Tales of a Pilot’s Jacket

Z2102 Look in any pilot supply store, catalog, or website and you’ll notice there is are several products that everyone carries, mostly because their iconic nature in the personal inventory of a pilot makes them easy inventory to carry and sell.  You’ll surely find the old standards: the E6B, the fuel tester, the kneeboard, the logbook, the sunglasses… and the pilot’s jacket.

Just about anyone who is or aspires to be a pilot realizes pretty quickly that the symbolic aviators jacket is a must have — not because it’s a "need" per se, but because the ego forces it on you.  I mean, how many of us fly in a "Members Only" jacket afterall?

If you want to reinforce your new found hobby or career path with family and friends, the leather bomber jacket is a requirement.  Nothing screams "I watch Top Gun at least once a month and want to be Maverick in my C-150" like it. For some of us, it’s a love of the historic side of aviation that prompts us to go after that piece of stitched goatskin… to wear a jacket like the heroes of WWII is in some way, a tribute to their influence on us.

After a time, you may get a bit tired of wearing the sweaty leather in all climates and may switch to a nylon or cotton aviator jacket — while the leather gets relegated to the "dress" uniform.  The nylon jacket offers the bonus of washability if you have an oil-hungry plane in your care and for those gadget "cockpit is an office" types, the nylon usually adds more pencil holders on the sleeve than you can shake a No. 2 at!

Perhaps you are up North a bit, or like those ski planes in the winter.  If so, you may find yourself with one of the fuzzy collar jobs — leather or nylon.  For those of you who have flown off flat-top boats in a past life, you perhaps know nothing else other than a fuzzy collar jacket, for the Navy ALWAYS picks shearling. Gold wings look better with it I hear.

Either way, if you fly, you probably have one of these types of garments in your closet — and I am sure there are some stories behind it.  I encourage you to share a story of your particular aviators jacket by commenting here below my little story — their importance to aviation lore is just as important as the debate over tricycle vs. tailwheel planes or high-wing vs. low-wing.


My First Bomber Jacket Story

When I was growing up, I was given the opportunity at the age of 11 to attend a two-week summer camp at the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, NY to experience "aviation."  For me, that was a critical time in my life as those two weeks formed the foundation for my aviation passion that has served me well so far!  Each day we’d come in with our parents as they dropped us off, and each day we’d walk past the gift shop where a genuine A-2 leather bomber jacket hung behind the counter waiting for someone to come by and buy it.  Each day I’d look at it after reading stories of guys like Gabby Gabreski or Bob Morgan — often accompanied by photos of them looking all heroic in the shot.  I aspired to be like them and wanted that jacket more than anything.  I was too young to be a pilot at that point, but I felt that jacket could get me closer somehow!

Six months went by and Christmas brought snow to the Buffalo area that made aviation seem as far away as the North Pole.  I was still reading the magazines and books that kept my flying mind sharp, but I remember I was getting blue — winter wasn’t good to explore and actually get my hands on actual planes, and paper was a poor substitute (and yes, this was before the Internets!).

When I woke up on Christmas morning, I was surprised to see that I only had a few small boxes and one large one.  My brother, half my age, had a lot more boxes overall — and though I chalked it up to favoritism for the youngest son, I still kept my hopes up.  I opened my small pile and was happy and appreciative for the books and a plastic plane model of a B-17 — but still wondered what the big one was.

I picked it up and it seemed heavy.  I was dreading the fact that it might be a sweater or a new snowsuit or something.  Clothes as a gift to an 11 year old is about as close to torture as you can get — it makes us think of back to school shopping at Penneys or something like that.  I figured it couldn’t be anything grand because mom and dad weren’t exactly rich.  My dad was a dairy farmer and my mom was a homemaker, so it certainly wasn’t a new Atari or anything (in fact, we never got a game system in my entire childhood).

But when I opened it, I nearly fell over with excitement.  In that box was the jacket… THE jacket… the jacket that was at the museum, behind the desk.  The one I dreamed of!  Mom and dad actually got it!

"It’s a few sizes too big for you, but you’ll grow into it" said mom.  Good thinking on her part — as I grew to be a bit of a tubby kid.

I tried it on, and though it was a bit floppy, it was fantastic!  I wore it all day — no matter if I was inside, outside, or right next to the woodstove.  I didn’t care how much I sweat, I had the jacket!

It was a companion of mine for years.  I wore it for my first flight lesson at the age of 16, and I wore it for my first warbird ride in a BT-13 that year.  I wore it all through my first unaccompanied airline flight to Washington DC for a school trip and never took it off while in the 727 (for luck of course!).

But perhaps the most significant thing that happened in the lifetime of the jacket happened when I wasn’t even wearing it.

After my parents split up, my mom took a job as a waitress to make ends meet.  My mom, being a tiny thing, was always cold and was heading out for work one night when she realized her jacket was still in the wash.  She asked me if she could wear my bomber jacket to work and I said "sure" of course, as I was babysitting my little brother at home anyhow.

My mom got out of work late in the evening, since she worked dinners and in the bar afterwards.  I was usually in bed well before she got home, so I put my brother to bed and I headed off after watching a bit of TV.

At 2:00 in the morning, I woke up to the phone… it was my dad.  He said that my mom had been in an accident on the way home from work and he was coming to pick us up as she was in the hospital.

My mom was driving home from work at about midnight when she fell asleep at the wheel of her car as she was driving into the valley where we lived.  The police estimated the car was traveling about 80 miles an hour when it hit a guardrail protecting a culvert, and went airborne before coming down in the ditch. My mom wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, as she had grown up in a generation that didn’t use them. Fortunately the car had an airbag and it kept her from being ejected, but it shoved her under the dash when the car hit the ditch upright.  She was able to get out of the car and pulled herself to a house next to the ditch and was able to call for help.

Because our local hospital wasn’t well equipped for trauma, mom had to be airlifted to the hospital in Rochester, NY.

I saw her the next day and she was OK for the most part.  Her left leg was badly banged up and she tore just about every ligament and tendon in her knee.  Only after years of therapy was she able to get most of it’s use back, but luckily it was the worst thing that came out of it… she was able to live life like normal, which was astounding when one looks at the accident and the condition of the car.

To this day my mom swears that it was the jacket that kept her from getting hurt worse or being killed — she said that it was my luck that had rubbed off in the jacket that kept her safe. She fought hard to make sure the paramedics didn’t cut it up or do anything to it when she was initially treated at the scene because she knew how much it meant to me. And the jacket even kept her safe on the helicopter flight — ever the lucky charm as it had served me!

I eventually grew out of the jacket and had to upgrade to another size — but we still have the jacket and my mom still wears it.  It might be a bit dirty and worn, but she loves it nonetheless. To her it’s a lucky charm that she’ll never get rid of — and to me it’s the symbol of mom’s love for me and my hobby, and her commitment to provide for us kids no matter how much it cost or how poor we were.  It may not have been able to help me fly physically, but it certainly gave my spirit the wings it needed to fly.

So please share your flying jacket story with us!  Make a comment below!

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