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What do pilots wear?

Flight suit

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Flight suit worn by a Thunderbird passenger

A flight suit is a full-body garment, worn while flying aircraft such as military airplanes, gliders and helicopters. These suits are generally made to keep the wearer warm, as well as being practical (plenty of pockets), and durable (including fire retardant). Its appearance is usually similar to a jumpsuit. A military flight suit may also show rank insignia. It is sometimes used as a combat uniform in close quarters battle or visit, board, search, and seizure situations, for its practicality.

History [ edit ]

A flight suit worn in 1925

East German National People’s Army flight suit, 1962-1978

As aviation developed in unheated open cockpits, the need for warm clothing quickly became apparent, as did the need for multiple pockets with closures of buttons, snaps, or zippers to prevent loss of articles during maneuvers. Various types of flight jackets and pants coverings were developed and, during World War I, leather two-piece outfits were common among pilots to ward off the chill caused by propwash and the cold of low-oxygen high-altitude flying. Leather quickly became the preferred material due to its durability and the protection it offered against flying debris such as insect strikes during climb-outs and landings, and oil thrown off by the simple rotary and inline motors of the time. Australian aviator Frederick Sidney Cotton’s experience with high level and low-temperature flying led Cotton in 1917 to develop the revolutionary new «Sidcot» suit, a flying suit which solved the problem pilots had in keeping warm in the cockpit. [1] This flying suit, with improvements, was widely used by the RAF until the 1950s.

By the time World War II started in earnest, electrically heated suits were introduced by Lion Apparel in conjunction with General Electric for patrol and bomber crews who routinely operated at high altitudes above 30,000 feet (9,100 m), where air temperatures could get so cold that flesh could freeze instantly to any metal it touched. As enclosed and pressurized cabins came into operation, the necessity of bulky leather and shearling jackets and pants began to fade. For example, pilots, navigators, and bombardiers of a B-17 operating in Europe in 1944 comfortably wore their officer’s uniforms under an A-2 flight jacket, due to the enclosed and heated cabin; but the waist gunners needed electrically heated suits, as they fired their guns through open window gunports. When the B-29 Superfortress was introduced in the fight against Japan, along with remote-controlled coordinated gun turrets, the fully pressurized crew cabin made bulky flight gear obsolete.

Where bomber pilots could wear their service uniforms as flight gear, fighter pilots needed a uniform that functioned in the tight confines of the typical fighter plane cockpit. The AN-S-31 flight suit was developed for the US Army Air Corps and featured two button-down breast pockets and two button-down shin pockets that could be accessed from the sitting position. The US Navy used a slightly different model that featured slanted pockets with zippers. The material used was either wool or tight-weave cotton for wind resistance and fire protection.

The need for short-duration fire protection was demonstrated early during that war. As technology advanced, the fire-protective flight suit, helmets, goggles, masks, gloves and footwear were designed and used. The footwear often could be cut to appear like civilian shoes in the country where the crew member would land if shot down.

Flak jackets were also developed to give bomber crews some protection from flying shrapnel, though these increased the overall weight of the airplane and reduced the effective bombload that could be carried.

With the era of jet flight and improved focus on safety; however, fully fire-retardant materials were required. It was also simpler to make a one-piece suit when it would potentially have to fit over existing clothing or various types of under-garments.

Also, with the coming of jet flight came the development of the G-suit, a special kind of flight suit (worn alone or in combination with a traditional flight suit) that protected the wearer from the physical stress of acceleration by compressing the body to keep blood from pooling in the legs. As the pilot executed high-G combat maneuvers, their blood would literally be pulled from their head and shift downwards into their lower body, starving the brain of oxygen and causing a blackout. The G-suit was designed to allow some retention of blood in the pilot’s head, allowing them to execute high-G turns for sustained periods of time.

In the 1950s and 1960s, even more specialized suits needed to be developed for high-altitude surveillance (such as with the U-2 and SR-71 aircraft) and space flight. These would include full pressurization, and would be the precursor to today’s space suits.

