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Flying Leather – Flight Crew and Aviator Jackets

Since the U.S. armed forces have sent men into aircraft during World War I, clothing designers have seemingly had an affinity for military flight attire; specifically, their leather aviator jackets. Though some could have a spurious “chicken and egg” debate about the origination of the wearing of leather jackets — whether they were started with open automobile motorists or early motorcycle riders and spread to aviators or vice versa — the fact remains that flight jackets are as culturally popular today as they were nearly 100 years ago.

Aviator Jackets: Frederick “Fred” Samuel Losch's Flight Jacket

This Navy-contract G-1 flight jacket belonged to Blacksheep veteran Frederick “Fred” Samuel Losch.

Though today we consider the classic appearance and style variations of U.S. military aviator jackets to be iconic, they were designed more around function rather than aesthetics. Flying in an open cockpit of a biplane left the pilots exposed to the environment. Flying at increasing altitudes exacerbated the exposure by reducing temperatures as the aircraft flew skyward into the thinner air. Leatherwear provided a natural barrier, reducing exposure and affording the crew with a second skin that broke the effects of wind yet breathed, reducing perspiration.

Lt. Harold W. Gray's flight jacket - 431st Fighter Squadron

Though commonly referred to as “bomber jackets,” the A-2 flight jackets were also issued to pursuit pilots such as this one that belonged to Lt. Harold W. Gray of the 431st Fighter Squadron.

For militaria collectors, the iconic aviator leather jackets are highly prized items that, due to continual use dating back to WWI, are available to just about any collector, regardless of budget. For jackets with combat provenance, prices will be well into four-digit ranges. If the jacket belonged to an aviator of distinction (such as a valor medal recipient or a multiple ace), expect to add another digit to the price tag.

For contract-manufactured aviator jackets used from the inter-war period, through World War II and to present, collectors can easily ascertain when the jacket was made and potentially used or worn. This information is especially helpful when trying to vet a piece that might not seem to jibe with the associated story.

Some unscrupulous sellers go to great lengths to increase the perceived value of an otherwise “ordinary” vintage jacket. In some instances, jackets have been embellished with faux-antiqued, hand-painted artwork that never adorned the leather. Some sellers might assemble a jacket by adding period-correct insignia or squadron patches in an attempt to replicate an authentic piece. As with any militaria piece, buy the item, not the story…unless there is iron-clad proof to back up seller’s story. Let the buyer beware.

What does iron-clad evidence look like? An example of such proof walked through the doors (Season 4, Episode 33: Pirate Booty) of the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop and up to the star of the History Channel’s hit reality show Pawn Stars, Rick Harrison. A woman presented Rick with a classic WWII A-2 leather flight jacket, complete with a squadron patch, hand-painted adornments and a stencil of the original owner’s name on the inside liner. Along with the jacket, the woman carried what she thought were handwritten “flight logs” from the original owner.

364th Bomb Squadron - Radio Operator Jacket

When I saw this jacket on Pawn Stars, my jaw dropped. To see the custom details such as the squadron patch and hand painted mission indicators along with the owner’s name stenciled within, my eyes were glued to the entire segment (source: Pawn Stars screen grab).

The jacket showed some considerable wear of the leather finish and the squadron patch (from the 364th Bombardment Squadron, 8th Bomber Command) appeared dry and brittle with the painted artwork considerably faded and deteriorated. The cuffs and waistband appeared to be intact though it was difficult (for me) to determine their condition. The beauty of the jacket, also a point of curiosity for Harrison, were the 29 painted bombs on the jacket’s right front, no doubt indicating bombing missions flown by the wearer. One of the bombs had an additional notation – white lettering that indicated a D-Day bombing mission. A collector could easily investigate the provenance of the jacket with the information contained solely on the jacket. However, the current owner could provide the unshakable provenance that should make any collector salivate.

Mission Indicators

On the right front of the jacket were these 29 hand-painted bombs – each one indicating a bombing mission over enemy territory (source: Pawn Stars screen grab).

D-Day Mission Indicator

Among the 29 mission indicators, this bomb was painted with “D Day” in white lettering to indicate the momentous day (source: Pawn Stars screen grab).

The woman, who was hoping to sell the jacket, handed Rick handwritten pages that documented the original owner’s (her father’s) missions over enemy targets during the war. Not only did he capture the basic details (departure time, enemy fighter composition, target information), but he also included emotional narratives of damage sustained and details about his flight crew members. On one of the spotlighted pages, the veteran tells about a direct hit that the B-17 sustained at his radio operator’s station moments after he had gotten up from his seat – he most likely would have been killed had he remained in his chair.

Placing a value on jacket such as this WWII B-17 radio operator, who flew 29 missions, is subjective, which prompted me to search through some current online auctions. Though I didn’t find anything comparative, I did note a stunning listing for a 1st Lieutenant B-17 pilot’s grouping that included his painted A-2 jacket along with medals and a wealth of ephemera with an asking price of $8,500 – which, in my estimation was a little steep.

In the case of the Pawn Stars episode, the woman was hoping to sell her jacket for $2,500 – a very reasonable expectation when compared to similar examples – but was offered less than half by the Pawn Stars gents…an offer which she accepted.

G-1 Pete Conrad

Equally popular (as the A-2) are the Navy G-1 jackets. This particular jacket belonged to naval aviator and NASA astronaut, Pete Conrad. Note the various patches affixed to the front and sleeves. 

1980s G-1

This 1980s Navy G-1 flight jacket was a bargain at a recent militaria show and is part of my growing collection. With a little patience, collectors can find bargain jackets from more recent time-periods, complete with the aviator’s squadron and deployment patches.

Military Flight Jacket Resources

Reproduction Flight Jackets
  • There are various retailers producing these jackets to exacting specifications and of varying quality.  Be prepared to spend as much as $500 for a fine representation of these types (and more):
    • G-1
    • A-1
    • A-2
    • B-3

[Pawn Stars, HISTORY and the History “H” logo are the trademarks of AEN. Collectors Quest is a partner of AEN.]


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Pat_Flyer

Pat_Flyer Hello, I would like to contact Mr. Henessy about this article. I have a few questions. Thanks July 28th, 2013 at 6:53 AM

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