Gear Heads

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

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“He’s just trying to make it sound like he came by the collection more or less honestly,” Miraflores adds.  

“Actually,” Redfern says, “we’ve got a Lee box that’s one step below the trash can.”

Patterson earns any collectible “scraps” the Air Force discards. He loans the Luke life support facility various parts of his collection so that the aircrews can see the evolution of the equipment they use. He rotates his displays of mannequins dressed in full ensembles so that aircrews can make comparisons to current equipment. He has also built miniature dioramas that depict various ways to use a parachute for survival and loaned them to the facility.  More importantly, several years ago, when the Air Force was conducting MIA searches in Southeast Asia, the investigators contacted him to find out what type of parachute hardware Vietnam-era pilots used so that if they found any buckles or other harness parts at wreck sites, they would know the pilot had gone down with the aircraft. Patterson’s collection represents a 55-year chronology of ejection and survival gear for pilots. It is more comprehensive than anything owned by a military aviation museum, and within it there are many histories.

Patterson’s 150-some helmets, for example, chronicle the evolution of head protection from the soft leather, fleece-lined gear worn in open-cockpit aircraft to hard leather helmets (similar to what early football players used) to current-issue helmets with boom, lip, or throat microphones, amplifiers, earphones, and even night-vision goggles. There are stories in even the smallest details, such as how chin straps, oxygen masks, and a helmet’s inner suspension systems evolved.

The faster and higher jets flew, the more elaborate helmets became, including pressurized models for the jet-and rocket-powered X-planes that started flying in the 1940s. Patterson’s collection, arrayed along several hundred feet of shelving in his basement, shows the basic shells and the plethora of equipment that were added to cover the human head as military aviation became more demanding, and surviving a mishap in an aircraft traveling at supersonic speeds posed unprecedented design challenges. Patterson has helmets with reflective tape (for night water rescues) and gold visors meant to reflect the flash of nuclear weapons before missiles became the delivery system of choice.

“In my collection, you can see how some helmet technology went full circle,” Patterson points out. “Visors, which went from external track mounts to internal encapsulation to protect the plastic, are gone. Current-issue visors are back to technology of the ’40s and ’50s. They are really just fancy goggles held in place with elastic and nylon webbing.”

Patterson built his collection piece by piece after he researched and began looking for thousands of small, seemingly unrelated parts—buckles, chin straps, flashlights, compasses, waterproof maps—to complete his ensembles, some of which comprise hundreds of elements, including Martin Baker ejection seats, made up of 1,300 parts. He holds a small survival tin containing comestibles and cigarettes, which he needed to complete a World War II ensemble. “Seventy five bucks,” Patterson says. “A few years ago this stuff was just thrown out. But now there are collectors everywhere and the prices are ridiculous.”

That there are thousands of collectors of aviation artifacts worldwide attests to two facts, according to R. Chad LeBeau, proprietor of Aviation Artifacts, Inc.: People are infatuated with airplanes, and they can’t afford them. LeBeau can talk for days about collectors, warbird parts, and his experiences as perhaps the biggest private collector and dealer of warbird paraphernalia in the United States.

“Museums want the big stuff, planes and engines. My customers want their own planes too, but they can’t have them, so they decide to collect the stuff that the pilots touched,” says LeBeau. “They’re treasure hunters who start collecting stuff they can afford and it gets to be a compulsion.”

Keeping that compulsion somewhat in check can be a challenge. Lee Patterson admits he “kind of lost it” the afternoon that he suggested to his wife Cindy that it might be a good idea to cover the master bathtub with a nice piece of plywood and use it for parachute storage. “We hardly ever take baths,” he explains, adding quickly, “we’re shower people.” Cindy realized at that point that his case was probably incurable and countered with a suggestion of her own: If they were to keep their marriage intact, they should find a much bigger house.  Now, six years after their move, the collection fills the basement of their current home, and the Pattersons are facing another move to San Diego in 2000 to retire. “We’ll have a smaller house,” says Patterson. “Might as well, it would take a hangar to house this collection. Imagine 123 life-size mannequins with enough space to walk around each one and see all the gear.”

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