Gear Heads

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

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.

“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.”

Patterson’s father was a World War I aviator who went on to manage an airport. Patterson says that moving from a military family into law enforcement was a natural progression for him and that he feels most comfortable in a disciplined and ordered life. Another collector, Dave Mattsson, saw his obsession begin in a family that was also involved with law enforcement and flight. Mattsson, a 36-year-old skydiving instructor, parachute rigger, and aircraft mechanic for Northwest Airlines, has been collecting ejection seats and associated life support gear since he made his first parachute jump at the age of 16, on a chute similar to the C-9 round parachute that Patterson started on.

Mattsson’s father, a Minneapolis police officer and sailplane pilot, used to take “Little David,” as he is still known at the drop zone, to his soaring club, which shared an airport with a skydiving club. “I remember all the times I saw grown men screaming ‘Yahoo!’ as they rode their canopies down,” Mattsson says. “I wanted to understand what they were feeling and I wanted to try it myself.” From a childhood spent with every kind of flying toy imaginable to his first jump and a coming of age at the drop zone, Mattsson says the allure of flight and ejection seats and survival equipment was unavoidable. “What I try to do now is keep the disease in check. A couple of years ago I got a Russian leather flight jacket. My first instinct was to complete the ensemble, to get a helmet and chute, et cetera. I caught myself and traded the jacket. That was close.”

Mattsson lives in a Cape Cod-style house with a Holstein-marked cat named Tara and 13 mannequins dressed in flightsuits and survival gear that run the gamut from World War I to present. “I feel like a mortician dressing these stiffs,” Mattsson says.  A bachelor who makes a good living, Mattsson is an ideal collector, according to LeBeau. “I’d be a millionaire if it weren’t for guys’ wives,” he laments. “I’ve had to send stuff to secret post office boxes. One guy told me he sifts dust from the vacuum cleaner bag onto new pieces in his collection, hoping his wife won’t notice them.”

Mattsson’s appreciation for the equipment he collects extends beyond just admiring it in his basement—he sometimes jumps with a C-9 parachute taken from a Martin Baker ejection seat. A Federal Aviation Administration-certified parachute rigger, he is an expert on the Martin Baker systems and spends several days every year giving a refresher course to the pilots and crews that maintain and fly the OV-1 Mohawks at the American Wings Air Museum at Anoka County Airport in Minnesota (see “The Last of the Mohawks,” Feb./Mar. 1997). Mattsson’s students zip up a flightsuit and don a helmet in preparation for strapping into the training seat and rehearsing ejection scenarios. After briefing the student on how the Mohawk’s ejection seat works (including how the canopy on the OV-1 doesn’t jettison prior to ejection—the seat punches right through it), he gently tests each student’s knowledge, asking for a demonstration of the proper posture prior to ejection or how to prevent flailing injuries by keeping elbows tucked in tight while pulling the upper ejection handle, or face curtain. Mattsson has justifiable confidence in his equipment—the Martin Baker seats he maintains may be the most successful in the 55-year history of ejection seats (See “Ejection Seats, p. 65).

Mattsson assembled the 1,300 pieces of the Martin Baker seat he uses for his briefings from three decommissioned OV-1 Mohawk ejection seats, then modified the rigid, horseshoe-shaped parachute pack so that he could detach it from the seat to demonstrate the chute’s deployment.

But the ultimate demonstration for Mattsson came in 1997, when he restored a C-9 parachute, which was used in Martin Baker seats, and started skydiving with a complete ensemble. He jumps from a Cessna at 12,500 feet wearing the “correct” helmet, oxygen mask, and flightsuit, and with a tether-bound life raft hanging beneath him that deploys and inflates on the way down, just as any pilot punching out on a Martin Baker seat would have. In his replication jumps he went so far as to wait in freefall for the automatic actuation device to open his parachute for him at 4,000 feet, a last-chance option for an unconscious pilot who couldn’t pull his own ripcord.

When he’s not jumping out of airplanes and relying on computer chips to pull his parachute, Mattsson gets his adrenaline rush from riding his high-performance “crotch rocket” motorcycle, aerodynamic as a fighter jet. “I love the feeling that I’m getting away with something that I shouldn’t be able to do,” explains Mattsson, a veteran of 1,200 jumps. “That’s what ejection seats are all about. Instead of being dead in a wrecked jet, this equipment lets pilots get through their worst nightmare.” Mattsson says his penchant for collecting life support systems and escape mechanisms probably comes from growing up in a household where his father went to work every day and the family tacitly acknowledged that he might not make it home that night—a feeling that the other collectors also know something about.

