You do not have to be ultramasculine, or even a man, to appreciate the lure of the aerial dogfight -- even Snoopy wanted to be an ace. "The whole thing of flight has always captured man's fantasy," says psychologist Al Baraff. "You are being defiant -- defying gravity and being rebellious as an adult." The cult of the pilot is a cult of the defiant loner.
Which may explain the allure of the bomber jacket. It's more than a jacket, it's a romantic piece of equipment. Does it not suggest danger, courage, valor, excitement? It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory. A case of do or die. Wearing it, the ordinary man can become an uncelebrated hero. Perhaps that is why the jacket seems to be everywhere.
And now, in what may be a case of military life imitating fashion, bomber jackets, after 40 years of ground time, are being issued again to Air Force fliers. Sometime this year, pilots will start to look like pilots again.
They will look a little more like the guy on the street, too.
Never has a leather jacket had so sweet a mission: "To enhance esprit de corps and to recognize the Air Force's front-line pilots, navigators and enlisted air-crew officers," according to an Air Force spokesman.
Air Force fliers' jackets will now distinguish them from other Air Force personnel -- a glamorous advantage. But there's a more powerful attraction, too. The jackets will link modern-day fliers to the heroic fraternity of pilots past, to the brave men the country celebrated with fanfare and ticker tape parades. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947, he wore his A-2 leather flight jacket; even it wasn't strictly uniform then. And for a generation too young to remember, Sam Shepard wore one in the movie "The Right Stuff."
All this glory has been rubbing off on civilians for years, but never more so than recently. "It changed my life," says one fortyish man, who says after he bought a bomber jacket he started playing his old electric guitar again.
Retailers refused to be left in the dust. Out to profit from the trend, they have created jackets in various grades of cowhide, goatskin and calf -- the original jackets from the '20s and '30s were made of horsehide. Ralph Lauren made two versions for Polo this fall -- a "bomber" jacket with a shearling collar for $895 and a "flight jacket" with a leather collar for $450. Macy's, inspired by the French aviators of the 1920s airmail service, has opened a specialty store called Ae'ropostale.
But much cheaper labels are available, usually starting at $150. They can come "predistressed," to suggest the wearer has been punching holes in the sky and challenging death on a daily basis.
"It's the romance and excitement of blazing around in the sky with the enemy close by. It gets your blood rushing," says Jeff Clyman, former ROTC flier, son of a bomber pilot, founder and president of Avirex.
Clyman should know. His company, a manufacturer of trendy military togs, has been successfully selling uniforms for danger since 1975. He started out trying to re-create the old flight jackets as a hobby; he was a lawyer who flew in air shows on the side.
"I'd wear the old leather jackets that I got in surplus," he says, "and everyone always said, 'Hey, where'd ya get that jacket?' " He now makes several versions of the leather bomber jacket and sells them by mail order at Cockpit, his outlet stores in New York, and at several major department stores -- Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstroms, Macy's.
The strange thing is that Clyman got so good at copying the old bombers and other military apparel that his company started getting government contracts in 1981. He has made clothes for the Army, Navy, Coast Guard and NASA. Tom Cruise wore his company's flight suits and jackets as a Navy aviator in "Top Gun," and Clyman is hoping the movie will have a sequel. Last year the Air Force asked Avirex to make the first shipment of 175 leather flight jackets for just the higher-ups.
In the next couple weeks, Clyman, 42, will learn if Avirex was awarded the contract to make the next batch of new Air Force jackets -- 53,000 of them for the first year, which will cost the Air Force $150 a jacket, or about $8 million.
Of course, the guy on the street pays a lot more for an undistressed Avirex B-15 bomber jacket -- the Sharper Image stores in Washington sell them for $399. "The real thing," the Sharper Image ad copy reads, "Built for high-speed action."
