Perhaps not everyone knows the story behind the nickname of the life jacket used by the pilots of the Royal Air Force engaged in missions on sea and adjacent stretches. To save their skin when they were shot down and ended up in the sea (or as they used to say "down in the drink") was the 'Life Saving Waistcoat' model 1932, nicknamed "Mae West".
Because of its encumbrance to the pectoral part, which housed the air chamber, the life jacket was ironically approached the idea of the procaci and generous forms of the famous American actress Mae West, which should be given the unforgettable joke «You have a gun in your pocket, or are you simply happy to see me? "
Among the 15 most acclaimed actresses of all time, the West was famous for wearing extremely tight bodices that encircled the waist in a very evident way. The jacket Mae West it consisted of a gilet in beige gabardine, often painted by pilots with yellow aeronautical paint to be more easily identified by the rescuers, containing a Dunlop rubber tube that was inflated in case of ditching. This allowed the aircraft without a lifeboat to survive in the event of prolonged stays at sea.
Inside the jacket, as the French ace Pierre Clostermann tells in his novel, a pocket made it possible to insert objects such as whistles (again to facilitate rescue), compasses and water-resistant silk maps, in addition to the 'Escape' envelope which included twenty thousand French francs, fifty thousand Belgian francs and one thousand florins to facilitate the escape of pilots shot down on occupied territories.
ll Mae West he also saved the life, once, of fighter pilot and writer Richard H. Hillary who ended up in the English Channel after being shot down by a Bf-109. In his novel, he tells how dangerous it was for a pilot who survived a shooting down to stay at sea for hours: the risk of frostbite was in fact added to that of drowning due to his injuries, fatigue and the absence of floats.
Today the jackets Life-Preserver they have been modified to be much less cluttered, they are often integrated into the anti-G suit worn by pilots, of military green color or camouflage, and are accompanied by GPS and buoys.
In the military field it has always been common practice to attach nicknames to the objects that make up the equipment, and that of the Mae West perhaps it remains among the funniest in history; who knows how many pilots and crews of allied bombers owe their lives to those 'prosperous floated forms'.