||This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (September 2011)|
|This article does not cite any references or sources. (April 2007)|
The Type A-2 leather flight jacket is a military flight jacket closely associated with World War II U.S. Army Air Forces pilots, navigators and bombardiers, who often decorated their jackets with squadron patches and elaborate artwork painted on the back. Sometimes casually referred to as a bomber jacket, its original designation was "Jacket, Pilot's (summer)", and its wartime usage was limited neither to pilots nor to bomber crews.
The Type A-2 flying jacket was standardized by the U.S. Army Air Corps as the successor to the Type A-1 flying jacket adopted in 1927. The Type Designation Sheet lists the dates for Service Test as September 20, 1930, and Standardized (adopted as standard issue) on May 9, 1931. The military specification number for Type A-2 is 94-3040. The Drawing Number was given as 31-1415, but the spec. labels found in the jackets themselves show this to be 30-1415.
On April 27, 1943, Type A-2 was declared Limited Standard, meaning that only replacements for in-service units could be ordered. New units would now be supplied with cloth-shelled jackets such as Types B-10 and B-15.
The U.S. Army Air Forces Class 13 Catalog listed the garment as "Jacket, Flying, Type A-2," with Spec. No. 94-3040. It describes the jacket's construction as "seal brown horsehide leather, knitted wristlets and waistband (skirt)." Broadly similar in construction to the A-1, it replaced the A-1's buttoned front and pocket flaps with a zipper and hidden snap fasteners (although some very early A-2's retained the pocket buttons). The A-1's stand-up knitted collar, which buttoned closed, was supplanted in the A-2 by a shirt-style leather collar, with hidden snaps at the points and a hook-and-eye latch at the throat. Stitched-down shoulder straps were also added to the design. Sizes were listed as ranging in even numbers from 32 through 54.
Design and construction
Although the actual design would vary slightly depending on the manufacturer, and even among contracts within a single manufacturer, all A-2 jackets had several distinguishing characteristics: a snap-flap patch pocket on either side that does not have hand warmer compartments (hands in pockets were considered unfit for a military bearing), a shirt-style snap-down collar, shoulder straps, knit cuffs and waistband, a back constructed from a single piece of leather to limit stress on the garment, and a lightweight silk or cotton inner lining with a leather hang strap (not a loop) and military spec tag attached just below the back collar.
Prior to World War II the collar was sewn to a neckband or "stand" like those found in dress shirts, a time-intensive operation. Wartime contracts generally had "simple attached" collars, sewn directly to the back panel and rolled over, although Rough Wear and Perry continued using the collar stand throughout. Similarly, most pre-war (and some wartime) A-2s had inset sleeves, attached at a better attitude for body movement. This too was time-intensive and gave way to "flat attached" sleeves whose bottom seams met up with the body side seams.
Most pre-war and wartime A-2s were constructed of horsehide, which was either vegetable- or chrome-tanned. Some original A-2's were made from goatskin (as was the Navy G-1 jacket), and others possibly from cowhide (which can be very difficult to tell from horse if tanned identically). All Spiewak and Doniger jackets are of goat, as are many Cable, Dubow, Bronco, Perry, and Rough Wear examples.
Wartime-issued A-2 jackets appear in a wide range of color tones and hues, although all are based on two distinct colors: Seal (dark brown to almost black) and Russet (pale red-brown to medium brown). Most seal jackets were russets re-dyed during the war to cover scuffing and discoloration, although some contracts, like the Aero Leather 21996, were dyed seal right from the start. Original knit cuffing typically matched the leather or came close, but exceptions exist, such as Aero Leather's eye-catching rust-red cuffing on seal brown hide.
Early A-2's had linings made from silk, per the original specification. This was likely spun silk, a thin, breathable shirt-like fabric. The lining changed to cotton later on. A letter from the Materiel Division of Wright Field, dated 7 January 1939, states that the use of silk in flying jackets had been discontinued "as its procurement was found not to be feasible." The letter does not say when this happened, but it makes clear that the vast majority of original A-2 jackets have cotton linings. (Reference?)
The A-2 was one of the early articles of clothing designed expressly to use a zipper. Zippers were made of steel or brass, and some were nickel plated. Known zipper suppliers were Talon, Crown, Conmar, and Kwik, with Talon providing the majority of zippers used in wartime A-2 construction. Until about 1940, Talon zippers with riveted or grommeted metal bottoms were used.
