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The History of Flying Hats

The most famous photograph in the world captures the moment manned flight began in 1903. Orville Wright is flying the plane, his brother Wilbur stands expectantly off to the side. It’s a windy day, and the plane is just lifting off the sand at Kitty Hawk. Aviation commentator and photographer Dan Patterson says that one detail from that picture shaped what aviators came to look like.

Orville and Wilbur Wright wore caps when they flew in 1903; men always wore hats back then. A few years later, in 1908, Wilbur was in flying France and showed up with a new one, a cap that he could pull down tight so that it wouldn’t blow off in flight. He was a big celebrity at that time in Europe, and his style of cap was soon picked up by young men and boys across the continent as the “Vilbur” style.

A year later, Louis Bleriot wore a soft leather flying helmet and goggles when he crossed the English Channel.  It was a necessity for warmth and the goggles protected his eyes from the engines that threw oil everywhere. It became the look of the aviator.

Then came World War One, and the “Knights of the Air.” Pilots had leather flying jackets , soft helmet and goggles, and the important but also very stylish silk scarf. The realities of flying in an open cockpit in very cold conditions made the “look” a necessity.

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Credit Dan Patterson Archival Collection
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Amelia Earhart and her white flying helmet.

After the war, Amelia Earhart made sure that her flying helmets were of fine soft leather and even had one made in white to match her white flying jacket. Charles Lindbergh wore a helmet and goggles when he crossed the Atlantic in 1927 and upon landing someone in the tumultuous crowd in Paris snatched his helmet off. French aviators retrieved it, but two days later while flying a French fighter plane and performing aerobatics, he looked over the side of the plane and the helmet blew off.  It disappeared into Paris.

Military flyers were generally officers and were issued a distinctive hat with a circular top held stiff by a round wire support. Airplanes were being fitted with radios and that required a set of headphones so the pilot could hear the transmissions over the noise of the motors. Pilots began to take the wire stiffener out of the hats so that the headphones could be worn over the hat, and a new look was created: the crushed hat.

The more crushed the hat was, the better. It became a badge of honor, and hats were altered to look well crushed long before the owner had enough flight time to have earned it. This image crosses all boundaries and nationalities. The pilots of the Battle of Britain, the first really big air battle of World War II, were seen in hats which were very much NOT of a military bearing. The movies picked that up in a hurry, and you can see Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable and then much later Ben Affleck wearing them.

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Credit Dan Patterson
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Ron Dick’s crushed hat

This “hat legacy” is part of being a pilot.

A friend of mine, Ron Dick, told this story. In the 1960s Ron was young pilot in the Royal Air Force and called his career, “38 years of undetected crime." He said he had flown a Vulcan jet bomber through the airspace of another British air base and was called onto the carpet. He was told to wear his best uniform and bring his best hat, to see the Commanding Officer, who was a more seasoned aviator. Ron appeared and stood at attention in front of the Boss, who did his duty and verbally dressed down Flight Officer Ron Dick. Then he smiled, offered Ron a chair and said, “Well now that’s over, take off your hat and let’s have a civilized drink." Ron is gone now, but I have his crushed hat, which is the best thing his wife could have ever given to me.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.