Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 29 seconds.
Jeff and Jacky Clyman, founders of Cockpit USA Inc., have been replicating vintage flight clothing since 1975. Jeff, who founded the Avirex Aeronautica catalog in 1975, was joined by his wife (Jacky) in 1978 to launch The Cockpit mail order catalog; at the time, no other brand had its own retail store and a consumer catalog.
Since then, the Clymans have celebrated many milestones — from supplying flight gear to the United States Air Force (USAF) to outfitting Hollywood movies, including Rocky IV, Top Gun, and Top Gun: Maverick.
Cockpit USA is known for perfecting the vintage sheepskin and leather tanning production processes not found between the Second World War and 1975. Today, the jackets continue to be handmade in the U.S.
In anticipation of Top Gun: Maverick, the “Movie Hero Collection” was born. The Top Gun jacket is manufactured with “tanned goatskin leather and authentically reproduced patches, then put through a weathering process which takes hours of attention.”
Skies: How did the Clyman family become involved in aviation?
Jacky Clyman: In the 1930s, Jeff’s father won a prize for a crossword puzzle in a Pennsylvania newspaper when he was starting medical school. Instead of using the prize money for tuition, he bought a bi-plane. During the Second World War, his father served as a combat flyer and flight surgeon. Jeff’s uncle was also an Eighth Air Force fighter pilot in Europe during that time.
Jeff Clyman: Jacky’s father was not military but worked for the United States Air Force (USAF); as a result, she grew up surrounded by pilots and airplanes – an Air Force brat.
Jacky: Jeff, a seasoned Warbird pilot, has been flying since he was a kid on his grandpa’s farm, and later spent his free time flying vintage Second World War aircraft as a performer in air shows. Many of the aircraft Jeff flew, and still flies, are now in the American Airpower Museum (East Farmingdale, New York) — a living history museum where warplanes are actually flown frequently.
Skies: Tell me about the events that led to Cockpit USA’s creation.
Jacky: For Jeff, it was wearing his father’s Army Air Corps aviator jacket at air shows and then being asked where to get one — that sparked his passion for keeping aviation history alive. With a lot of patience and no apparel experience, Jeff searched for old patterns and jackets. Digging through old warehouses and bales of worn clothing, he eventually found small shops and seamstresses to recreate some of the jackets — and figured out where to purchase leather and sheepskin. The first sheepskin jackets were sueded sheepskin ‘painted’ with indelible shiny brown paint.
Jeff: The jackets stood up by themselves; they were so stiff. This was the case with a lot of the originals, as a matter of fact, which is why most are totally cracked today.
Jacky: He found a place in what’s now called ‘SoHo’ in New York that actually made the sheepskin during the Second World War. Interestingly enough, SoHo was home to the flagship Cockpit USA store.
Gradually, he not only recreated the jackets but also became an expert in leathers. He worked with a tannery in the southwest in the late ‘70s to get the right finish for the sheepskin bomber jackets — which slowly wore off, giving them the effect of a ‘worn’ jacket.
Skies: How many generations of the Clyman family are involved in the management of Cockpit USA?
Jeff: Mark Clyman, our youngest son, is a partner at a New York law firm and handles our legal matters. Scott Clyman, our eldest son, is a current F-16 Air Force pilot. He works closely with our marketing and design teams. Scott and Mark are also on the Board of Directors at the American Airpower Museum, sponsored by Cockpit USA.
Skies: What were the obstacles you faced and overcame?
Jeff: You name them, and we had to overcome them. From production to running a business that was built from scratch.
Skies: How has the manufacturing process evolved over the past 45 years?
Jeff: Except for finding different tanneries and developing leathers and sheepskin, our production is still very old-fashioned. For example, the leather is still cut by hand; textiles are hand-spread on long tables and carefully cut with simple hand-cutting machines.
Some jackets have not changed and continue to be made, but some have gone through fit changes during the 1980s as well as most recently. In addition, certain styles have been made in new leathers and new finishes, and some have been recreated based on actual pilot decorated styles.