Unlike modern, loose-fitting jackets, the original A-2 looks to us today a rather trim-fitting jacket. Period photos and films reveal a jacket which could be worn fitted and sharp looking or a bit baggy and loose in the body. It was designed to fit the thinner male of the time- original A-2 jackets worn by modern men may seem a bit snug in the shoulders. This is particularly true of pre-war contract garments such as the 1933 Werber and the 1938 and 1940 Aero Leathers. Period photos and films show that the A-2 was typically worn over a shirt or a shirt and flight suit; airmen were more likely to switch to a sheep-lined jacket or, later, an electrified flight suit for wintertime or high-altitude operations.
There were many manufacturers of A-2 jackets during the 1930s and 1940s, whose product showed a wide range of quality, workmanship, and fit characteristics. These included civilian clothing producers such as David D. Doniger & Co., makers of the popular MacGregor brand outerwear, as well as leather-goods companies like J.A. Dubow Mfg., whose chief peacetime product was baseball mitts. The Rough Wear Clothing Co. of Middletown, Pennsylvania was likely the most prolific war-time producer of A-2 jackets. Rough Wear manufactured the A-2 under several different contracts, each varying slightly in color and style.
Pre-War Order numbers and the Fiscal Year
32-485 Security (Aviation Togs) 1932
33-1729 Werber 1933
36-1112 P Werber 1936
37-3061 P Aero 1937
37-3891 P H.L.B. Corp. 1937
38-205 Werber 1937
38-1711-P Aero Nov 1937
39-2951 P Werber 1939
40-3785-P Aero 1940
W535ac16159 Rough Wear Oct 1940
W535ac16160 Aero Oct 1940
W535ac18091 Rough Wear Spring 1941
W535ac20960 Dubow Sept.1941
W535ac21996 Aero 27 October 1941
W535ac23377 Perry late 1941
W535ac23378 Monarch late 1941
W535ac23379 Dubow late 1941
W535ac23380 Rough Wear late 1941
W535ac23381 Cooper late 1941
W535ac23382 Cable late 1941
W535ac23383 unknown (Fried Ostermann) late1941
W535ac27752 Rough Wear Spring 1942
W535ac27753 unknown (Cable) Spring 1942
W535ac27798 Dubow Spring 1942
W535ac28557 Star Summer 1942
W535ac28560 Poughkeepsie summer1942
W535ac29191 Bronco Summer 1942
W535ac29971 unknown (David D Doniger) Summer 1942
42-1401-P Rough Wear 17 Sept.1941
42-1402-P Werber 17 Sept 1941
42-10008-P Cable early 1942
42-15142-P Aero Spring 1942
42-16175-P Perry Spring 1942
42-18245-P Star Spring 1942
42-18246-P unknown (S.H. Knopf ) Spring 1942
42-18775-P Aero May 1942
42-18776-P Spiewak 25 May 1942
42-18777-P United Sheeplined May 1942
42-21539-P David D. Doniger & Co. summer 1942
V505 Made in Australia 1943
W33-038ac1755(11631) Dubow 13 June 1944
1756 unknown (Perry) 13 June 1944
W33-038ac1761 Bronco June 1944
The A-2 jacket was awarded to an Army Air Forces officer upon completion of basic flight training, and always before graduating to advanced training. No standard system of distribution was used, though generally airmen lined up in front of boxes containing jackets of various sizes and given the appropriate size jacket by the base quartermaster. A-2s were exclusive to commissioned officers until early in World War II, when also issued to enlisted aircrews.
The A-2 was a treasured item to the airman and was worn with as much pride as his wings. As airmen progressed through various duty stations they often added and removed squadron patches, rank marks, and occasionally elaborate artwork depicting the type of aircraft they flew or a copy of the artwork painted on their airplane. Bomber crews often added small bombs to the right front of their jackets indicating the number of missions they had flown. As a result, many jackets ended up with numerous stitch marks as patches of various sizes were removed and replaced when the owner changed units. Unlike Navy aviators, who often wore the patches of every squadron they had ever flown with, AAF personnel could only display the patch of their current assignment. The emblem of the Army Air Forces was often sewn, painted, or applied by decal on the left shoulder, while the shield of the specific Air Force (5th, 8th, etc.) was often displayed on the right.
