Aeronautical Randomness
What are you wearing?
December 6, 2010

I thought it would be fun to take a look at airline uniforms.  Throughout the years, I’ve worn many.  Some were cheap, while others expensive.  I’ve worn the traditional airline uniform as well as a business suit to fly corporate jets.  Until now, all were relatively uncomfortable.

You’re probably very accustomed to seeing pilots walk around the airport.  But, have you ever taken a really good look to see what makes up the uniform?

The Hat

The hat commands respect.  When a passenger sees a pilot in a hat, he will be revered.  At my old airline, the rules stated when a pilot left the cockpit to resolve a dispute, he would always wear the hat.  After all, who can argue with a guy wearing a hat?  Often, we’d have a passenger not respect a flight attendant’s commands.  After being summoned, I would put on my hat and go back to resolve the issue.  It didn’t matter how long the passenger had been arguing with the flight attendant.   When I arrived, the issue was instantly resolved.  I’m sure it wasn’t the passenger’s sudden realization that the conflict was now more important than two guys flying the plane.  Yeah, it must have been the hat.  But, 9/11 ruined all the fun. The hat and I had to stay locked in the cockpit.

An amusing thing about the hat:  Some guys wore it in the crew room when out of public view.  Sitting with me at a private briefing table, they would wear the hat.  Why? I always knew it would be a long trip if the hat was proudly worn during the brief.  At least the rules stated it was not to be worn while flying.  I bet there was a reason someone had to write that rule.

The hat was also used for political purposes.  A few years ago, United pilots protested management by defiantly not wearing the hat.  No hat would touch the top of a pilot’s head until the CEO was replaced.  Management responded by giving the CEO a raise and making the hat optional.  We sure showed them.

Finally, when rushing through an airport on a warm summer day, nothing will make the forehead sweat more than the hat.  If I got warm enough, I’d get a nice red ring around my head.  So, when it became optional, I opted out.

The Tie

Some pilots really look nice tying up the 100% polyester necktie.  They tie nice Windsor Knots and bring the whole look together with a union pin or tie tack.

Most, however, opt for the clip-on polyester tie.  If worn with the short sleeve shirt, it really completes the “Catholic School” look.  Once the cockpit door is closed, the tie is removed and hung somewhere beside the pilot.  It kinda dangles there like a little mascot watching over the pilot.  To use the lavatory, the tie gets clipped back on.  Like the hat, we could not have the public see us with an open collar.

The Shirt

All my shirts have been white.  At one company, the shirt was 100% cotton.  It was comfortable and looked really nice for the first fifteen minutes after it was ironed.  Most other companies use a cotton blend.  That provides the perfect compromise between comfort and how aesthetically pleasing it will look coming out of an overstuffed Travel Pro.  At most airlines, the pilot has the option of wearing short or long-sleeve shirts.  When I flew corporate jets, the company mandated long-sleeves through the end of April.  Ever been to Jamaica in April?

Epaulets and Other Appendages

There are epaulets, metal wings, and an ID badge.  With so much hanging on the clothing, it is really easy to forget an item.  A quick look in the mirror is mandatory to ensure all the required hardware has been attached to the uniform.

Epaulets are the stripes on the top of a pilot’s shoulders.  Ever look at them closely?  The captain’s have four stripes and the first officer’s have three.  Again, upgrades to captain are strictly based on date-of-hire seniority.  With the growth we are experiencing at Virgin America, I hope to trade my epaulets in for four stripes in the next few years.

Pants and Shoes

Yes, there are pants and shoes.  Except for a well publicized incident at another airline over seven years ago, they are worn at all times.

The Virgin America Pilot Uniform

Virgin America does everything different.  Much to my relief, the uniform is no exception.

Do you remember the movie Walk the Line?  A scene showed Johny Cash getting dressed for his first audition at a studio in Memphis.  He stood at his closet door buttoning up a black dress shirt.  I think of that scene as I button up my shirt.  Our shirts are black and the perfect cotton blend.  It is soft and comfortable.

The top button is left open.  There is no tie.  Let me say that again because I still don’t believe it:  There is no tie.

There is no hat.

The “look” is completed with silver epaulets, silver wings, gray slacks, and black shoes.  On cold days, a leather coats keeps me warm.

Sure, the uniform is nontraditional.  But, so is the airline.

For the first time in my career, I am actually comfortable.

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There is 1 comment

  • Jesus Calderon says:

    Hmmm,really interesting, two years ago my sister flew with Virgin America and she actually took some pictures with the flight attendants and about the entertainment system and even of a spectacular smoking drink! She really got impressed about the style of the airline and always recommends it to our friends and family in case of a trip to the states. Thanks for the post man, civil spanish air traffic controller under military supervision out… :S

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