|The Type A-2 Flight Jacket|
|Written by Michael S. Goldfarb|
An American Classic
The leather flight jacket is one of the most popular and enduring garments introduced in the twentieth century, and the most familiar version is surely the Type A-2 Army/Air Force jacket. Only the Type G-1 Navy jacket rivals it, and apart from its fur collar and some minor detailing, it's really not all that different.
First designed for use by the Army Air Corps way back in 1930, you can hardly go anywhere during the spring or fall without spotting somebody wearing an A-2 jacket. There are lots of "A-2 jackets" available in all kinds of leathers and colors, including some that are so far removed from the original specifications as to merely be "inspired by" true A-2s. But there are also many A-2s made of the traditional brown leather that get the details very nearly right.
Even the US Air Force has gotten into the act. Although the original A-2 jacket was retired from duty during World War II and ultimately replaced with nylon flight jackets, interest in the A-2 remained so strong that the Air Force reintroduced it for flight personnel in the late 1980s. This new version, while superficially nearly the same as the classic World War II jacket, is a bit of a different animal. More on this later.
While the standard features of the A-2 leather jacket are familiar—knit cuffs and waistband, epaulets, flapped front pockets, shirt-style collar—the materials and detailing in different jackets varies enormously. So do the prices. While you can buy pretty nice new A-2 jackets for around $200, the most accurate reproductions of the WWII-era A-2s cost hundreds of dollars more, and are made in some very surprising places. A guide to the current market follows later.
But first, what is it about these jackets that makes them perennially popular? There are really several reasons, the most important of which is that it's a classic design—there is a "rightness" about it that transcends fashion. What's more, it is a tough and supremely functional garment, ideal for a wide range of cool and windy situations.
There is also an unmistakable air of romance and panache to these jackets, a remembrance of the open-cockpit "knights of the air" and the conspicuous bravery of World War II flyers. Wearing an A-2 puts you in touch with a whole tradition of heroism and chivalry.
And, to put it bluntly, A-2 jackets are really cool!
Original Army Air Corps A-2 Jackets
The A-2 jacket was designed in 1930 to replace the Army's previous flight jacket, the A-1. The major improvement of the A-2 design was to use a zipper closure rather than buttons to provide better wind protection. To this end, the zipper itself was secured behind a front "wind flap" of thick double-layered leather.
As this was still a time of open-cockpit flying, other anti-wind considerations included hidden snaps under the collar points and pocket flaps to prevent them from flapping around the airman's neck and chest. Epaulets were added for rank insignia. The A-2 prototypes were successfully tested by flyers, and the design was officially accepted by the Army in 1931 as "the type A-2 summer flying jacket".
The Army's original specs for the A-2 called for horsehide tanned to "seal brown". Though horsehide may seem a strange choice now, recall that in 1930 cars and tractors were rapidly replacing horses everywhere, and horsehide was ubiquitous and cheap. Horsehide is also a splendid jacket leather, tough but pliable, a material that molds itself to its wearer as it breaks in. Pure wool was specified for weaving the knit cuffs and waistband, and pure silk for the lining.
The jacket's construction was also carefully specified—a single piece of leather for the back, just two pieces each for each sleeve, and one piece each for the left and right front sides. The quickest way to spot a poor excuse for an A-2 is see if the back is a single piece of leather, and if the arms are only two apiece: knockoffs often use multiple smaller pieces of leather sewn together. Thicker pieces of sewn double-sided leather were used for the collar, pocket flaps, and wind flap.
A metal hook-and-eye closure was specified for closing the collar. A pair of underarm eyelets beneath each sleeve provided ventilation and increased ease of arm movement by preventing air from being trapped inside. There was no interior pocket, nor side-entry "handwarmer" pockets, as the Army didn't want its flyers standing around with their hands in their pockets. The presence of these additional pockets is another dead giveaway that you're not dealing with an authentic A-2.
Over the next dozen years, A-2 jackets were manufactured under contract to the Army by several companies around the nation, the majority situated in the New York City and Hudson Valley area. Each manufacturer interpreted the specs somewhat differently, so there were many variations in the color of the leather and knits, and in the size and shape of the epaulets, collar points, and pocket flaps. The kind of zippers, snaps, and throat-hook hardware used also varied considerably from one maker to the next.
Another significant variation in construction was the use of a "collar stand." Most jackets had the collar attached directly to the top of the jacket, but some had an additional narrow piece of leather in between, similar to the way that dress shirts are constructed.
Since more effort and material was required for these collar stands, most wartime jackets don't have them. Some manufacturers never used them. There's little practical difference in the jackets whether they have collar stands or not, but this sort of detail is perennially fascinating to hardcore jacket buffs.
As the country quietly geared up for the increasingly obvious eventual entry into World War II, the availability of horsehide began to ebb, and silk was reserved for use in parachutes. At this time, the A-2 spec was modified to also accept goatskin leather and cotton linings.
