The Flight Jacket has arguably the most extensive history of any military garment. The US Army Air Corps standardized the first Flight Jacket,
known as type A-1, on November 27th, 1927. The jacket was made from a kind of sheepskin known as capeskin and featured a button front, two front patch pockets with button flaps, a ribbed worsted wool collar and hem and a cotton sateen lining. The Air Corps specified that the A-1 be produced in an olive drab color, but most vintage jackets that can still be found today are a shade of chestnut brown. In 1931, the Air Corps updated the type A-1 with the type A-2 jacket, which was made for pilots flying in open cockpits. The jacket was produced to be as windproof as possible, so a hidden front zipper placket was added, along with a leather point collar. The A-2 was cut from a horsehide leather, which was relatively inexpensive at the time, and came in shades of Seal Brown.
The type A-2 jacket was so effective that the Air Corps used it for over a decade, two years into the US military’s engagement in World War II (type
B-3 and B-6 jackets were introduced in the interim years, but are different enough styles from the A-2 that they deserve a profile of their own). The M422A (known as the M-445 during WWII and then as the G-1) was also used by the US Navy during this time. Then, in July of 1943, the US Army Air Force introduced the B-10 Flight Jacket, a significant revision of the A-2; the B-10 featured an exposed zipper and was the first cloth-shelled, alpaca fur-lined jacket used by the Air Force. The jacket was meant for moderate weather, however, so the Air Force also created the B-11, an elongated version of the B-10 intended for winter wear that would eventually become the N-3B Snorkel Parka.
A year later, the Air Force created the B-15 Flight Jacket, which featured
minor modifications to the B-10, namely a mouton fur collar and tabs to keep the pilot’s oxygen mask and headset wires in place. The B-15 lead to the L-2, L-2A and L-2B models, all of which featured a water-repellent nylon outer shell and a ribbed collar, hem and cuffs. The next major update came in the mid 1950’s, when the Air Force and Navy standardized the MA-1 for winter wear. Like the L-2, L-2A and L-2B versions, the MA-1 Flight Jacket eschewed the mouton fur collar because it interfered with the parachute harnesses worn by pilots. The MA-1 featured the same tabs found on the B-10, but these details were eventually removed as the jacket found widespread use throughout the US Armed Forces; another revision to the MA-1 came in 1960, when a reversible Indian Orange lining was added to create greater visibility for a crashed pilot to signal they needed to be rescued.
The most recent major revision to the flight jacket came in 1972, when the CWU
36/P and 45/P models were introduced. Still in use today, these jackets are intended for cold weather (CWU stands for Cold Weather Uniform) and are constructed from Dupont NOMEX fabric, which is fire-retardant and helps protect pilots in case of a cockpit fire or crash. The CWU 36/P and 45/P models feature two front patch pockets with slanted flaps, a rounded collar and are sewn using fire-resistant threads.
With so many versions of the Flight Jacket, constructed for different seasons and with varying details, it’s easy to see how the garment has become so ubiquitous throughout military and civilian society alike. Alpha Industries—which was founded by Samuel Gelber with the help of Herman “Breezy” Wynn and incorporated in Knoxville, TN on October 17, 1959—also played a major role in making the jacket a wardrobe staple. The company first produced the jacket in 1959 while it was bidding to win Department of Defense contracts and produced versions for commercial use, along with the M65 and other military outerwear, starting in 1970. British and Australian mods, punks and skinheads had already adopted the Flight Jacket as part of their uniforms by then, as did Hollywood; models of the jacket can be
seen in films such as 1963’s The Great Escape, ’76’s Taxi Driver and, of course, ’86’s Top Gun. Since the ’80s, the popularity of the Flight Jacket has exploded as it has become a go-to garment for hip-hop artists, high-end designers, streetwear brands, fast-fashion companies and everyone in-between. The jacket is so beloved that versions made by designers like Helmut Lang and Carol Christian Poell are some of the most sought after garments on the resale market.