Current standards [ edit ]

Swiss Air Force flight suit and fighter pilot equipment, 2011

The current flight suit that is standard for most air forces and navies is made of Nomex, a fabric made from spun aramid that is lightweight and fire-resistant. The flame-retardant capabilities of this material make it ideal for protecting aviators in case of a fire. The suit is often green or desert tan in color, with multiple pockets for specific pieces of gear (such as a clear plastic pocket on the thigh intended to house a map of the aircraft’s planned flight path), but color, style, and cut vary greatly from country to country. The current model flight suit for the US military is the CWU 27/P and is available in sage green and desert tan. Commercial flight suits for civilian flying are also available, and are frequently used by helicopter crew (including non-pilots such as flight engineers, paramedics, and nurses), aerobatic pilots, and others who desire a practical «uniform».

Although there are multiple pockets on the current CWU 27/P flight suit, all pockets are placed on the front of the flight suit or on the arms or legs. There are no pockets on the back of the flight suit. This design allows easier access to the pockets while the wearer is sitting (such as in the cockpit of an aircraft), and ensures that the wearer in a seated position does not have to sit on any items in a back pocket (such as a wallet).

Members of the United States Marine Corps wore flight suits during most vehicle patrols and ground combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because their standard camouflage utilities were not flame-resistant. Flight suits have now been phased out among ground personnel with the introduction of the Flame Resistant Organizational Gear (FROG) suit, which resembles the standard camouflage utilities.

Space flight [ edit ]

Astronauts Richard O. Covey (front) and Joe H. Engle rush from the Discovery during emergency launch-mode egress training at Kennedy Space Center.

Airline pilot dress code

A casual airline pilot dress code, showing a floatplane pilot wearing a pilot uniform with shorts

Uniforms are used by many professions to stand out from the crowd. While airlines require their staff to wear uniforms for branding, they also signal to the public the wearers additional training, and help convey a sense of security and professionalism.

Pilots are no exception, having one of the most easily recognisably uniforms. Alongside the uniform, airlines frequently have a strict dress code for pilots. Here we will take a look at pilot uniform standards, answering common questions such as can pilots have tattoos or beards?

Do pilots have to wear a uniform?

So, do commercial pilots have to wear a uniform? The answer is yes! For all airline pilots, their uniforms are a vital part of the job.

Not only do they look smart and professional, but they also play an important role in safety, as they make pilots instantly recognisable:

  • In the event of an evacuation, the pilots will be out on the tarmac — alongside the cabin crew — directing the passengers to the safest areas.
  • The uniform also signifies to everyone onboard the chain of command, ensuring that in emergencies, messages are passed on, and decisions taken by the most experienced crew member in that area.

Female pilot military camo uniform

Airline pilot military uniform

Reason 2

Commercial airlines are descended from the military. Virtually all major legacy carriers began using ex-military pilots, and ex-military aircraft, with a golden period of commercial aviation described as being between WW1 and WW2.

As a result, there are many military themes that continue to run through commercial aviation, and uniform standards is one of them. The hierarchical structure, pilot uniform details — even the hats — all reflect the military background.

With military origins and an instantly recognisable role, it’s no wonder to see that there is a uniform wearers guide. Here’s a look at 4 commonly asked questions about pilot dress codes:

1 — Can pilots have tattoos?

Quick Answer: Yes, but they must be covered up on duty.

While there are no specific rules against pilots having tattoos, most airlines do still have guidelines in place. In 2022, the majority of airlines still require that tattoos be covered while on duty.

Typically, airlines fall into three categories:

Visible tattoos allowed
A few airlines, such as Air New Zealand, allow all their staff to have visible tattoos while at work. A rule brought in at the end of 2019.

Tattoos allowed but must be covered
Most Airlines fall into this category, allowing pilot tattoos as long as they aren’t displayed on duty. Tattoos that are visible whilst wearing a pilot’s uniform are required to be covered, so pilots will need to wear long sleeved shirts, or use a simple bandage to cover the tattoo up, and can’t have face tattoos.

No tattoos allowed
While attitudes are slowly changing, there are still some airlines such as Air China, and Japan Airlines that do not employ pilots with tattoos. Full stop. Unfortunately, this is relatively strictly enforced, as these airlines often carry out their own in-house medical examination, and pilots will be required to declare any tattoos in the application process.

