Suiting Up

From shiny badges proclaiming their status to goggles, leather helmets and even face masks, airmail pilots were responsible for much more than just making sure the mail was delivered. Identification badges ensured pilots could ride by train for free when a crash rendered the airplanes un-flyable. Goggles and a range of leather flying gear helped protect them from the harsh elements as they flew in open cockpits through all kinds of weather. This is just some of the gear used by America's first airmail pilots.

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Eddie Gardner was one of the few pilots to actually purchase and use a leather face mask while flying. He used only on occasion, because although it did help protect his face against rain, hail and snow, it restricted his peripheral vision. Because these early pilots navigated by their vision as they moved all to often in and out of cloud banks, it helped to be able to see as much as the sky as possible while flying in tricky weather.
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Airmail pilots posing in their flight suits. From left to right, the pilots are: Jack Knight, Clarence Lange, Lawrence Garrison, William Hopson and airmail pilot turned official, Andrew Dunphy.
Ex-airmail pilot Eddie Gardner's goggles. The right lens appears to be partially melted and cracking.

Ex-airmail pilot Eddie Gardner wore these goggles for what became his final flight. After leaving the service, he ended up barnstorming around the country, taking part in flying exhibitions . On May 5, 1921, he borrowed these goggles from another pilot and took off. Complications developed during his flight and as he was trying to make adjustments, the goggles fell over his eyes and he was unable to clear his vision in time. Gardner survived the crash long enough to tell of his last moments in the air, dying the next day of his injuries.

Leather flying helmet used by airmail pilot Eddie Gardner

This leather flying helmet was used by airmail pilot Eddie Gardner. After his death, it was given to his old friend and first superintendent of the Air Mail Service, Benjamin Lipsner, who bequeathed it and a number of other early airmail materials to the Smithsonian Institution.

Eddie Gardner's leather flying suit

This is Eddie Gardner's flying suit. During Gardner's stint in the service, pilots provided most of their own clothing and protective materials. It was not until the early 1920s that the Air Mail Service finally began providing warm leather suits to its pilots for winter weather flying.

Two airmail pilots showing the front and back of their flying suit.

Warm boots helped protect the pilots' feet from the frigid temperatures of flying in open cockpits.

An airmail pilot dressed in full gear with gloves, buckling his book while in a plane cockpit

Warm gloves helped protect the pilots' feet from the frigid temperatures of flying in open cockpits.

U.S. Aerial Mail Service badge #809

This is U.S. Aerial Mail Service badge #809.

Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America