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A Brief History of Bomber Jackets, Flight Jackets, and other Flight Gear


A Brief History of Bomber Jackets & B15 Bomber Jackets, Flight Jackets, and Flight Gear during WWII.

During early flight and throughout the First World War pilots rode in open cockpits. These daredevils of the sky were quick to wear whatever they could find that was warm and that often included whatever their personal finances could afford. There was not much in the way of 'Service Issued' military clothing issued pilots and crews, other than the standard uniform. There was nothing like a standard Bomber Jacket or Flight Jacket at that time. What they could find to wear was clearly functional for practicality and warmth. In France and Belgium, the Royal Flying Corps had begun wearing long leather jackets in 1915, and the trend caught on. However, it took the U.S. Army until September 1917 to establish the Aviation Clothing Board. Finally, they began distributing heavy duty Leather Flight Jackets; with high wrap around collars, zipper closures with wide thick wind flaps, snug cuffs and waits. Some even came fringed and lined with fur. The American flight and bomber jacket was born.

On May 9, 1931, the U.S. Army Air Corp brought into being the new Standard Issue Leather 'Type A2 Bomber Jacket'. The U.S. Navy soon followed with the 'Type M-445 Flight Jacket' for both Pilots of the Navy and Marine Corps (later this same model was called the G1 Flight Jacket). The issues were made of Seal Skin and Horsehide Leather with a functional cotton lining. However, as the Air Corp gained popularity and its enlisted ranks swelled, the sealskin was deemed unpractical to fill large government orders. The Department of War expressly used horsehide for their Type A2 Bomber Jacket as it was plentiful in the United States Leather Tanning Markets. Today, both the A2 and G1 are made to Department of Defense Standards for Military Issue using only Goatskin and Cowhide Leather.

The Type A2 Bomber Jacket was a waist length leather jacket that featured two front patch pockets toward the bottom, stretch webbing attached to the bottom of the jacket and at the end of the sleeves to close out the air, shoulder epaulets, and nothing else. It was a real 'Plain Jane' intended to look good for the Generals, and be barely functional for the wearer. However, there were several different types of styles for use within the U.S. Army, but the Type A2 Bomber Jacket added a brilliant distinction to the U.S. Army Air Corp.

As American Pilots and Crewman took to the sky against the Axis in WWII, they used a wide variety of flight gear along with their A2 Bomber Jackets. Besides the Type A2 Bomber Jacket was the widely used Type B3 Bomber Jacket (also known as B3 Shearling or Sheepskin Jacket). There were flight helmets, trousers, boots, oxygen masks, gloves, goggles, and a whole host of other items. This was a new modern war that brought with it new requirements and equipment to meet those requirements.

B-17G: U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Michael A. Kaplan
B-17G: U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Michael A. Kaplan

A new issue was the B-6 Flying Helmet that featured leather ear-cups for earphones. Over this shearling helmet usually went the Mk VIII Royal Air Force Goggles that were so popular with both British and American flight crews. The Brits just made a cool working pair of goggles and the young Americans knew a good thing when they saw it. Attached to the B6 Helmet was the T-30 Throat Microphone that was later plugged into the wired airship communications system aboard the aircraft. Later, Americans went to the B-8 Orange Tinted Shield Goggles which allowed a more expanded view, especially for turret gunners.

Most bomber crews used the A8-B Oxygen Mask that was fitted with leather straps. It did not need to be attached to any helmet and included a funny looking expanding bladder. Sometimes, the Mask had trouble with condensation from normal breathing and it could display dangerous freeze issues at high attitude. Men who were coming down with a cold were often grounded due to having to use this mask. Coughing and wheezing into it tended to stop-it-up and the wearer could suffocate due to lack of air.

Warmth and dryness was a critical factor for both bomber crews and fighter pilots, especially since the high flying gallants faced temperatures as low as 65 degrees below zero with open windows and unpressurized cabins. To combat this freezing air, many crews used the A-4 Summer Flying Suit, and sometimes, adding over that the newly designed F-1 Electrically Heated Suit, along with its lead plug which used the planes electrical system. Only then did the A2 Bomber Jacket go on. Flyers were layered on the clothing, just to keep functioning at such cold attitude.

