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Timeless Classic: The A-1 Flight Jacket

October 11, 2009

In this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, I read a great piece about Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, “Freedom of Speech”.

The iconic image, pictured here, represents one of the four “essential freedoms” set forth in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration speech of January 6, 1941. The painting was made in 1943 as part of the four image series. While the other three – Freedom From Want, Freedom From Fear and Freedom Of Worship – are equally inspiring, Freedom of Speech is particularly special to me.

Apart from allusions to the Lincoln-inspired central figure and the less direct hints of church and school, central tenets of American culture, what caught my attention was the jacket.

That central figure, the common man speaking his mind at a town meeting, is wearing an Army Air Corp A-1 flight jacket. The symbolism of the jacket, clearly worn and softened by age, tells us that perhaps he served in the military in his younger days and now works in a manual but honorable field. He is the embodiment of the classic “great citizen”.

A modern version of the A-1

I once had that jacket, in a manner of speaking, and mourn its loss whenever I think about it – like now. Many years ago I ordered the A-1 from the now defunct Willis & Geiger, then a part of Lands’ End. I felt, once I had actually tried it on, that the jacket was too snug and a bit too new looking. So, I returned it; what an idiot. Shortly thereafter W&G closed its virtual doors and the jacket was gone for good.

Only now do I fully appreciate the totally unique and classic style this jacket represents. Why is it snug? To fit close to the pilot’s body in the cramped cockpit. It’s button-front closure is the result of the zipper not yet having been invented in 1927, the A-1’a year of issue. The knit collar, a variant of the baseball jacket type, was designed to close snug around a pilot’s neck and keep out the cold wind of an open cockpit.

Too new looking? Well, it was new and I was stupid. In hindsight I see with painful clarity how beautifully that capeskin would have aged. So it goes.

The A1 is the predecessor to the better known A2 and it is easy to see the early DNA of the endlessly copied A2. Technically referred to as the A1 Summer Flying Jacket and manufactured as Navy issue from November 1927 to 1931, it was eventually replaced by the G1.

The well-known A-2

Eastman, a manufacturer of exacting reproductions notes that the A-1 was synonymous with early aviation heroes, including Jimmy Doolittle, Ira Eaker and Carl Spaatz. The A-1 was also the very first of the windcheater-type flying jackets outfitted with knitted waist and cuffs, and a design that was to set the basic outline for flying jacket styling to this day.

Eastman’s Reproduction A-1

Although superseded in design by the A-2 in1931, the A-1 was still being issued, albeit in limited numbers, well into the 1940s, and was not officially declared obsolete until September 29th 1944.

Originally, the A-1 was specified to be made from a olive drab cape leather, but the few existing examples that can be found today are always a chestnut-brown shade of capeskin. High detail replicas, essentially historical reproductions, can cost anywhere from $800 to $1,200. Modern versions in hide can run around $400.

The great thing about the the A-1 is that it is both a classic example of timeless style and something at works seamlessly with say, jeans, a white J.Press oxford and old docksiders. It’s both old school and modern cool and you can’t beat that combination.

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