Patterson’s career in law enforcement included 10 years riding motorcycles—Harleys, Kawasakis, Moto Guzzis, BMWs, and models he assessed for police use. Risk taking, riding big motorcycles, skydiving, and law enforcement are also part of LeBeau’s background. In addition to more than 2,400 skydives, he spent the early 1970s as a featured performer at airshows across the country, making car-to-plane transfers for $350 a weekend. “Pretty crazy,” LeBeau recalls; “I’d crouch on the hood of a convertible facing backwards and a plane with a weighted ladder would fly over as we raced down a runway and I’d grab that ladder and the plane would try to fly away with me dangling under it. Once we had a clipped-wing Cub with a 65-horse engine and it ended up bouncing me three times off the runway before I could climb up into the cockpit. The pilot was slapping hell out of the fuselage, my signal to climb up, but I was having problems of my own, leaving little pieces of hide on the ground.”

LeBeau, who could double for Kirk Douglas, regrets that he never made it to Hollywood to work as a stuntman. Instead, he went to school and studied law enforcement and retail security. “It wasn’t very exciting,” he says. “I didn’t last long.”

LeBeau found that even collecting survival gear can be risky. His closest call came a few years ago when he acquired a truckload of British-made aircraft instruments that were stored in an old warehouse in Benton Harbor, Michigan. He and a friend drove up from St. Louis to load the gauges and worked for an entire day sorting through broken and damaged pieces. That night, they noticed that their skin had reddened. “We’d been indoors all day and couldn’t figure how we got sunburned,” he says. Then they noticed that LeBeau’s torso was still white under the metal snaps on his shirt. “Those old glow-in-the-dark radium faces on the instruments were radioactive. We got radiation burns.” LeBeau, who won’t sell anything he wouldn’t have in his own collection, “got the hell out of there and never looked back.”

LeBeau goes to greater lengths every year to add to his collection because the pool of surplus parts is shrinking. “The lawyers are scaring everyone, including the military,” he says. “Thirty years ago all this stuff was just sold ‘as is.’ Then for a few years the military started asking itself, ‘Could anyone possibly be hurt by this thing?’ Now, instead of trying to figure that out, they just destroy everything that they don’t have any use for.”

Not long after the Persian Gulf War, the Department of Defense realized that it had scores of warehouses full of obsolete equipment meant to support a seven-year war. There was a huge sell-off, and people with a “buy a jeep for a buck” attitude started showing up at DRMO auctions. “They weren’t collectors,” LeBeau says. “They’d paid some ripoff artists hundreds of dollars to take a weekend seminar on how to buy surplus stuff and get rich. We used to see them at the auctions. The ‘clipboard people,’ we called them. The clipboards were the only thing of value they got at the seminars.”

The get-rich stories are out there, but rare today. LeBeau’s favorite is about a guy who bought a couple of hundred surplus aircraft after World War II for a million dollars. He drained the fuel out of them, LeBeau explains with an admiring chuckle, and sold it back to the government, earning a couple of million bucks for a month’s work.

Besides similar backgrounds, Patterson and LeBeau share a nagging feeling that the whole preoccupation manifests a certain character defect, and that the hobby may be larger and darker than it appears. Patterson and Mattsson both refer to themselves as “obsessive-compulsive.” Both men, in candid self-examination, used the improbably paired phrases “anal retentive” and “ejection seat” in the same sentence.

But theirs is a fascination of depth that includes years of study and cataloguing, a continual refining of expertise, and a constant insistence on accuracy and authenticity that few hobbies demand. All three men have dedicated untold hours of research to their mania and have acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of warbird survival equipment that spans six decades. They maintain libraries of technical manuals, parts catalogues, and volumes of notes on their collections. Patterson has more than 50 three-inch-thick binders full of information. LeBeau’s catalogue, “Aviation Artifacts, Inc.,” is a collectible in its own right. The didactic narratives he writes for every item in the catalogue are widely regarded as a reference work for collectors. But for all their studiousness, all three men refer to their hobbies as something weirder than, say, collecting fountain pens.