However, the dressing pilot or crew member was just getting started. Over the feet went the Pattern 1940 RAF flying boots (if you could get a pair) and the B3 Life Preserver (called the May West after the famous actress) that strapped over the shoulders, between the legs and around the waist.

Then you could try to fit into the issued B7 Back Pack Parachute and its heavy weaved harness. The adjustable harness was tricky at best. It ran both between your legs with a strap for each legs, and over your shoulders. Here, the Pilot or Crewman had to be careful as the harness came together around the waist. With the Life Preserver on and secured, the crew member had to make sure to run the heavy harness underneath its front so as not to impede the wide chest snap. Do it wrong, and you were going to cause yourself serious trouble if you had to bail out over the water. Many A2 Bomber Jackets had a little whistle attached to the clip of the collar; it could come in real need if you floating in the water, looking for other downed crewman, or just plain help.

Later, Pilots and Crews also wore the An-6514-1A Chest Parachute.

After all that work, now you could put your H1 Emergency Bail-Out Oxygen Bottle in your boot shaft and grab your A9 Shearling Gloves. Afterward, you looked at the table just to be sure you picked up your Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, or Camel Cigarettes and your Army Air Forces book of matches. Some used Hammer Head Matches.

The U.S. Navy's Type G1 Flight Jacket was somewhat different than the Army's Type A2. The U.S. Navy was separate from the Army and insistent that their issue would be according to naval needs. Its body was more form fitted with longer waist Webbing at the bottom and a pile Mouton Collar. Where the A2 used metal snaps on the front patch pockets, the G1 used buttons (a long naval tradition). The Navy's Type G1 Flight Jacket also featured a By-Swing Back for easier arm movement for fighter pilots sitting in a close cockpit environment, or so thought the U.S. Navy Department.

WWII Carrier Deck Take Off

Still, the B3 Shearling dominated in the minds of bomber pilots. Leslie Irvin first designed and manufactured the Classic RAF Sheepskin Flying Jacket, The Shearling. In 1926 he set up a manufacturing company in the United Kingdom, and became the main supplier of sheepskin flight jackets to the Royal Air Force during most of the Second World War. However the demand during the early years of the war was so great that the Irvin Company engaged sub-contractors. This explains design and color variations, which are sometimes apparent in early productions and very meaningful for serious collectors.

The Americans also took to Shearling Jackets. The B3 Shearling Bomber Jacket was most popular with high altitude flight. It was the sheepskin B3 Flying Jacket or Type B3 Shearling Bomber Jacket. Made of real genuine Shearling (soft wool never separated from the tanned skin), the B3 Shearling Flight Jacket keep many a crewman and pilot from freezing in the cold higher elevations. They were also worn with the B3 heavy trousers. They were issued all around to Army Air Corp, U.S. Navy, and Marine air crews. The B3 was often slipped over the other types of flying suits for that finishing touch of extra warmth.

Sometimes, the B3 Shearling Bomber Jacket was worn over the A2 Bomber Jacket. In today's market place, most B3 Shearling are replicas and not close to the real thing made during the war. The Patton Model B3 is the closest to the original today as far mass marketing goes, unless a manufacture makes a true imitative 'Retro' model that always comes with a very high price tag, more than what most can afford (high quality minimums reach $1,200, or even higher pending on manufacturer, some cost around $2,500 to $4,000 for a superior custom fit).