Cowhide and steerhide were not added to the spec as approved leather types, but there seems to be evidence that at least some cowhide/steerhide jackets were made during the war. Whether these were accepted for military use by Army inspectors–desperate to fill their quotas–looking the other way, or were only used for civilian sales isn't clear.
It's worth nothing that when brand new, cowhide/steerhide can look virtually identical to horsehide, but it breaks in very differently, with far more graining and creasing. In any case, cowhide/steerhide was never officially approved, so an "accurate" reproduction of the A-2 jacket should only be made of horsehide or goatskin.
A-2 jackets were beloved by Army Air Corps personnel. My father was a photographer in the Army Air Corps, and when I first discussed A-2 jackets with him, he got all misty and said, "Man, I always envied those beautiful jackets that my flyboy buddies had."
Many were decorated with elaborate painted or sewn-on logos for their squadrons or planes: the large one-piece back made a particularly good canvas for artwork. The jackets were worn proudly, indicating the elite position of aircrew among military personnel.
But leather flight jackets were comparatively expensive and difficult to produce, and during 1942 General Hap Arnold terminated the A-2 as an official Army Air Forces item. As the various A-2 suppliers completed their contracts, production gradually ceased and cloth flying jackets, beginning with the B-10 and B-15, became the new standard.
However, A-2s continued to worn by men who had already been issued them, not only in during World War II, but as late as the Korean War. And they remained very visible among Air Forces veterans and as Army surplus items. Nowadays, they are prominently displayed in museums, and originals in good condition routinely sell at auction for thousands of dollars.
Current-issue Air Force A-2 Jackets
Today's US Air Force A-2, while retaining the general look and construction of the classic A-2 jacket, isn't quite the same as the originals. First of all, the current spec calls for goatskin, as horsehide is now a rare, expensive leather. This isn't necessarily wrong, as some WWII A-2s were made of goatskin. However, the other materials aren't up the old standards: linings are now made of synthetic fibers like Dacron or polyester/cotton blends, and the knits are generally nylon blends.
Zippers are made of yellow brass, not the silvery nickel or nickel-plated steel seen in most old A-2s. The size and position of the pockets is also changed, making them larger and putting them much closer to the center.
What's more, the color of the goatskin is a fairly dark brown, not the unique reddish "russet brown" (nor the less common blackish "seal brown") of the original jackets. And the fit is quite different: the trim-fitting squared-off military look of the old jackets has given way to a blousy, oversized fit that is far baggier, especially in the arms and chest. Because of this, the epaulets now tend to fall off the shoulder rather than ride directly atop, altering the sharp appearance of the old A-2.None of which is to say that these aren't fine jackets, just that they don't necessarily do justice in resurrecting the classic A-2 jacket. In just the last couple of years, the USAF has amended the A-2 spec to accept jackets with multiple-piece backs, handwarmer and interior pockets, and still roomier "modern" sizing. The newer cut and sizing probably do fit today's physiques—larger in the height, muscle, and flab departments than that of people of 60 years ago—better in most cases.
And because they are so enthusiastically produced by so many manufacturers, they aren't very expensive. A current-spec USAF A-2 jacket made by the most prominent manufacturer, Neil Cooper USA (also available under other vendor names, like US Wings), generally goes for about $225 or $245. They're frequently found on sale for as low as $199—Cooper jackets are sold by many dealers in many different venues. Other current manufacturers who have made spec jackets for the Air Force and sell to the public include Branded Leather (about $249), Avirex (about $260), and Flight Suits/Gibson & Barnes (about $288).
Buying a Reproduction A-2 Jacket
In support of a very active market, modern reproductions of classic A-2 jackets abound from a wide variety of manufacturers. The variations in hide and detailing can be daunting, and many of these jackets have extremely vocal fanbases. Once you dip into the world of reproduction A-2s, partisan arguments and hidden agendas are everywhere. But really, all that matters is that you find a particular jacket that satisfies you.
With such a wide selection, you really have to decide what level of authenticity is important to you, and how much effort you want to go through to find your dream A-2. Buying long-distance can be frustrating, particularly because every company's sizing is totally different.
Be mentally prepared to send your first jacket back because the fit is off. If you're lucky enough to live close enough to a manufacturer, visit them and try on jackets. If a manufacturer is willing to send you a try-on jacket, do it. Well-made A-2 jackets last a lifetime, so it's really worth making the effort to get it right.
Here's a rough guide to much of the current selection of reproduction A-2 jackets available on the Web. This information is a combination of research, personal experience, and listening to lots of discussion—it's by no means exhaustive. See later in this document for links to the Web pages for the different manufacturers and dealers mentioned here, and for expert opinions.
Keep in mind that larger sizes, usually above 46, often cost more. Custom sizing, and decorations like AAF logo decals and hand-painted designs, can also add to the price. And note that shipping charges (typically ranging from $10 to $30 per jacket), and applicable local sales taxes, or import duties on foreign-made products, are not included in any of the prices shown. (Yes, you can expect to pay even more!)
