With the centenary celebration of the RAF just past and the centenary of the first free fall parachute jump coming up, we thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase the iconic RAF flying jacket from our vintage collection.
Known as the 'Irvin Jacket’, it takes its name from Leslie Irvin, the inventor.
Irvin was a keen aviator and aerial stuntman. Working for Universal Studios in the early film industry he earned the nickname “Sky High”. Irvin performed his first parachute jump at the age of fourteen for the movie of the same name.
A short while after, Irvin became a key member of the team which designed the early ‘Type-A’ parachute for the U.S Army Air Force (AAF); bringing previous design elements together to create the non-static personal parachute (to be operated by the user in ‘free-fall’). On the 19th of April 1919 Irvin tested the design and became the first person to make a premeditated parachute jump from an aircraft.
Though he broke his ankle landing the test was deemed a success, and two months after this feat Irvine set up his own business - the Irvin Air Chute Co in Buffalo NY; supplying parachutes to the AAF.
With the end of WWI and the growth of military and commercial flight, interest in the parachute grew rapidly and a large commission
from the RAF prompted him to move to the UK. By 1926 had set up a factory in Letchworth. From there, together with the New York factory he began supplying parachutes to more than 40 countries worldwide.
As technology and aircraft improved rapidly during the 1920s, planes and pilots could fly ever-higher, reaching greater heights and sub-zero temperatures. This acknowledged the need for high-altitude clothing to combat the extreme cold.
Irvin set about creating clothing fit for purpose.
Designed to provide the utmost warmth, comfort and manoeuvrability to the pilot, high quality sheepskin was used for the construction; the jacket was part of an entire suit consisting of a jacket, trousers, helmet and gauntlets which all fit together to provide the pilot full protection.
First produced in the Letchworth factory in 1931, the design was officially approved by the Air Ministry by 1932 the ‘Irvin’ became standard issue to all RAF pilots. Though originally produced by the Irvin Parachute Co., demand required the design to be contracted out to many manufacturers account for many interesting differences in design.
The model we have in store is a very early example dating to pre-war specifications, most probably produced around 1938-1940. Earlier war versions are easy to identify due to the simple design of the panel construction; this became much more intricate as the war progressed and shortages of available sheepskin meant smaller panels had to be utilised, creating the recognisable symmetrical triangular patterning of the late war versions.
Every part of this jacket is original. Though sadly missing the maker’s label, it is in remarkable condition; all the Dot Air Ministry marked zips retain their factory attached leather pull-tabs, and work flawlessly. The taped seams are strong and the plush sheepskin is strong and supple.
Even the adjustable elastic brace, often missing on the back of the collar is still present.
This jacket is a remarkable piece of history and would have been used during the summer of 1940 when the skies above England were fraught with the Battle of Britain and young airmen lost their lives and the RAF earned it’s place in history for the undeniable skill and bravery in the face of annihilation.
The words of Winston Churchill perfectly encapsulate the debt owed.
“Never in the human field of conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”