Despite the A-2's becoming a symbol of the American pilot, in 1943 General H. H. "Hap" Arnold canceled any further leather jacket contracts in favor of newer cloth-shell jackets like the B-10 and B-15. Needless to say, Arnold's popularity with his airmen was not improved by his decision. Even after the transition to cloth, existing units could still order replacement A-2s, keeping production going well into 1944. And it was impossible to prevent airmen from continuing to obtain and wear the style – as demonstrated by the large number of photos clearly showing Korean War pilots of F-82's and F-86's still wearing the original A-2 issued to them a decade earlier, or newer jackets made to fit their current sizes.
Fighter pilots, who often had heated cockpits, could wear the A-2 into combat more easily. Some jackets had a map of the mission area sewn into the lining, which could be used (in theory) for navigation if shot down. Some jackets (famously, those from the China Burma India Theater, and of the Flying Tigers) had a "Blood chit" sewn on the lining or outer back, printed on cloth, which promised certain rewards to civilians who aided a downed airman. In certain ETO units and possibly elsewhere a prerogative of the fighter ace was a red satin lining which was added on confirmation of his fifth aerial kill.
Early wartime pictures show entire bomber crews outfitted with A-2s, although at altitude in a bomber they probably weren't too useful. The pilot and copilot had primitive cabin heat on some aircraft and would wear the A-2, while the rest of the bomber crew usually wore heavier fleece-lined Type B-3 or ANJ-4 (and later B-9 and B-11 parkas) which were warmer and better suited to long hours in the severe cold. However, period photos do show A-2s worn by crew underneath heavy outer garments, and candid on-base photos often show crewmen of all ranks in A-2s. A warm and comfortable mouton collar was an addition authorized in mountainous C-B-I commands.
Throughout the War, as the A-2's popularity grew, so too did the demand for it. Only aircrewmen could obtain A-2 jackets through regular channels, although a few celebrated nonflying officers like Gens. MacArthur and Patton and Maj. Glenn Miller also procured and wore them. A small "cottage industry" soon appeared, especially in England, to make A-2-style jackets for GI's (including many airborne infantry troops) who otherwise couldn't get one. This was especially true after the Army stopped purchasing new leather jackets in mid-1943, and disappointed airmen were sent to war in the less desirable cloth jackets, or were unable to replace A-2's they had lost or damaged. As a result, some war-era jackets used by World War II airmen are clearly not true to original AAF specifications, though this makes them no less historic.
Original wartime issued A-2 jackets are rare but not unavailable. Tens of thousands were issued from 1931 through 1944 (the vast majority in 1942-43), and some old stock jackets may have been issued even into the late 1940s long after Type A-2 was discontinued as standard AAF equipment. The value of such originals range widely depending on condition, known history, patches and artwork, and even size. Most originals used a sizing system considerably smaller than today's comparable sizes, with only 2-4 inches (100 mm) of "slack" over the tagged chest size. In other words, an original size 42 might be closer to a modern 40 or even a 38, depending on the manufacturer. Original World War II era jackets sell at auction for between $800 and $5,000, with wearable examples generally running $1,000 and up.
The National Museum of the United States Air Force has a collection of original A-2 jackets, most donated by the families of Air Force pilots. No fewer than fifty are on display at any time throughout the Museum, including many historic jackets such as Brig. Gen. James Stewart's A-2 (a Rough Wear contract 42-1401), an A-2 from the AVG "Flying Tigers," and another worn by one of the few U.S. pilots to get airborne during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The modern Air Force A-2
With the exception of a very brief period from 1979 to early 1981 the U.S. Navy never stopped issuing its G-1 leather flying jackets to Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard flight crews. This meant that an entire generation of Air Force pilots and flight crews had missed out on an opportunity not lost to their Naval comrades. Years of effort by U.S. Air Force personnel to get the A-2 jacket reissued finally succeeded when the Air Force began issuing them again in 1988, a decision that may have been influenced by the popularity of the film "Top Gun", and the military apparel it popularized. The first Air Force A-2 contract was awarded to Avirex, but all subsequent contracts from 1988 to 1998 were awarded to Neil Cooper USA, now U.S. Wings of Ohio. The modern Air Force A-2 is authorized for wear by Air Force aircrews and space operations personnel who have completed their mission qualifications.
