September 28, 1987 12:00 PM

Back in the glory days of World War II America’s Army Air Corps pilots knew that they were what they wore and that their leather jackets were the cloth of their calling. The leather was dropped in 1943 and soon nylon came into favor. This month, in celebration of its 40th anniversary—and with a nod to Tom Cruise‘s cocky leather-clad pilot in Top Gun—the Air Force is reissuing the legendary A-2 summer flying jacket (better known as bomber) as standard gear for flight crews, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve flyers. For some veterans it will mark the restoration of a badge of identity. “It used to be a manifestation of everything you were,” says one World War II ace. “It was like wearing your airplane.”

The disappearance of the seal-brown goatskin coats may not have registered with Hollywood or the public, thanks to the resistance of pilots and crews. According to C.G. Sweeting, former curator of flight clothing at the Smithsonian Institution, some fliers clung to their jackets, no matter how worn and tattered, all through the Korean War. “What was [the Air Force] going to say?” he asks. ” ‘You can’t wear that jacket in that plane’?”

The first crop of new jackets, 200 of them, are from the New York-based firm Avirex, which has been manufacturing bomber jackets for civilians of both sexes since the mid-1970s. A contract for 53,000 more will be awarded by year’s end. The new model costs $125, and the Air Force’s 45,000 eligible fashion plates apparently are rarin’ to wear ’em. Of 600 flyers who were queried by the Air Force about the jacket, 509 said they’d even pay for it themselves. That’s no surprise to Jeff Clyman, an aviation buff and the 41-year-old president of Avirex. “Flying has become so high tech, everything’s a blip on a screen,” he says. “The jacket re-creates the romance of flying and defending freedom in the skies.”

In bringing back leather, Air Force brass are not simply making a fashion statement. Rather, they hope the jackets will help re-create an esprit that might keep trained pilots from jumping to lucrative jobs in commercial aviation. “If it costs $1 million to train a pilot,” says an Air Force spokesman, “a $125 jacket is certainly worth the price to keep him.”

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