Aviator goggles in 1918 were made of metal, glass, cotton and elastic.
Staying warm was one of the many obstacles aviation pioneers faced in their quest to be airborne. Early airplanes had open cockpits, so pilots hoping to avoid frozen faces, numb hands and frostbitten feet had to dress carefully when they took to the skies.
“The airplane was invented in 1903, but even semi-enclosed cockpits didn’t come in until the late 1920s,” said John Hill, assistant director of aviation for SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport. “So these pilots were out there in the elements.”
To stay warm and dry, private, commercial and military pilots wore, and sometimes invented, special protective clothing that included head coverings, heavy-duty gloves and gauntlets, well-insulated boots, safety goggles and one-piece flight suits with all manner of straps, laces, zippers and pockets.
Dozens of pieces of this early flight gear, along with accessories, photographs, advertising and catalogue illustrations from the '10s to the '40s, are on display in an exhibit called "Flight Gear: Pilot Equipment from the Open-Cockpit Era" inside the Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum, located in the pre-security area of the airport's international terminal.
In addition to being practical, the flight gear worn by what museum notes refer to as “intrepid daredevils of the sky” became part of an identifying costume. “In the early days of flying, it was as if these pilots were from another planet,” said Hill. “This gear was the intersection of function and drama.”
Many of the objects in the exhibition are on loan from private collectors and other museums, including the San Diego Air and Space Museum and the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz.
San Diego Air & Space Museum
A Royal Air Force flight helmet from 1918 made of leather, rabbit fur and metal.
Among the objects on display, Hill especially likes the goggles, which are “both beautiful and functional,” a flight suit lined with bear fur and the head gear. “The finish and quality of the leather surface on these helmets is very evocative of the era,” said Hill, “And many have ear baffles added on that were designed to block out noise.”
Hill noted that until the 1930s, few people knew anyone who had flown in an airplane as a passenger, so pilots were the central figures in aviation. “We thought it was worth sharing the feeling for the period through these artifacts,” he said, “It’s also a good check for people who are walking through this pristine, modern terminal to encounter some well-worn garments, with plenty of blemishes, which show the rudimentary beginnings of what we take for granted today.”
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