The latest design differs from the original design in several ways: it is looser-fitting, made only from goatskin, and produced in only a medium seal brown color (though many older, fitted jackets are still in use). Unlike the World War II era pilots, modern Air Force pilots are not permitted to paint their A-2 jackets or disfigure them in any way. The official explanation for this is that the paint is flammable and could pose a fire hazard. The goatskin used in today's A-2 is treated with a special fire retardant chemical. The crewmember's name tag is mounted on the left breast, with the Major Command, HQ USAF, or Combatant Command shield are on the right, attached with Velcro. No patches are permitted to be sewn directly onto the jacket as they were during World War II.
In 1996 Neil Cooper USA was awarded a contract from the Defense Supply Center, Philadelphia (DSCP), to redesign the A-2 jacket to be more functional and to improve the fit. Side entry pockets were added to the patch pockets and inside wallet pockets were added. The fit was enlarged via extra pieces under the arms and on the sides. The neck clasp was also eliminated. These modifications were previously carried out by the member themselves at popular places around the world like Pop's Leather in Turkey, or in the numerous shops in Korea. Now that these modifications are part of the official issue, only "Blood Chits" and other internal linings are added by the aircrew themselves.
In 1999 Avirex was again awarded a contract to make A-2 jackets. In 2000 they began producing the "21st Century" A-2 using the updated pattern Neil Cooper USA had designed. In 2006, HQ USAF required all A-2 jackets to be "Berry Amendment" compliant. This means that all materials used in the jacket must be of American origin. Goat skins used are required to have been born and bred in the U.S., and the leather tanned in the U.S. (All jackets made by Cooper Sportswear, and the jackets made by Avirex in 1999, were made of goatskin imported from Pakistan).
Servicemember anecdotes from 2011 and 2012 suggest that the Air Force may be "regulating out" the A-2, and that they are only authorized for wear in transit to and from duty stations, and not off duty or on the flightline.
Just as a cottage industry appeared during the war to meet the need for A-2 jackets, so too does such an industry still exist today. Because the A-2 never went out of style, production of it never really ceased. Over the years it has varied in style and accuracy relative to the original war-era design, but it has remained visible in popular movies and TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s.
In the mid-1970s several small companies catering to purists began undertaking the job of designing and constructing highly authentic reproductions that were as close to the original war era A-2 as possible. Duplicating wartime patterns, often obtained through "reverse engineering" from dissected originals, and using correct hides, all-cotton thread, and even actual the World War II-era-old stock Talon zippers, they have effectively recreated a wartime-era jacket that can be worn daily without fear of damaging a valuable original. Some manufacturers have even gone so far as to reproduce the particular details of specific World War II A-2 production contracts. Such attention to detail doesn't come cheap, as such jackets regularly cost $800 or more. Manufacturers in this highest-quality bracket include the following.
- A-2 Leather Flight Jacket (Europe) Sells USAF-spec A-2 jackets in horsehide only and AN6505-1 Aviators Kit Bag
- Cockpit USA (New York, USA)
- US Wings (Hudson, Ohio, USA) Sells USAF-spec A-2 jackets in horsehide
- Lost Worlds Inc. (New York, USA)
- Eastman Leather Clothing (Devon, UK)
- Aero Leather Clothing (Scotland)
- Buzz Rickson's (Tokyo, JAPAN)
- The Real McCoy's (Kobe, Japan)
- Toys McCoy (Tokyo, JAPAN)
- Pherrow's Sportswear (Tokyo, JAPAN)
- Good Wear Leather Coat Company (Seattle, Washington, USA)
- Gibson & Barnes (El Cajon, CA) Makes several Historical A-2s made from either horsehide or goatskin
- Bill Kelso Mfg Co. (Europe)
- Cirrus (Norfolk, England)
There are jackets that are somewhat less expensive. These do not reproduce any specific World War II A-2 production run, but they do use correct World War II design features (correct construction, collar, pockets, snap style, clasp style, hides, thread, cotton liners, colors, wool wrist and waist bands, etc., even newly manufactured Talon-brand zippers). Jackets in this range are sold by:
- U.S. Authentic Manufacturing Co. (New York, USA)
Repro A-2s are most popular in Japan, where there is a collector market for reproduction American vintage clothing. Much of it is limited-edition and unavailable in the West, and priced up to twice the value of high-end repros in other countries. Both the limited availability and the inflated prices increase their prestige appeal to Japanese collectors.
