Leather Flying Jackets

Leather Flight Jackets are a classic fashion look as well as being a desirable garment for any aviation enthusiast. But before the advent of more modern synthetic fibres, these were an essential piece of clothing for anyone taking to the skies, especially fur-lined leather flying jackets. Here we look at their use and evolution through the years.

As early as 1917, the US Army and Navy began distributing heavy-duty leather flying jackets to its pilots. To put this date in context, it is a mere 14 years after the first flight by the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

A-1 Leather Flight Jacket

The first documented model of an issued leather flight jacket is, appropriately enough, the A-1 Leather Jacket. This was issued by the US Navy from 1927 to 1931 and was made from horsehide leather with seven buttons down the front. It had a characteristic stand-up knitted collar and knitted waistband.

A-2 Leather Flight Jacket

Next, in 1931, came the A-2 Flight Jacket. With a silk or cotton lining, the outer was originally made from seal skin, but due to limited supply this was soon replaced by horsehide leather (although some were made from goatskin or cowhide). This classic design of flying jacket was a waist length version with two front patch pockets, knitted cuffs and waistband (or "skirt"), and shoulder epaulettes. The pockets were positioned in such a way as to discourage airmen walking around with their hands inside them - as this was deemed unseemly. The buttons on the front of the earlier A-1 model were replaced by a more practical zipper and concealed press-studs. Also, the A-1's stand-up knitted collar was replaced by a more conventional leather collar which could be latched together at the front and the points of the collar fastened down by press-studs. The back of the jacket was constructed from a single piece of leather to better withstand the stresses placed upon it.

The colour of the A-2 jackets was generally "seal brown" (dark, almost black, brown) or "russet" (a medium red-brown colour). By modern standards, the original A-2 jacket was a rather slim fit. It fitted the typically thinner male of the 1930s and was especially a snugger fit around the shoulders. It was typically worn over just a shirt or a shirt and flight suit combined.

Airmen were given their A-2 leather jacket by the quartermaster after completing their basic flight training but before starting their advanced training. Every airman valued his A-2 jacket greatly, adding various patches, ranks and artwork to it. Bomb crews sometimes added small bombs as a tally of the number of missions they'd flown.

During the later years of World War 2, and after tens of thousands being issued, the supply of leather A-2 jackets was largely superseded by jackets constructed by cloth. This made the leather A-2 jacket even more desirable and a cottage industry developed making A-2-style jackets for GIs and airborne troops.

Although the US Navy continued to supply A-2 jackets pretty much without interruption, it wasn't until 1988 that the US Air Force began issuing them again (a couple of years after the release of the film Top Gun - coincidence or not?). These modern jackets are looser fitting and made from goatskin.

Virtually no other military jacket has entered popular culture to the extent of the A-2 flight jacket. Henry Winkler's Fonzie character wore one throughout the series Happy Days. Colonel Hogan in Hogan's Heroes and Murdock in The A-Team also wore them. And the jacket can also be spotted in films such as The Great Escape and Patton.

G-1 Leather Flight Jacket

The G-1 leather jacket (including its predecessor, the M-422) started to be issued by the US Navy during World War 2 and still remains a current uniform item for some aviation personnel now. This jacket had a mouton or sheepskin fur collar along with a knitted waist band and cuffs and a bi-swing back for easier arm movement. It is also recognisable as the jacket worn by Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

B-3 Sheepskin Leather Flight Jacket

Next comes the B-3 Sheepskin Lined Leather Flying Jacket, commonly referred to as a B-3 Bomber Jacket. This is one of the most widely recognised leather flying jackets with its full off-white sheepskin lining. This was the de facto cold weather flight jacket issued by the military during World War 2. At this time pilots were flying long range missions over Europe in aircraft such as the B-17 Flying Fortress. The crew of these bombers could find themselves on eight hour missions flying at an altitude of 30,000 feet in unpressurised cabins and the air temperature could drop to 60 degrees below zero. So the sheepskin lining of these jackets became essential for the crew as it created an insulating layer of air around their body, helping them to retain body heat and also wick away any excess moisture.

Our version of the classic B-3 leather bomber jacket
Our version of the classic B-3 leather bomber jacket

During World War 2, an American aviator by the name of Leslie Leroy Irvin started producing his sheepskin-lined leather flying jackets - still known as Irvin jackets. These were produced at his UK factory and supplied the RAF pilots with very high quality B-3 style leather jackets - it is these Irvin jackets that RAF pilots wore during the Battle of Britain flights.

Today, this style of jacket is still very much in demand. The advent of modern synthetic fibres means replicas of this jacket can be bought at a very reasonable price - for example, see our Fur Lined Leather B-3 Style Flying Jacket (also available in a children's version).

The image of WW2 pilots posing for photos in their B-3 leather jackets after long range bombing missions is ingrained in our memories of aviation from that period. Nowadays, whether you want a fur-lined leather jacket for when you take to the skies in a Tiger Moth, or just to keep you snug and warm during the winter months, this is a classic style of jacket that outperforms many modern options.

May 2019