Note that all prices—particularly those of non-US made jackets that have been rendered in US dollars based on current conversion rates at time of writing—are subject to change!
There are several manufacturers in this range, though sometimes compromises are made on materials or construction details to keep prices down. Nevertheless, there are some reasonably impressive choices.
Wested Leather is a costume shop in England that primarily produces leather garments for use as movie and TV wardrobe. Their most famous creation is the original Indiana Jones jacket, which they will happily make to your custom size in a variety of hides and detailing for an astonishingly reasonable price. They offer "A2-B" flight jackets that they first made for the 1990 film Memphis Belle. These seem to differ from the classic A-2s in a few respects—dark brown cowhide, interior wallet pocket—but they may be a good choice at only $269. Or, you might just want to forget about Wested's A-2s and just get one of their cool Indy jackets instead!
US Authentic is a small New York State-based company whose A-2 jackets are beautifully made and reasonably accurate, having proper cotton linings and wool knits, collar stand construction, and a cut similar to the trim original fit. US Authentic's medium brown goatskin model is almost certainly the best buy for a pretty darn accurate reproduction A-2 at $269. Their horsehide model, in either russet brown or seal brown, is also a very good value for a hundred dollars more.Flight Suits/Gibson & Barnes is a large California outfit that makes a prodigious variety of garments for military, police, and emergency personnel. They make lovely jackets, and their customer support is outstanding. In addition to their current-spec A-2s, they make "historical" A-2s that closely reproduce WWII-era jackets with the important difference of being cut and sized to modern standards. At $439, their historical horsehide jacket is a fine choice.
Aero Leather Clothing is a good-sized clothing company in Scotland that makes a huge variety of A-2s and many other leather garments. They have a great reputation and a downright fanatical following. While most of their A-2s are in the upper price range, they also offer some less expensive versions. Among these are jackets made from steerhide ($465) and goatskin models made under Aero supervision in India ($325). They also frequently have bargains in short-run A-2s when they get batches of leather that aren't quite up to their usual standards, or when they have to break in new sewing personnel. These typically start in the upper $300s.
Note that many leather jacket makers (including Avirex, Cooper, Branded, Schott, and Vanson) offer a variety of "distressed" cowhide, goatskin, or lambskin—and even horsehide—A-2 jackets that claim to be close reproductions of the originals, but the cut and details are way off. Don't be fooled by these—though they may be very nice jackets in themselves, they really don't make it as serious reproduction A-2s. Note that most of the "bomber jackets" you'll find in mall leather shops and chain stores also definitely fall into this category.
There is another batch of manufacturers to consider if you're willing to spend more. In this range, the differences between various jackets become much less significant—reproduction A-2 jackets from all of the following makers are generally considered excellent!
Aero Leather Clothing makes an almost bewildering variety of premium A-2s. You can choose between different grades, finishes, and shades of horsehide and goatskin, different knit colors, different lining fabrics, different zippers, differently shaped pocket flaps, optional AAF wing-and-star logo shoulder decals, etc. Besides their own "generic" A-2s, Aero makes reproductions of specific contract models by various original makers. Prices on their generic premium A-2s start at $619. The original contract reproductions are a bit more at $739.
Eastman Leather Clothing of England is considered by many to be the premium A-2 repro manufacturer to beat. They make both generic "house style" A-2s and extremely accurate reproductions of specific original contracts/makers like Rough Wear, Cable Raincoat, and Star Sportswear. Prices for their house style jackets are $680, with the original contract versions costing $720. Note that US buyers cannot buy from Eastman directly, but must order through History Preservation Associates of Cherry Hill, NJ.
Lost Worlds is the sole American company in the premium league, operating out of New York City. Their jackets are based on original Dubow patterns, and are reputed to be made of extra-tough, "bulletproof" leather. Depending on the model and extras (e.g., horsehide or goatskin, collar stand construction, adding an original new-old stock Talon zipper), prices range from $700 to $775.
Real McCoys of New Zealand is a widely respected manufacturer, making very fine jackets based on a number of original contract models. People rave about their jackets, which typically cost $759 for goatskin or steerhide and $900 for horsehide.
Buzz Rickson's is a Japanese firm that makes A-2s as well as many other military jackets and retro garments. They are reputed to be among the very best, but their prices are stratospheric (in the thousand-dollar vicinity) and they are difficult to deal with, having no sales agents outside Japan for their A-2 products. Aimed primarily at the native Japanese market, their sizing is also small by western standards, generally only going up to 44 or 46. (The company name comes from the B-17 pilot played by Steve McQueen in The War Lover, an obscure 1962 war movie!)
Whoever you deal with, do your very best to provide accurate information about your size, and be sure that you can return/exchange jackets that don't fit. Long-distance buying can be a drawn-out, torturous process, but the results are well worth it.
Good luck, flyboy!