The History of Leather Part 15 – World War I

Posted on 24/07/14

The knights of World War I (1914-1918)

Returning to the use of leather by the military, look no further than World War I – specifically the various air forces and organisations of the era. Enclosed cockpits were something of a rarity at the beginning of the 20th century, you see, and as such, pilots got more than a little nippy during flight. A lot of people feel freezing after a short-faul flight to mainland Europe for goodness’ sake, and that’s in a fully-enclosed passenger liner. I digress. They were chilly, is the gist here.

Though initially only used for reconnaissance, as pilots and engineers got more confident, new breeds of plane were devised and produced, including fighters, bombers and ground-attack planes. World War I was the first time that aircraft were used on a large scale, in fact. They were dangerous, untested, fantastical almost. Civilians were in awe of the finest fighter pilots as a result.

Keeping those brave knights alive and happy as they were risking their lives was another matter entirely. Liquid oxygen converters and regulators were developed specifically for higher-altitude operations, along with breathing masks – only to never be used in fighter aircraft because they were too bulky and too heavy. Pilots had to choose their flying gear carefully, therefore. Leather flight jackets or full-length flying coats were common, as were fur-lined leather boots. Parachutes were out of the question though, partially because parachute technologies were not well-developed, but also partially because some pilots thought that it simply wasn’t sporting to wear one (a sure-fire winner for my ‘most quintessentially British thing in this entire piece’ award).

Pilots-in-training were specifically trained to use the feel of the wind against their face to guide their turns, all while dealing with faulty instruments, their own inexperience and unreliable weather reports. Their long leather coats, scarves, fur-lined gloves and leather hip boots were all they had to ward off the ever-present danger of hypothermia and even frostbite. I don’t know about you, but I think I might be in awe of these pilots too.

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