Flight Jackets

The stories carried in a pilot's flying gear.

flight jacket illustration
Three jackets and some languageMaurizio Quarello

I was doing a play in Chicago in the early 70s. Two of the cast members were William H. Macy and Mike Nussbaum. Macy’s dad, Bill Sr., had flown B-17s in World War II, 306th Bomb Group, 423rd Squadron. Thirty-five missions in Europe, recipient of the Silver Star.

Bill Jr. inherited his dad’s flight jacket, and wore it to the theater. Painted on the back, Lt. Macy’s nose-art mascot “The Paper Doll”—“A sexy young brunette with a few buttons popped and red lipstick,” notes W.H. Macy Jr.

The jacket went missing during rehearsal, recalling George Burns’s answer to: “What’s the most important thing you learned in 60 years in show business?”

“Always take your wallet onstage.”

Nussbaum also wore his A-1 jacket to work. He’d worn it throughout the war, which he finished as the chief telegraphist on Eisenhower’s staff.

It was Mike who sent the telegram, “Germany Surrenders.” Signal Corps SOP was for the operator to add his initials at the bottom of the telegram; but Mike’s sense of occasion inspired him to send “Germany Surrenders, signed Eisenhower, signed Nussbaum.”

In the 70s, the jacket was as perfectly worn as only those garments we have sweated our lives into can be. But the lining was shredded. So Mike took it to his local cleaners and asked them to replace the lining. He was such a good customer that they not only relined it, but, as a surprise, redyed the leather at no charge. And unbounded was the grief in Israel.

The third jacket was mine. It was a superb Langlitz Leathers “Harley” jacket, a bit of motorcycle wear with more belts, zippers and straps than 10 S&M films. It was a gift from my friend Stan, along with an invitation to join him riding the hogs.

I loved the jacket, but I am still picking gravel out of my skin from a youth on the dirt roads of Vermont, and know myself cured of motorcycles. What was I to do? To sport the masterpiece without, at the least, owning a machine, was, of course, an affectation.

Well, I reasoned, how about another activity, participation in which might legitimize my apparel? So, I learned to fly.

Now comes the kicker. Here at KSMO, where the temperature is “either 72 degrees,” nobody wears a flying jacket. In fact, the local tradition holds it is not done to wear any “flying” gear at all. One flies in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt, or shorts and a T-shirt, and sneakers. (Indeed, sandals have been reported.) When it plunges into the high 60s one might add a sweatshirt.

Dressing the part, here, as, perhaps, where you are, is held as unfortunate as talking like a pilot, which is to say polluting the airways by the use of colorful language.

“One-ten-point-one for the band, two-five-one-two in the box,” might earn that slight hesitation in ATC’s response indicating the commission of a stylistic gaffe.

Speaking of which, I understand that pronunciation of the dental fricative “th” is difficult for some nonnative speakers of English. But I account the FAA’s mutation of “three” to “tree” an excess of gentility. For while foreign speakers might have difficulty with “three,” all pilots are at risk of confusing a broken “three” with a “two.” But “tree” is additionally too clunky and much too aviation-ish to fall upon my sensitive ears with comfort.

Here is another linguistic quiddity which might bear contemplation. Pilots, in my experience, which is general aviation, don’t swear. I exempt, of course, the imprecations which, of necessity, accompany the urgent and the unforeseen aloft. I refer to casual conversation on the ground. Pilots might curse moderately, but we do not as a matter of conversational necessity add the universal modifier. This might be a holdover from the cultivated terseness of cockpit communication, but perhaps it is also reluctance to invoke Powerful Forces. (For what, finally, is profanity, whether in reference to the spiritual or physical? It is the appeal to or the indictment of a supernatural force.)

Swearing, then, would fall into the same category as self-congratulation—always, as we know, the usurpation of the prerogative of Someone Else, of which arrogance he, she or it is most assuredly going to take immediate note.

To recur to style, my next-door neighbor is also a pilot. One sees him, getting into his car, with his flight bag, and we wave, and, in passing, bring each other up to date on our various adventures.

There he was, the other day, flight bag in hand, going off to fly. He was wearing a flight suit. He started to wave, and hesitated, in what I identified as shame. He gestured vaguely at the flight suit. “Uh,” he explained, “I was just going to clean out my hangar.” Yes, the Nomex suit worn in Government Service is a badge of honor. Otherwise, around here it is a “onesie.”

(Note the similar disclaimer of your he-man friend discovered getting out of a Volvo: “It’s my wife’s car.”)

Here’s another piece of radio lore.

My friend Bob Krutak had been a glider commando in the Luftwaffe. He’d landed on Crete. He and his brother-in-law were house builders; they restored our farm house in Vermont.

Calling out measurements to his partner, always in German, Bob would say “Zvo,” rather than “Zwei,” as “Zwei” and “Drei” might be too similar through the static.

Bill Macy Sr. told me that he’d seen the first Me 262, streaking through the box, “the pilot dead as he was ever going to be,” one of the first to see a jet in combat. His jacket, today, would be in a museum. And my late motorcycle garb went to accompany it, wherever lost objects go.

It used to be held that they were on the moon, but Neil Armstrong put paid to that hopeful theorem.

My jacket, like Bill’s, disappeared in a rehearsal room. Mike Nussbaum, in his 90s, is still lamenting about the cleaners, and “position and hold” is more euphonious than “line up and wait,” but what’re you gonna do?