Popularly priced (approximately US $300 and below) A-2 jackets today only approximate the authentic style, with oversized shoulders and sleeves intended for layering loose clothing underneath, non-spec hand and pen pockets, and softer materials like lambskin. A-2s made today by U.S. Air Force contract manufacturers (such as Cooper) tend to fit younger, fitter men with v-shaped torsos, and some former pilots have found that their old A-2s no longer fit them. Gibson & Barnes, d/b/a FlightSuits.com, is known for conscientious (though not exact) reproductions sized more generously than wartime originals.
L.L. Bean markets a jacket called the "Flying Tiger Jacket," which closely follows the original design for the A-2, but is sized to fit fuller bodied men, as well as thinner men. These jackets are useful for those who are unable to find a Cooper or other "regulation" A-2 to fit: If a Cooper A-2 is too loose in the shoulders and too tight in the waist, a Flying Tiger may fit better. It is made of goatskin and lined in satin acetate rayon. It has the knit cuffs and waistband, the leather storm flap over the zipper, the snap-down collar, and snap-down flaps on the patch pockets, plus added handwarmer pockets. It can be purchased in fleece-lined or insulated versions, as well as the "original," rayon-lined version. These jackets, being goatskin, are water-resistant. They are warm (sometimes too warm). L.L. Bean used to manufacture a cotton-twill Flying Tiger Jacket before 1990. Cockpit USA still does, with a leather collar, which is sold by Hammacher-Schlemmer.
Contrary to popular belief, Avirex wasn't a supplier for the A-2 jacket to the US Army Air Corps in the World War II era. Avirex started out in 1975 and since 2006 is known as 'The Cockpit USA Inc.' In a similar way, Neil Cooper USA (recently[when?] taken over by Ohio-based U.S. Wings) is not the same firm as Cooper Sportswear from World War II times - even though Neil Cooper's grandfather headed the earlier company, and both had contracts to supply A-2 jackets to the US military in their respective eras. Likewise, the Scottish-made Aero Leather Clothing branded items of today are unrelated to Aero Leather Clothing of Beacon, NY, a "cousin" firm to the Werber Coat Company of that city.
Willis & Geiger Outfitters, a now defunct firm still active in the 1990s, claimed to have supplied the original 1930-31 A-2 in its sales literature, but no Air Corps contract with the company has ever been found, nor have any original A-2s by this maker. (W&G did, however, supply large volumes of flight jackets to the Navy in World War II.)
Given this information, the novice collector must be careful to ensure they are not buying a jacket misrepresented as an original World War II issued A-2. Some of the high-end reproductions are astonishingly good, and with some artificial aging or period insignia applied, one must be careful to confirm what they are potentially buying.
In the media
A-2 jackets can be seen in many movies, as they came to represent the American fighting man just as much as the P-51 Mustang and Colt .45 automatic. Seeing legendary actors such as Gregory Peck and John Wayne on the big screen wearing A-2's only reinforced their popularity. By the 1950s the A-2 was moving into the role of the motorcycle jacket, which would soon evolve into its own distinct style. The jacket worn by Henry Winkler in the role of "Fonzie" in the TV show Happy Days was a variation of the A-2 jacket. In the 1960s and 1970s the A-2 reappeared in a new crop of big budget World War II films such as The Great Escape and Patton, as well as being the wardrobe of choice for Bob Crane's character of Colonel Hogan in the popular TV series Hogan's Heroes. This same jacket, manufactured by the studio's costume department, would later be worn by Frank Sinatra in the film Von Ryan's Express. Dwight Schultz' character H. M. Murdock on the 80's TV show The A-Team wore an A-2 Jacket with a tiger printed on the back along with the words 'DA NANG 1970'. His character wore the jacket throughout the show's 5 seasons. Also, in the anime Hetalia: Axis Powers, the character America is most always seen wearing an A-2 jacket with the number '50' on the back in white. Arnold Schwarzenegger also appeared wearing A-2 with police badge in his new 2013 movie The Last Stand.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the A-2 became a popular presidential garment: both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have worn them in photo ops at military installations. Both presidents are fit enough to wear the regulation jacket.