Vintage History

The history of the Flight Jacket has had a long and colorful history from it’s inception during the early 1900’s. During World War I, when pilots flew in open cockpits, they were quick to wear whatever they could find to keep them warm. In 1917, The US Army established the Aviation Clothing Board and began distributing heavy duty leather flight bomber jackets, thus the American Flight Bomber Jacket was born.

Leslie Irvin first designed and manufactured the Classic Sheepskin Flying Jacket. In 1926 he set up the manufacturing company in the United Kingdom and became the main supplier of flight jackets for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. However, the demand for the jackets was so great during that period that he engaged sub-contractors and that explains why there are so many variations in these jackets during that period.

A-2 1930’S

In the early 1930’s, years before WWII, the U.S. Air Corp was issued the A2 Bomber Jacket and it became standard issue in 1931. These jackets were made of Seal Skin Leather and cotton lining. However, as the requirement for these jackets grew, supplying seal skin was considered impractical. The department of war went on to start making the Type A2 Bomber Jacket out of horsehide which at that time was plentiful. The A2 was a waist length leather jacket that featured two front patch pockets and webbing attached to the bottom of the jacket and the end of the sleeves to close out the air in addition to shoulder epaulets. However, at the time, there were several different types of styles for use within the U.S. Army. The A2 was cancelled (12 years after its inception) because the General in charge, General Hap Arnold wanted something better for his troops.

G-1 1940’S

The U.S. Navy followed later with M-445 Flight Jacket, which was later to be called the G-1, during the Second World War. The Type G1 was somewhat different than the Type A2. Its’ body was more form fitted with a longer waist webbing at the bottom and a Mouton Collar. Where the A2 used metal snaps on the front patch pockets, the G1 used buttons. The Type G1 also featured a By-Swing Back for easier arm movement. The G-1 lasted until 1978 when Congress forced its cancellation because its tremendous popularity was overwhelming the Navy’s supply system. However, because of its popularity, the G1 made a comeback during Desert Storm in the early 1990’s and is still being issued as of this writing.

Both synthetic and shearling flight jackets (i.e., MA-1, L2B, CWU 45/P) are worn and collected today, but neither has the historical status and popularity of the A2 or G1 Flight Jackets.

B-10 SERIES 1940’S

The synthetic B-Series Bomber Jackets first gained popularity and prestige after General Arnold rejected the A2. The B-10 was the first of the non leather jackets to become popular with pilots and air crews. The B-10 was far lighter and much warmer than the Type A2 issued leather jacket which came with just a thin lining that did not offer the pilot much warmth at a high altitude. The B-15 was issued in late 1944 and soon replaced the B10. Styles of the period ranged from the cotton twill B-series and the standardized flight jacket of the Navy, the CWU-series.

In addition, sometime around 1944 some bomber crews dropped the A2 and B3 leather jackets in favor of newly issued heated flight suites.

In the latter part of the 1940’s, a new flight jacket was needed with the emergence of the jet age. Prior to the invention of jet aircraft, fleece lined leather jackets were the standard. However, the new jets flying at much higher altitudes and in colder temperatures required new pilot apparel as well. When the bulky leather jackets became wet from rain or perspiration, the water would freeze at high altitudes, making the jackets cold and uncomfortable. In addition, new jets were more streamlined in design and their cockpits were cramped. Fast and unrestricted access became more critical for safety. To meet these needs a new type of jacket was developed. The material selected for the jacket was a high quality nylon. The initial nylon flight jacket was designed about 1944. It was called the B-15 flight jacket. The B-15 was similar to the MA-1 except that it had a mouton fur collar. After a few years, the B-15 was discontinued and the MA-1 was introduced.

MA-1 1950’S

The first MA-1 jackets were issued between 1949 and 1950 to the U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots. Alpha Industries first government contract was awarded in 1958 under the Dobbs Industries name. Officially, they are known as “Jacket Flyers, Man’s Intermediate Type MA-1. The MA-1 was perhaps the most popular of all flight jackets developed.

The original MA-1 was designed with a high quality nylon outer shell and a nylon lining. In between these nylon layers was a double faced wool material for warmth. After a few years, the wool interlining was replaced by the newly developed polyester fiber filling instead. The polyester made the jacket much lighter and provided superior warmth. In addition, the MA-1 discarded the mouton fur collar of the B-15 because it interfered with the parachute harness worn by the aviators. In later models, the MA-1 jacket was made reversible and added a bright Indian Orange lining. The reason being if the plane crashed, the pilot could reverse the jacket to the orange side to signal rescue personnel.

Other changes had been made to the original MA-1 design as well. Early models contained a front tab where the pilot could clip his oxygen mask when not in use. Changes in airplane equipment design later made this feature unnecessary and it was deleted. In addition, early models had sewn loops to hold the wires running from the radio to the pilot’s helmet. Equipment design changes also made this feature obsolete and they were taken off as well. Lastly, the early MA-1 was used exclusively by the Air Force and had the decal stenciled on the sleeve. When other branches of the service started using the jacket, this feature was deleted as well. So this jacket would have been worn primarily during the Korean War and Vietnam War era.

CWU-36/P AND CWU-45/P 1970’S

By the 1970’s, there were major advancements in fire retardant materials and fabrics for flight jackets and suits. These changes ushered in a new series of revisions to the entire flight equipment outfits worn by pilots. Hence came the development of the CWU-45/P and its’ lighter weight cousin, the CWU-36/P. One of the problems associated with the older MA-1 was the discovery that with the nylon materials used on the jackets, they had a propensity to melt on the wearer when subjected to flames encountered during an aircraft fire. This problem was corrected with the new flight jackets. The predecessor to the 36/P and 45/P was the CWU-17/P developed around 1973. In 1977, the jacket was renamed the CWU-45/P (military specification MIL-J-83388A) and the detachable signal pocket that the feature of the CWU-17/P (military specification MIL-J-83388B) was reduced in size. In 1980, the lip of the collar was reduced slightly. Moreover, the rear action pleats where reduced in size (military specification MIL-J-83388C). In 1984, the stitching of the collar was simplified (military specification MIL-J-83388D). So you can date these jackets by the different military specification designations.

Currently, Air Force aviators are issued the lighter weight 36/P for warmer climates and the 45/P for cooler climates. From a distance both jackets are virtually the same with the exception of the lining.

N2B & N3B – 1950’S

The original N3B was developed in the 1950’s for crew personnel subjected to extremely cold climates. The N3B was mainly issued to air crews assigned to troop transports, helicopters and strategic bombers. Originally made from a Dupont flight silk nylon outer shell and the lining padded with a wool blanket type material, the padding was changed to polyester wadding in the 1970’s. They became known as the “Snorkel Parka” because the hood could be zipped right up leaving only a small tunnel for the wearer to look out of.

In the last 25 years they have been a fashion statement for both young and old alike and can be found manufactured under a variety of brand names around the world.