History of the MA-1

B-52 Crew 644th BS, 410th Bombardment Wing, 1966 via Jet Pilots Overseas

The MA-1 bomber jacket is a US Air Force garment that has endured over four decades of history and transcended its utilitarian beginnings to become an iconic item in pop-culture and fashion.  Much of modern menswear design has been based on the military designs of the past and assessing the history of the MA-1 is prime example of how military garments make their transition to civilian use.

The MA-1 remains one of my all time favorite clothing designs and I’ve taken the time to put together this post as a tribute to the MA-1.  Read the feature after the jump

To understand the MA-1 we must first evaluate the flight bombers that came before it.

The A-2 Bomber

The A-2 Bomber jacket is one of the most iconic US Air Force jacket designs due to it’s wide use in World War II. The official specification called for horsehide, and while most jackets probably were so made, there was a notable fraction of A-2’s made of goatskin and perhaps other hides such as steer.

Wilber Gooder’s A-2 jacket, he served with the 461st bomb group, attached to the 15th AAF via A2 Jacket Art

“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.” via Acme Depot


History of the Jacket, Flying Intermediate Type B-15

The emergence of the jet age in military aviation prompted a need for a new, more modern flight jacket. The B-15 was the lightweight USAF replacement for the previously bulky, leather flight jackets of the WWII era and the direct precursor to the MA-1.

“The first of the USAF synthetic flight jackets, the B-15 was ideally suited for early spring, late fall and winter. These jackets were an instant success with aviators, as they afforded them far less bulk and considerably more comfort in their cramped cockpits of the emerging jet fighters. The design of the B-15 introduced many new features, which can still be seen on flight jackets today. Including, a pen pocket on the arm, diagonal slash pockets, and a place to clip the oxygen mask.

A new addition to the the B-15 type A were triangle shaped attachments where the oxygen mask snapped on to when not being used. Later versions of the B-15 incorporated a single vertical patch of fabric either on the left or right. The storm flap on the b-15 was designed extra long and included synthetic fur on the flap, not for warmth but to hold the aviator’s oxygen hose in place during high altitude flights.” 

The B-15 was similar to the MA-1 except it had a mouton fur collar. After a few years, the B-15 was discontinued and the MA-1 was introduced.

Rise of the MA-1

Late 1950’s MA-1 by Dobbs Industries (via eBay forums)

The design of the MA-1 has continued to be popular in both civilian and military circles due to key practical considerations in it’s design.

The MA-1 as originally designed, was made from high quality nylon outer shell and a nylon lining. In between these nylon layers was a double faced wool material for warmth. After a few years, the wool interlining was replaced by the newly developed polyester fiber fill interlining. The polyester replaced the wool because it made the jacket much lighter and provided superior warmth. The MA-1 introduced two major design changes from its predecessor, the B-15:

  • The MA-1 discarded the mouton fur collar and substituted a knit collar. This was done because the fur collar interfered with the parachute harness worn by the aviators.
  • In later models (J-8279D, about 1960), the MA-1 jacket was made reversible and added a bright Indian Orange lining. If the airplane crash landed and the pilot escaped, he could reverse the jacket to the orange side for a highly visible signal to rescue personnels

Changes to the MA-1 over the years

  • Early models contained a front tab where the pilot could clip his oxygen mask when not in use. After several years, advances in airplane design and pilot helmet oxygen systems made the clip-on arrangement unnecessary, and the front tab was removed.
  • Early models also had sewn loops to hold the wires running from the radio to the pilot’s helmet. When radio improvements made this unnecessary, the sewn loops were removed.
  • The early MA-1 flight jackets were used by the Air Force and had the United States Air Force decal on each sleeve. This was dropped in later MA-1 models when the jacket began to be used by other branches of the military.
  • Each MA-1 jacket requires 57 separate sewing operations. These operations are highly engineered and each has a distinct quality purpose. The utility pocket, originally called the cigarette pocket, involves 8 sewing operations.

Source : Classic Jet

Modern Day Alpha MA-1s

The Alpha MA-1, which is sold to the commercial market, has several deviations from the government specifications. These changes have no effect on the appearance, and make the jackets more useful for consumers on an everyday basis. The deviations include:

  • Water repellent treated fabric – this makes the garment more resistant to water and wind
  • Knit collar, cuffs and waist band are an acrylic blend rather than 100% wool. It has been found that wool does not wear as well as acrylic and is subject to insect damage.
  • The interlining is cut staple, non-quilted polyester batting rather than a quilted, continuous staple polyester batting; and has no performance impact on the finished garment.Source : Classic Jet

The MA-1 in Popular Culture

Today there are millions of people wearing variations of MA-1s daily throughout the world. The item has been adopted by subcultural movements and in particular Mods and Skinheads. Famed Sci-Fi Author William Gibson on the MA-1

The MA-1 is a very complexly iconic garment, having manifested in a number of subcultures since its initial military issue in the 50s. A tiny cult of proto-Mods favored it early-Sixties Soho, skinheads made it a part of their intensely narrow dress-code (often in burgundy, which the USAF never issued either), it was part of a certain gay uniform, goths wore it (always in black). And I had always liked it, particularly on girls.”

Below are some visuals that show the MA-1 in popular culture. The MA-1 is a garment that has been featured prominently in film.

Traditional Skinhead Style 

This is England (2007)

Steve McQueen in The Hunter (1980)

Top Gun (1989)

I hope that this feature has opened your eyes to the extensive history of the MA-1.  Expect another post on the MA-1 in history very soon.