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Gear Heads

Collectors of survival equipment have a craving for flight helmets, life vests, ejection seats—even shark repellant.

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Lee Patterson pulls up to the main entrance at Luke Air Force Base, near Phoenix, and flashes his police detective’s badge. The enlisted man at the gate takes in his spotless white pickup, glances at the gold shield, and waves him through. Obviously, the guard doesn’t know him. But when Patterson walks into the aircrew life support facility, the ribbing starts.

“Oh man, it’s Lee, hide everything that ain’t bolted down,” Staff Sergeant Jonathan Redfern says.

“Most places I can portray myself as semi-normal. Here that doesn’t work,” Patterson says.

Patterson collects aviation life support equipment—everything pilots use when they punch out, including ejection seats. He has been collecting since age 12; later, he bought a parachute, learned how to pack it, and had it modified so that he could jump with it as soon as he was 16 years old. Now 51, he has amassed a collection of gear that includes 123 complete sets of aircrew ensembles, each one consisting of every piece of equipment issued to a pilot or crew member of a specific aircraft from the helmet down, including oxygen mask, flightsuit, G-suit, life vests, boots, and gloves.

Even having the complete set of gear is not enough for Patterson: The dates on the equipment must match. A post-1974 F-4 pilot’s ensemble, for instance, isn’t correct unless its survival knife has a metal guard on the tip of its sheath. “If you have a 1969 F-4 ensemble and the knife sheath has a metal tip, well, you have a problem,” Patterson explains as he slides a survival knife in and out of its sheath. “I am not obsessed,” he says like a mantra, “it’s either correct or it isn’t. I’m fascinated with life support equipment. I like finding and seeing things that other people miss, and I love symmetry.”

One can imagine, then, what it meant to him to look up and see a perfectly symmetrical parachute canopy over his head as it lowered him, exhilarated, to the ground on the first of the 52 jumps he made between 1964 and 1972. “But I have never lost my fascination with survival equipment and parachutes—lives hanging under string and silk”—Patterson interrupts himself: “Actually, silk parachutes were phased out in the late ’40s,” he says, then continues. “When I come home from work, where I investigate death, working on a collection of life-saving stuff keeps me from bringing my day job home.”

Patterson is one of thousands of collectors worldwide who acquire and squirrel away pieces of military aviation history. As with many people who own surplus military equipment, he can’t always admit how he acquired certain pieces in his collection. When asked where he finds all his gear, he deflects the question: “It used to surprise even me, the stuff that you’d see for sale at the DRMOs,” Patterson says. The DRMOs, Defense Reutilization Materials Organization, are the military equivalent of the world’s biggest garage sales. However, Patterson pieced most of his collection together by browsing through surplus stores, garage sales, auctions, and gun shows, where he barters, trades, and reluctantly shells out cash. He also picks up bits and pieces retired by the Luke life support facility, which he visits every few weeks.

A cop in the Colombo mold, he’s a keen observer of people who doesn’t attract attention to himself. “Never wear nice clothes when you’re negotiating the price on something,” he laughs. “I’ll be traveling on business and skip lunch to go find an old surplus store and stop and change into a sort of costume so the guy won’t think I’ve got money. I usually get dirty anyway, if the owner will let me go scrounge in his basement.”

Patterson explains this in front of Redfern and his colleague, Staff Sergeant Akoni Mirafuentes. “They’ve seen this behavior,” he says.

“We know how you’ve pilfered, uh, I mean collected all that stuff,” Redfern says.

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