"They've been very, very popular," says Scott Mullan, manager of Sharper Image's store at Georgetown Park. "We're selling to the older gentleman -- 40 and over to 60. They remember the original ones and appreciate it. It has the place where the air-oxygen mask fits on, all the buttons and the pockets. And it says inside: 'This garment must be worn during all flight and ground maneuvers.' "
Brave men buy them, the timid only try them on. "I don't think people would take me seriously in leather," says one man, 36, who tried on a bomber jacket this week. "I tried it on as a fantasy, a fantasy of being a groovin' guy."
"The way I see it, buying the leather flight jacket is a symbol. Symbolizing virility, masculinity," says psychologist Baraff, director of MenCenter in Washington. "It certainly has a macho element to it. The Air Force must recognize this or they wouldn't be bringing it back."
And buying a bomber jacket may be a symptom of midlife crisis, according to Baraff, who specializes in the area of men's issues. "It's a way of identifying with younger people in the culture. A lot of younger guys are wearing leather jackets -- maybe not authentic ones -- and macho motorcycling people. So, he's doing something that is manly. And he's being a little bit like his teen-age son by wearing a piece of clothing that some people might not think was okay."
But Baraff thinks midlife crisis gets a bad rap. He sees it as a creative and productive time of life. "That man who went back to play his electric guitar had a lot of extra energy that wasn't being expressed. The jacket was the catalyst, the firecracker for that."
And he thinks it's high time men bought clothes irrationally. "I see nothing wrong with a man buying any kind of clothing that makes him feel good," Baraff says. "Woman have known this forever. Men have bought clothes that were useful and appropriate to the situation, but usually not because they had something to do with their feelings. This leather flight jacket has some emotion with it."
Maybe it's because fighter jocks didn't have to do the dishes, change diapers or pick up a roll of paper towels at the market. The only rolls they knew about were victory rolls. They worried about crashing and burning, not overcooking the meat loaf.
"The jacket is associated with winners, to a time when there was a great deal of pride about being a man in America. Or being a man, period," says Baraff. "Right now men are having a hard time just being a man. And certainly being a middle-aged man."
Not everyone agrees that buying a bomber heralds midlife in torment. "Then it becomes an inexpensive Porsche," says Joseph Margolin, a Washington-area psychologist who specializes in consumer motivation. He believes the jackets have different meanings to different people. But he suggests they may attract an Oliver North-type crowd. "It's very male ... And it's a really clean-cut leather jacket. The guys who wouldn't dare wear a black motorcycle jacket will wear it."
The medley of pockets in the "authentic" flight jacket has significance to Margolin. "When a man shows it to me, he shows me all the pockets and zippers," Margolin says. "People have pride in it because it's very organized. One fellow I know had a pipe and tobacco in one pocket and contact lens stuff in another. This fellow had all these places, private places, to store things."
Menswear designer Alan Flusser offers a less complicated explanation: The bomber jacket looks better than a down parka and it's practical.
"It looks better the more it gets beat up. It's pretty warm -- it breaks the wind. It looks good with a variety of different things -- jeans and gray flannel," says Flusser, who is also the author of "Clothes and the Man." "It's rugged and manly. And it's one of those things that our generation has grown up seeing, at one time in their life, so it's a classic."
A classic. Not far from the Spirit of St. Louis and the Lunar Module at the National Air and Space Museum are two bomber jackets under glass and several more (Yeager's, Gen. Claire Chennault's among them) in storage. The Flying Tiger exhibit case holds the one that belonged to World War II ace Donald S. Lopez, now deputy director of the museum. Lopez bought his 35-year-old son an L.L. Bean reproduction of the A-2 flight jacket a couple years ago, and his daughter is still angry at him for donating his to the museum.
"There's an awful lot of nostalgia back to World War II," Lopez explains. "Our lectures on World War II always draw the biggest crowds."
Says Margolin, "We haven't had a popular war. That drama is missing. The military is responding in a very unusual way for them -- to something that is motivating, and that's what our society is desperate for."