Out on the flightline at Luke, Patterson pokes his head into an F-16 cockpit while giving a quick description of the ACES II ejection seat. He can look at any small part—a buckle, a piece of webbing, a bolt—and tell you the part number, where it was manufactured, how much it cost, and what it replaced. But while walking back into a hangar he reflects on what really keeps his obsession going. “That cockpit smell, did you notice it?” Not waiting for an answer, he says, “Strange combination: B.O., jet fuel, wiring, hydraulic fluid. I sure like the attached memories. I smelled that in cargo planes, jump planes, police helicopters, and my blood pressure jumps a couple notches every time.”

Patterson is unusual among most collectors in that he served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, “ferrying parts and people over there in C-141s and bringing bodies back,” he says. In general, collecting survival equipment is not a hobby dominated by people who actually used the items in flight. The pilots and aircrews don’t seem compelled to revisit and collect reminders of that period of their lives. “The pilots talk about spending endless hours in uncomfortable seats with helmet headaches and throbbing feet, and they aren’t too nostalgic,” LeBeau explains. “Less than five percent of my customers actually used this stuff.”

The longing to possess a piece of military history seems to be linked to the coming of age rituals and “testing one’s mettle” that combat survivors have gone through. For noncombatants, there’s a compulsion to connect with the courage, the patriotism, the camaraderie and discipline that, ideally, military service embodies. The accoutrements, certain colors and fabrics, certain smells, and the tools and furniture of war can be helpful when trying to get in touch with one’s inner soldier.

In 15 years of dealing, LeBeau has made one sale to a woman: a piece of parachute harness. “These really are boy toys,” he says. “Most women are either indifferent to this stuff, or, in the case of married women, they hate it. They look at a helmet and would rather see a piece of jewelry.”

The best thing that happened to LeBeau’s then-fledgling business was the release of Top Gun, in 1986, after which an obscure hobby went more or less mainstream. “Collectors get turned on to this stuff because of movies, fantasy,” LeBeau believes. “Of course Hollywood doesn’t give a damn about authenticity, but people see something like Top Gun and everybody wants to be Maverick or Goose or Iceman. There are clubs in California where guys get dressed up in this stuff and say lines from the movie to each other. Don’t talk to Lee Patterson about that. He’ll tell you that those guys are wrecking historic equipment. He’s probably right.”

Many collectors with whom LeBeau deals are intensely private about their hobby. “A lot of guys are hesitant to talk about it on the phone,” he says. “They won’t leave a message. I tell them it’s okay to talk about it and that seems to open them up a bit.” In 1997, Nashville-based collector Rich Mays tried to start a newsletter for ejection equipment collectors. “For others who have the mutant gene that causes us to spend good money (often LOTS of it) on the strangest things, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!” the masthead read. He sent the first edition of the newsletter to hundreds of collectors, but it became apparent that they wanted to enjoy their hobby in solitude. The newsletter folded after the first issue.

“Except for those guys in California, collectors of this stuff keep it quiet. It’s something they do in their basement, by themselves,” LeBeau says.

Patterson’s collection begins on the walls of the stairway to his basement. “That’s where Cindy draws the line. That’s probably a real good idea,” he says. Mattsson, ascetic for a bachelor, imposes the same rule on himself. LeBeau, who has never been married, is much less restrained. As a dealer, he often buys his stock by the truckload at DRMO sales, and he has filled three you-store-it sheds and two warehouses. His home is nearly filled with survival gear stacked as high as he can pile it, including one room that contains his personal collection, in which there is just enough room to place one’s feet while keeping elbows tucked in and viewing thousands of objects. “This room is full of priceless stuff,” he says.  “Actually, I could put a price on it, but it would take somebody like John Travolta to buy it and keep it all together.” LeBeau keeps pathways cleared between the kitchen, bedroom, office, and bathroom. It looks like he could, in good faith, write the whole house off as a business expense—just another warehouse.

When Patterson explains that his collection is priceless, you believe him. “I don’t know what all this stuff is worth,” he says. “I hope to donate it to a museum someday, a place that could display all of it.” In the meantime, most of Patterson’s collection is stored in “correct” gear bags in a large, secure room in his basement. “I could put a price tag on each piece and sell it off, but intact, it’s invaluable,” he says. He pauses and laughs. “If something happens to me, well, Cindy will sell everything and be rich.”

Mattsson recalls moving his growing collection from one apartment to the next until he bought a house six years ago. He doesn’t relish the thought of another move, and can’t predict what the future of his collection will be.

“I can tell you,” LeBeau says. “Someday he’ll get married and six months later he’ll be trying to sell the whole collection. I guarandamntee it.”

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