; it came out in the mid- to late-30s. It is
roughly similar to the A-2 design, but with some major design
The most obvious is the mouton collar, basically the wool of a
sheep with a bit of hide attached. It gives a good bit of
warmth around the neck, plus smoothness...important when your
head is on a swivel looking for Zeros.
The standard jacket uses goatskin, with a distinctive pebbled
appearance vs. the smooth finish of the A-2. This led to
the nickname of the G-1: "Goat Coat." As mentioned
above, goat is very durable and comfortable.
There are other differences, such as no epaulets, and an
improved cut that restricts one's motion less.
The big difference with the G-1 is that it has been authorized
wear for Naval Aviators nearly continuously since the
1930s. The Air Force got away from leather coats for a
number of years, but continuous generations of sailors and
Marines have earned their Goat Coats since before the Second
World War (there was, apparently, a five-year gap in the late
Where Army and Air Force pilots generally were allowed only one
unit patch on their flying jackets, the tradition in the Navy is
to retain patches from previous units or deployments. It's
kind of like the modern equivalent to sailor's tattoos... you
can tell where a pilot has been and what he's done by the
patches on his G-1.
The A-2's main celebrity is MacArthur, but most famous wearer of
the Navy G-1 is Tom Cruise, in "Top Gun." The movie caused
a real surge of interest in the G-1 jacket. A lot of
interest is for jackets that are already covered with patches,
so you see things like 19-year-olds wearing patches claiming to
be an F-14 pilot. The legitimate jackets are far
outnumbered by the duplicates.
Modern G-1s, like the A-2 replicas, have insulation that wasn't
in the WWII versions. The mouton collar makes the G-1 a
pretty good choice for open-cockpit wear. G-1s that
are accurate in design can flip up the collar and button it
across, protecting one's neck from the icy blast.
Royal Air Force Irvin Jacket/Army
Air Force B-3 Jacket
I'm going to lump these together due to their similar style.
Les Irvin got his original fame as the designer of one the most
practical parachutes, but his company branched out into pilot
wear in the 1930s. He designed the classic Irvin jacket
worn by the RAF during WWII and after.
The Irvin is a shearling jacket; basically the outside of a
sheep turned inside out. The wool is on the inside, the
leather on the outside. The entire intention of the coat
. The collar shows the wool, and there
are straps to wrap it up around the face.
One problem with the Irvin: It was hard to
wear with a Mae West (inflatable life jacket). Either it
went over the collar and sat very high, or the wearer had to
feed the collar through the smallish opening in the life
jacket. Neither was really workable in a "scramble"
situation. Often, pilots would cut the entire collar off.
The celebrity Irvin jacket wearer? Monty himself...Field
Marshal Bernard Montgomery, to you folks.
The AAF B-3 was introduced a bit later. The design is
almost identical... a shearling jacket with a broad collar and
straps.The main differences is that the Irvin jacket has a belt
around the waist, where the B-3 would have straps on either
side. The Irvin also had zippers on the sleeves to
accommodate heavy gloves. Neither coat would normally have
pockets, but they were often added by crewmen and most
reproductions include them.
You tended to see the B-3 on bomber crewmen, especially in
airplanes with open gun positions. The most famous
wearer? General George Patton.
I may not be quite as famous as Patton, but I own a B-3 in
addition to my A-2. Believe me, if you're afraid of being
cold while flying your Fly Baby in chilly weather, get a B-3.