Born in the Skies: The Flight Jacket

February 25, 2015

The flight jacket. A bomber jacket. The bombardier. Whatever you want to call it there’s no denying this modish piece of history has left an indelible mark on the fashion world. It’s sophisticated yet stylish and comes with all of the flair you’d expect from a jacket designed for those who live life flying through the skies.

Before you make an inevitable purchase of your own flight jacket, it might help to understand where it came from.

First in Flight
The flight jacket has its origins in the early 1900s when fighter pilots in World War I were still taking to the skies in open cockpits. In case you’ve never been in a plane, you should know it gets a little chilly up high. The pilots would throw on any bit of clothing they could find just to keep warm.

The U.S. Army saw a need for some heavy-duty jackets that would allow the pilots to move freely enough to maneuver the planes without hindrance, but would also keep them warm during battle. Thus, in 1917 the Aviation Clothing Board was created. They worked around the clock to design jackets that could keep the pilots warm and ready to strike when needed.

It took nearly a decade before the first true flight jacket was developed. A British manufacturer named Leslie Irvin was the designer of the first Classic Sheepskin Flying Jacket. During World War II his jackets were so in demand that he couldn’t handle the load, so other contractors stepped in and variations began to take shape.

The American Originals
Though the British might lay claim to the first official flying jacket, it was the Americas that finessed it into the perfect style.

The U.S. Air Corp began issuing the A-2 Bomber Jacket in the 1930s before the start of the Second World War. They were originally lined with cotton and made with sealskin leather, but that eventually gave way to horsehide when finding sealskin became impractical. Standard issue required a snap-flap patch pocket on the front and a shirt-style snap-down collar. The A-2 was a waist-length jacket with webbing on the bottom and sleeves to help keep out air. It only lasted 12 years before being replaced.

The replacement became known as the G-1 Flight Jacket. A longer waist and webbing helped ensure warmer body temperatures while the front metal laces on the A-2 were replaced with buttons. The G-1 also came with a By-Swing Back that allowed airmen to move more freely, while still being more form fitting than its predecessor. The G-1 experienced a lot of popularity throughout World War II, so much that the Navy was forced to cancel production because it was impossible to keep up with demand.

The G-1 eventually staged a comeback during Desert Storm and is still used today.

The Synthetic Era
Eventually, as with all clothing, someone thought they could do it better with synthetic materials rather than leather and the B-Series Bomber Jackets were born. They ended up being kind of right. The synthetic B-10 jacket was both lighter and warmer than the previous models.

As jets became more prominent in the military pilots were able to reach heights they hadn’t seen before. The traditional leather jackets had trouble withstanding the cold and would begin to crack and freeze at higher altitudes. The synthetic nylon B-15 series jacket came around in 1944 and had a mouton fur collar lining the neck.

However, they didn’t last long.

The Modern Day MA-1
The MA-1, designed in 1949, was the first flight jacket to make a successful transition from military use to public consumption due to its practicality. It was outfitted with a tough nylon outer shell and a nylon lining, but in between it contained a double-faced wool material for extra warmth. Within a few years of initial development the wool was replaced with polyester to make the jacket lighter.

The MA-1 ditched the fur collar of the B-15 because it was causing problems for pilots when they attempted to wear a parachute harness. Later models contained reversible designs so the jacket could be flipped inside out to showcase a bright orange to act as a signal in case pilots were in need of rescue. It made them easier to spot.

The MA-1 went through several incarnations, some including loops designed to hold wires running through the pilot’s helmet and others contained a clip to hold an oxygen mask. The commercial models added water repellent treated fabric to keep people dry in the rain as well as acrylic blends in place of wool.

So Which is the Best?
That’s really a matter of personal opinion, but the traditional leather look of the original flight jackets is a style that’ll never go out of style. Sure, nylon is nice and gets the job done, but there’s something about the worn leather cracks of the original that makes it stand out. It’s vintage and, you know what they say, a classic never dies.



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