Though the B3 Shearling Bomber Jacket was heavily issued during the entire war, a different model of sheepskin flight jacket emerged. Many Bomber Pilots switched to the new issued AN-J-4 Shearling Flight Jacket. The An-J-4 featured more arm and waist protection against wear with horsehide leather supports sewn onto the outside arms. Crawling in and out of the forward flight deck pitted leather against metal and metal win that conflict every time. As a result, extra tough horsehide supports were sewn on and this new creation was called the Type AN-J-4 Flight Jacket. Many photographs of flight crews gathered before their bombers on the flight deck revel many regular crew members wearing well worn B3 Bomber Jackets ---with their Captain, Co-Pilot, and Navigators sporting their AN-J-4 Shearling Flight Jackets.

As the war progressed, altitudes got higher, speeds got faster, and temperatures grew colder ---warmer clothing for air crews was needed. Most heavy bombing raids in Europe during the Second World War took place from altitudes at least 25,000 ft, where it could reach as cold as minus 50 degrees Celsius. For fighter pilots, the temps grew even colder as they flew even higher than the bombers.

Later, some Bomber Crews were issued the F2 Heated Flight Jacket. It looked something like a cross between the Type A2 and B10 (discussed later), but it was a wool-shelled jacket with heat elements running throughout the body and sleeves. It also sported a light colored imitation fur collar, most collars were cream in color, but other variations were issued. The F2 was accompanied with the F2 Heated Trousers and the F2 Black Felt Boots and Heated Gloves. Now the airman had all sorts of heat wires and plugs hanging from his clothing. The Life Preserver was updated to the B4 Life Vest.

The F2 Heated Flight Jacket and Trousers were made for use with the new upcoming B10 and B15 Bomber Jackets that were to replace the Leather Bomber Jacket of old.

High casualties over Europe brought bomber air crews the M3 Flak Helmet, made to fit over the B3 leather helmet. And a kind of rudimentary early model Flak Vest made by the British Wilkinson Company. With the need and use for such additional amour for flight crews, problems arose on how it was all going to fit on a person. Aircraft were just not insulated against such cold and freezing air. Heavy flight jackets were certainly essential. A2's and G1's were alright, and need for Shearling was apparent, but the problems of high altitude flight along with the heavy weight and the encumbrance of such thick clothing begged another solution. Soon came the new B-Series Synthetic Jackets came into the war theaters and the heated flight suites began use.

Soon, the B10 Satin-Nylon and the B15 Flight Jackets or B15 Bomber Jackets, were in huge demand. Made of a wool and nylon blends, these two bomber jackets proved as warm as and much lighter than the old Leather A2 Bomber Jacket.

Carrier Deck Pilots in pre-flight briefing

Sometime around March of 1944, some bomber crews dropped the A2 and B3 Leather Jackets in favor of the newly issued heated flight suites, principally the F-2 heated Flight Suit and the later upgraded F3 version. Everything about this suite had a plug-in, and the B10 and the B15 Bomber Jackets were plainly lighter, easier to move in, and improved utility. The B10 Bomber Jacket and B15 Bomber Jacket also went with the new F-3 Heated Flight Suit and A9 alpaca lined flying trousers. With this went the A-6 Lined Flying Boots.

Most strikingly, common sizes during the war were chest sizes 30 inch through 42 inch. Back then, the man who sported a barreled 42 inch was a customer you might not want to mix with. Curiously, the B10 and B15 Bomber Jacket Models were later to be the main forerunners for other jacket styles made of nylon and other blends for the civilian jacket market.

Shortly after taking command, General Hap Arnold rejected the A2 Leather Bomber Jacket. The newer synthetic B-Series Bomber Jackets now gained esteem. The B-10 was the first of the non-leather jackets to become popular with the air crews as featured in many war photos of the period. The B10 Issued Jacket was considered far lighter and much warmer than the Type A2 Issued Leather Jacket which came with just a thin lining that did not offer the wearer much warm at high altitude. The B-15 was issued improvement in late 1944 and soon replaced the B10 as the issued jacket. Today, styles range from the cotton twill B-series, the standardized flight jacket of the Navy, the CWU-series and the MAI series. Although General "Hap" Arnold cancelled the issuance of the original A-2 Bomber Jacket, the Jacket still remains as the most recognizable and sought after American Bomber jacket.

