How the US Air Force Lost Its Leather Bomber Jackets

With the invention of aircraft, a necessity was born: a way for pilots and their passengers to keep warm at high altitudes. As the development of flight technology soared during the two World Wars, leather bomber jackets and accompanying leather pants and even leather flying cap became the standard. Fleece-lined leather jackets were issued to flight personnel as a matter of course.

After World War 2, aeronautical engineering continued to advance in leaps and bounds, and soon the jet age was born. By the mid-1950s the leather bomber jacket was no longer a suitable item of clothing for pilots and others flying in US Air Force airplanes.

It was all because of the new jet planes. These could fly at high altitude. If the fliers’ bulky, heavy jackets became wet from the rain when they walked to the aircraft, the water would freeze at high altitudes. This made for cold and unhappy airmen. In addition, the jets were much more streamlined in design than previous aircraft. There was no longer any room for bulky jackets in cramped cockpits filled with complicated equipment. The pilots and navigators needed to move easily round the cockpit and enter and leave it without impediment. The bigwigs in the USAF began to regard these classic pieces of clothing as safety hazards.

The manufacturers were briefed: what was required was a lightweight yet warm jacket that was suitable for the flight personnel operating the latest jet airplanes. The bell tolled for the bulky, leather items. Bomber jackets had become relics consigned to history.

The first manufacturers decided to try using cotton. The result wa the B-15 jacket. This had a wool collar with pile (something like fur), which was carried over from the earlier B-10 leather bomber jacket. The B-15 did not last long as it was simply too lightweight and did not keep the flight personnel warm. The B-15 was reinvented, this time made out of nylon, and the fur collar was dropped because it was found to interfere with the straps in practice.

The next development after the nylon B-15 flight jacket was the MA-1 jacket. Designed by the US Air Force, the Intermediate Weight Flight Jacket, or MA-1, was made from high quality nylon and with polyester interlinings (padding). This had a useful dual purpose. In warm weather the flier could wear the jacket open and be comfortable. Upon entering the aircraft, the flier could zip the MA-1 closed and be as warm as toast at high altitudes.

It was the MA-1 flight that succeeded in usurping completely the leather bomber jacket as US Air Force issue. The first MA-1 jackets were issued around 1949 or 1950 to United States Air Force and Navy pilots and Flight crews. Small numbers were also issued to Army flight personnel. While there have been many design modifications since then, mostly due to new textiles, new sewing techniques or new aircraft cockpit design (most recently in 1980), the MA-1 flight jacket has become the standard in USAF flight jacket. Read on.

Midnight blue was the color originally used for MA-1 jackets by the military, but later it was changed to sage green, for camouflage purposes. During the Korean War, (1950-1953), as various historical photographs attest, the leather bomber jacket was still present in the military. These fliers were often a motley crew. Some fliers still wore their beloved leather flight jackets, while others wore B-15 jackets and yet others blue or green MA-1 jackets.

Today, modern fashion MA-1’s are available in a variety of colors, including the traditional ones, and black, red, blue, silver, grey, yellow. The original leather bomber jackets have become collectors’ items, and there are some leather craftsmen who make beautiful replicas of the fleece lined leather jackets of old.

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