Flight Jackets And The Look Of The Aviator

Aug 22, 2013

If you're going to fly an airplane, you've got to have the right look.  An aviator's kit is not complete without the real deal flight jacket - plus the big watch, sunglasses, checklist charts and navigational equipment.  Aviation commentator Dan Patterson explains.

Flying the very early airplanes was a breezy affair.  The Wright brothers' aeroplanes offered no protection from the wind.  Their flying machines were wide open, and they sat on the edge of the lower wing, facing the wind.

In 1908 Wilbur went to France to demonstrate their Flyer, and he found the weather in northern Europe a lot cooler than the hot and steamy Ohio summer. He appears in photographs from the time in a belted leather jacket with a collar he could turn up.  There are many photographs of Wilbur in his jacket, preparing for a flight or talking about one after landing, using his hands to describe the action, setting the scene for how an aviator looked. 

Less than ten years later, World War I saw the first aerial combat.  The aircraft were biplanes and had open cockpits; leather flight jackets and silk scarves were crucial protection from the cold and wind.  The scarves added to the "look" but had another practical purpose.  The flyer had to keep turning his head to be on the lookout not only for the enemy but to be sure not to get too close to his own squadron mates.  The warm silky scarf kept the flyers from rubbing their necks raw after hours of flying and constantly looking around.

Credit Illustration by J.C. Leyendecker of a dashing aviator

Once back on solid ground though, the same uniform became instantly recognizable as the look of the aviator, a knight of the air and the stuff of legend.  Colliers magazine had on its cover in 1917 an illustration by JC Leyendecker which solidified the aviator image, his jacket partially buttoned up, his flying helmet and goggles in place and a look of extreme confidence.

Amelia Earhart and other women aviators knew about those images and made sure that they were often seen in an appropriate flight jacket and at times a helmet.  Earhart even had a matching jacket and helmet made from white leather.

The brown leather flight jacket from World War II is beyond cool.  In the United Kingdom, the fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain wore their sheepskin lined jackets unzipped with their uniform collar unbuttoned, defying all regulations.  After all, they had fought the German air force in the skies above their homes, defended the realm, and the rules just didn't apply to them.

The Army Air Forces and the US Navy each had their own style.  The Navy jacket sporting a Mouton collar, which is soft and replaced the silk scarf from World War I.  The Army Air Forces jacket was tight fitting as small cockpits didn't have much extra room for a bulky jacket.

The last thing you wanted, he said, was when you were flying upside down in combat, to suddenly have everything in those pockets floating down in front of your face.

Hundreds of thousands of those jackets were brought home after the war and became a part of the society.

Many replica bomber jackets have open sided pockets. Joe Drach, an Air Force aviator who flew in many of America's wars, explained why real flight jackets do NOT have those pockets.  The last thing you wanted, he said, was when you were flying upside down in combat, to suddenly have everything in those pockets floating down in front of your face.

The image of the aviator was picked up by the movies. Rock Hudson in the film Battle Hymn portrayed Dayton area fighter pilot and ace, Col. Dean Hess and wore the fabric flight jacket of the 1950s.  On television in Happy Days, the Fonz defined cool with his surplus jacket.  In the film Top Gun, Tom Cruise wears his all the time, even when it is obviously swelteringly hot.

Now when American presidents fly on Air Force One, they have their own personal leather flight jackets that they wear even when they are not onboard the Presidential airplane.

While the original need was for warmth, flight jackets became a look that was admired and represented respect for accomplishments and ability.  That has not changed because after all, a license to fly is a certificate that must be earned.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.