B3 Bomber Jacket

Sometime around March of 1944, some bomber crews dropped the A2 and B3 Leather Jackets completely in favor of the new heated flight suites, principally the F-2 heated Flight Suit and the later upgraded F-3 version. Everything about this suit had a plug-in, except for the rubberized May-West, a neck and chest fitted floatation B2, B3, or B-4 Life Vest. The F-2 and F-3 Heated Flight suit were much lighter than leather, easier to move in, and much warmer.

During 1943 to 1945, there are oodles of military and personal photographs of the period that show air crews wearing a wide plethora of flight gear and different jackets. A mixed bag of issued flight equipment and apparel Officers of one crew might be wearing an A2 Bomber Jacket or AN-J-4 Shearling Jacket while several other lower ranks might be wearing an A4 Flight suit with a B-10 or B15 Jacket worn over it. Several other crew members may have on a B3 Shearling. The assortment of jackets worn on any one mission by different crew members is astonishing and it seems that keeping warm was a very personal thing for each crew member.

However, three main jacket styles: the A2 Bomber Jacket, the G1 Flight Jacket, and the B3 Shearling Bomber Jacket, became symbols of Honor, Legend, Adventure, and Manliness. Hollywood movies are filled with them, making these once specialized flight jackets true Collector and Fashion items. The Leather Fashion Market still loves their simplistic and rugged looks as does the consumer buying public. These three jackets are synonymous within the men's leather market as the 'little black dress' has become for the women's dress market. General Arnold's orders notwithstanding, the Type-A2 Bomber Jacket is still issued to Pilots in the U.S. Air Force today. So is the G1 Flight Jacket for the U.S. Navy & Marines. Today, they are made of Goatskin and American Cowhide.

The G-1 Flight Jacket also had its survival problems. First designed by the US Navy to parallel the Air Corps' version of the A-2 Bomber Jacket, its military issue existed until 1978, where Congress forced its cancellation because its tremendous popularity was overwhelming the Navy's supply system. However, because of that very popularity, the Navy G1 Flight Jacket made its military comeback as a 'Department of Defense, Naval Department Official Military Issued Jacket' during Desert Storm and is still issued to pilots and Naval and Marine Officers today.

Most modern civilian jacket styles have their start with these favorite military styles. Even the original issued B-10 and B-15 Bomber Jackets have provided the base designs for most nylon and cotton blend jacket styles found on the market today at your favorite stores. Even many of today's parkas and formal trench coats have a military ancestor in their linage.

Still, whoever wears a bomber or flight jacket creates a new and affirmative persona. This can be both a rugged and adventurous look, or a legendary and honorable bearing. No matter which bomber or flight jacket you wear, it all boils down to how people will see you in it. When a man is seen wearing a good leather bomber jacket, it conveys a unique esteem, and those looking on cannot help but think to themselves, "there walks a special man".

Leather Jacket Repair & Restoration

Often folks contact us concerning an older leather jacket that is a treasured or prized heirloom, something Dad wore in the Service, or just a special Leather Jacket they purchased years back and is now showing serious wear. Although we do not do perform such repairs or restorations, we recommend Willow Evans for all repairs and restorations of leather jackets. Willow does meticulous work, ---repairing webbing, zippers, collars, cuffs, snaps, and even difficult leather restoration. Even old dried out Leather can actually be restore to its original state or close to it. So, if you do have an aged or damaged jacket, AmericanMistique.com directs you to Willow Evans, a full Tailor specializing in the repair and restoration of damaged Leather Jackets, be they Bomber or Flight Jackets, or even prized Motorcycle Jackets and Vests .

Contact Willow Evans at:
Tel: (615) 428-1391
Willow Rose Evans
110 South Central Ave
Centerville, TN 37033

Please feel free to contact us about your experience with Willow.    

Please note that Willow Evans is independent from AmericanMistique.com and is not affiliated with AmericanMistique.com.

 

Americanmistique.com proudly serves Greater Minnesota and the Midwest.

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