2 — Can pilots have beards?

Quick Answer: Yes. (Patchy stubble is out, though!)

This is a question that gets asked a lot! The short answer is yes, pilots can have beards. However, there are some standards that need to be followed.

Stemming from military guidelines, many airlines adopt and all-or-nothing approach, requiring pilots to either have a beard or be clean-shaven. If pilots do have beards, rules state that facial hair must be kept neat and trimmed.

This is less about appearance and more about safety. Smoke hoods are a vital piece of protective breath equipment, allowing pilots or flight attendants to fight fires and avoid smoke inhalation.
These hoods stop pilots breathing smoke by using a rubber seal around the neck to prevent smoke entering, and are the basis for the restrictions for bulky facial hair and unshaven necks!

Commercial pilot beard and aviators

3 — Can pilots have piercings?

Quick Answer: No, only female pilots are allowed earrings.

Virtually all airlines prohibit pilots from wearing any form of nose or facial piercing.

Interestingly, this part of the uniform standards seems to be the most restrictive, and some would argue, out of date. The only piercings allowed by most airlines are one matching pair of earrings, for female pilots only. Male pilots, you’re out of luck!

4 — Do pilots have to wear hats?

Quick Answer: Not in the cockpit!

Hats are a famous part of the pilot uniform, but they have become unfashionable recently. Some Airlines no longer require their pilots to wear hats in the summer or on domestic routes. Others make pilot hats optional, and many low-cost airlines — like Ryanair, EasyJet, or Spirit — have ditched pilot hats altogether.

One thing they all have in common, though, is that airline pilots do not stick to wearing hats in the cockpit. In fact, behind closed doors, uniform standards permit a relaxing of the rules. Many pilots stow their jackets, roll up shirt sleeves, remove ties, and definitely — definitely — take off the hat!

Female pilot uniforms

Three differences!
In the early days of aviation, both male and female pilots wore identical uniforms. These uniforms were typically inspired by military uniforms, and they included items such as bomber jackets, cargo trousers, and boots.

When it comes to newer, commercial pilot uniforms, while each airline has their own slight variation, the basis of the pilot’s uniform remains largely the same and this is the case for both men and women. Female pilots will often have a few more options when it comes to their uniforms.

Notable differences include:

Female pilot uniform cravat vs tie


Wearing of a cravat rather than a tie — a wider neck covering that is more suited to blouses

Female pilot uniform skirt Vs trousers


Most airlines allow their female pilots to choose between wearing skirts or trousers

Female pilot heels Vs flat shoes


Heeled shoes, however there are restrictions on heel heights and designs, as pilots must be able to operate rudder pedals safely

Did you know?

While there are now a modest few differences in female pilot uniforms, it actually took a very long time for female pilots to be accepted in any uniform at all!

  • The United States didn’t have any female commercial airline pilots until 1934.
  • Finally, Helen Richey became the first female commercial airline pilot hired by an airline, joining Central Airlines in late 1934.
  • However, having a female airline pilot caused such an outrage among the all-male pilot union, that in less than 2 years she was forced to step down!
  • The US didn’t have another female commercial airline pilot at a scheduled carrier until Emily Howell Warner in 1976!

First female commercial airline pilot with old style pilot uniform


So, there you have it. A look at the airline pilot dress code and what is required of pilots when it comes to their uniforms. While female pilot uniforms may differ slightly from male pilot uniforms, it is subtle, and the overall look is still professional.

The rules also continue to change over time. So while airline pilots with tattoos would once be strictly banned, there are now several airlines — such as Virgin Atlantic or Air New Zealand — where visible tattoos are absolutely fine.

Ultimately, individual airlines decide what their dress code is for pilots, and attitudes to what is acceptable differ around the world. As a result, having a beard, tattoos, or piercings doesn’t necessarily mean not working as a pilot, but it may limit potential airlines you can work for.

What do you think about airline pilot dress codes? Should they be relaxed, or should pilots retain the clean-shaven ex-military look and hats that the profession was once known for? We’d love to hear from you.

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