Skies: How did Cockpit USA become a supplier to the U.S. government?
Jeff: In the late ‘70s, we started bidding on all kinds of contracts. We have made everything from N3Bs (cold weather jackets), N2Bs (parka-style jackets, initially conceived for military purposes), MA-1s (the famous green flight jacket with orange lining), and specialized ‘toxic aprons.’
Jacky: In 1985, one of the Thunderbird pilots, LCol ‘Hoss’ Jones, contacted us on behalf of the USAF uniform board to see if we could help them produce a reissue A-2 leather jacket for the 40th anniversary of the USAF (1947-1987). We, of course, agreed, and Jeff created the Reissue Goatskin A-2 jacket.
We initially supplied the first 400 jackets, but lost the first significant contract when the government awarded it to a company that proceeded to issue a totally different, lesser-quality product than the first 400 issued. After a few years, we were awarded the next group of A-2 contracts starting in 1998. Cockpit USA is currently the producer of the A-2 for the USAF.
Skies: How did Cockpit USA become the official jacket provider for Top Gun?
Jacky: We worked with Paramount to launch and advertise Top Gun through millions of The Cockpit mail-order catalogs. Remember, this was pre-internet. We also had a six-month license for all Top Gun apparel. We then worked on making the best replica ‘Movie Hero Top Gun’ jacket, which has been a hit ever since — even though there are countless less expensive versions. The quality of our jackets and the attention to detail makes our brand stand out from all the other copies.
Skies: Did Top Gun help the brand?
Jacky: Remember that our company was making these iconic jackets with and without patches before the movie even launched, so we were already known for our adorned leather and sheepskin jackets since the early 1980s.
We even made the incredibly successful Chuck Yeager X-1 jacket for an AC Delco promotion, for which Gen Yeager was the spokesperson. He actually requested that we make the products used in that promotion. AC Delco thought they would need a few hundred jackets, which ended up being in the thousands.
So, when we became involved with the movie, the Top Gun-type jacket we had already created (Z201036M) became a huge seller worldwide and is still a classic.
Skies: Which Top Gun cast members wore/wear your flight apparel?
Jeff: For Top Gun: Maverick, we worked with the costume department, which was looking for an original shiny, twill weave Nomex CWU flight jacket for Tom Cruise. And we happened to have ‘new’ old stock from when we were making them for the government. So, we ended up sending all the smaller sizes we had. We also sent them a few of our Z2202 WEP jackets in nylon, but we don’t know if they were used in the movie.
We also collaborated with IWC Schaffhausen, for whom we made an exclusive group of unique nylon Top Gun CWU jackets. They plan on giving those to their top customers when they buy IWC’s exclusive Top Gun watch. Look for their watch in the movie!
Skies: How many jackets have you sold in total?
Jacky: I know at one time, years ago, someone took a stab at figuring it out, and it was in the millions.
Skies: In your eyes, what has been your greatest accomplishment thus far?
Jacky: That’s a great question and a difficult one to answer. I believe we brought the flight jacket and the bomber jacket styles to the commercial fashion market worldwide, starting in 1975. Back then, you could only find surplus jackets. Over the years, these styles have become staples in every man’s closet.
We have always been making what people refer to as ‘sustainable’ because our products are seldom thrown away. On the contrary, they are used and cherished and have already been passed down through generations.
We have lovingly repaired so many jackets — we know their owners would reinvest hundreds of dollars in repairs rather than discard them.
Skies: Any final thoughts?
Jacky: The last 47 years have been exhilarating, frustrating, and challenging, but every satisfied customer brings a smile to our faces. Knowing how many people have been touched by our products is humbling and rewarding.
Also, working with staff who, in many cases, have been with us for over 30 years is a blessing. For example, our first leather cutter brought in his son when he was in his early 20s, and his son has now been with us for over 35 years. His father, who is long retired, used to come back to check in.