Each year on August 19th the United States observes National Aviation Day. First established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 it is a day dedicated to the history and evolution of aviation. It is also the birthday of Orville Wright who piloted the first flight in 1903. While not a federal holiday, many take this day to teach about the history of aviation and visit museums or historic aviation sites.
Just as aviation aircraft and equipment have evolved since that first Wright Brothers flight, so has the outerwear worn by military pilots. The U.S. Army established the Aviation Clothing Board in September 1917 and soon began distributing heavy-duty leather flight jackets. Around the same time the U.S. Navy had its own series of leather flying jackets that were issued to the Navy and Marine Corps. In honor of National Aviation Day we take a look back at the evolution of flight jackets worn by all branches of the U.S. military.
A-1 Leather Flight Jacket
The A-1 Flight Jacket was developed in the 1920’s and issued by the U.S. Navy from November 1927 to 1931. The jackets were made of a horsehide russet and secures with seven buttons.
A-2 Leather Flight Jacket
The Type A-2 flying jacket was standardized by the U.S. Army Air Corps in the early 1930s. Originally made of seal skin leather with a cotton lining, the A-2 jacket went on to be constructed of horsehide as the supply of seal skin was not enough to meet the demand for the bomber. The U.S. Army Air Forces Class 13 Catalog describes the jacket material as, “seal brown horsehide leather, knitted wristlets and waistband (skirt).” The A-2 was a waist-length leather jacket that featured two front-patch pockets, webbing attached to the bottom of the jacket and the end of the sleeves to close out the air, and shoulder epaulets.
G-1 Leather Flight Jacket
The U.S. Navy started making the G-1 leather jacket (originally known as the M-445 flight jacket) during the Second World War to replace the A-1. The jacket was form-fitted with a long waist webbing at the bottom, a bi-swing back for easier arm movement and a Mouton collar. The G-1 used button closures on the front pockets.
B-3 Sheepskin Bomber
First designed in 1934 the B-3 bomber became the military-issued cold-weather flight jacket. Aviators who manned the B-17s and B-24s in the skies over Europe in WWII came to rely on their B-3 jackets as they often flew for 8-9 hours in unpressurized cabins, where air temperatures could drop to more than 60 degrees below zero. The bomber was vital to the crew’s comfort as the crimp of the sheep’s wool created insulating air spaces, naturally retaining heat and absorbing excess moisture generated by the body. It remains one of the warmest and most insulating bomber jacket ever made.
B-7 Sheepskin Parka
The B-7 was authorized for official use on July 12, 1941, by the U.S. Army Air Corp. Unlike other sheepskin Air Corps jackets, the B-7 was a parka style, mid-thigh length with an attached hood. The B-7 was designed for use by ground crew personnel assigned to Northern European bases and by the bomber crews that had to endure exceeding cold temperatures experienced in aircraft flying at altitudes above 20,000 feet in the wintertime. Actual production of the B-7 was limited to a few contracts and in 1942, approximately one year after its authorization, the Army Air Force decided to discontinue the B-7. The primary reason for the B-7’s demise was its high cost. The large number of skins required to manufacture the parka and the elegant fur trim on the hood made the B-7 significantly more expensive than shorter jackets.
B-10 & B-11 Flight Jackets
The B-10 was a cloth jacket, with synthetic fur collar and two patch pockets with flaps in front. The cloth jackets were issued in various shades of olive green, tan, and blue. The B-11 “Jacket, Winter, Flying” was a thigh length, heavy cloth coat in tan or olive drab.
B-15 Flight Jacket
The B-15 jacket was first introduced in 1944 to replace the B-10. It was used throughout the late 40’s by the U.S. Air Force pilots and air crews. Designed for cold temperatures, the jacket had a Mouton fur collar and 100% wool knit waistband and cuffs. It also featured a tab to hold the pilot’s oxygen mask as well as a second one to keep the headset wires in place. It went through many revisions including one that started using nylon.
L-2B Flight Jacket
The U.S. military first introduced the L-2B Flight Jacket in the early 1950s as a solution for servicemen who were operating in light temperature zones (50 to 86 degrees F). It replaced the L-2A Flight Jacket which had been done only in Air Force blue nylon. Both were an alternative to the leather bombers that had been popular when open cockpits exposed pilots to all the elements. The nylon allowed for better movement in tight quarters. The mil-spec flight jacket went through 10 revisions (A-K) that changed its look. The L-2B was replaced by the CWU 36/P flight jacket in the 1970s for air crews but some ground crews and USAF personnel continued to wear later revisions of the L-2B (Utility L-2B) into the 1990s.
MA-1 Flight Jacket
Introduced by the mid-1950s, the MA-1 became the flight jacket of U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots and ground crew. Designed for use in temperatures of 14-50 degrees F, the MA-1 had a 100% wool knit collar, waistband and cuffs. The MA-1 discarded the mouton fur collar of its predecessor, the B-15, because it interfered with the parachute harness worn by aviators. Other features of the jacket included a tab that the oxygen mask was clipped to, tabs to hold the headset wires in place and the original U.S. Air Force decal. These features were eventually removed from the flight jacket as it was adopted by other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and equipment for pilots changed. An addition to the jacket in 1960 was the reversibility to show off an Indian Orange lining. The reason being if a plane crashed, the pilot could reverse the jacket to the orange side to signal rescue personnel.
CWU 36/P & 45/P NOMEX Flight Jackets
The early flight jackets were made of nylon fabrics which were found to melt onto the pilot when he was subjected to flames encountered during an aircraft fire. As the technology of materials and fabrics improved, there was a need for a new jacket that would be fire-retardant. This gave rise to the CWU (Cold Weather Uniform) 36/P and 45/P in the 1972. The jacket, made of a NOMEX fabric featured high patch pockets, knit waistband and cuffs, zippered utility/pencil pocket and fire-resistant threads, drawstrings and zipper tapes. NOMEX is a Dupont product that is known for its excellent thermal, chemical, and radiation resistance. The bi-swing back of early jackets was done away with once it was determined that it interfered with safety equipment. Today Air Force pilots are still issued the CWU 36/P and 45/P.