Coat, Service, Royal Air Force

Display Status:

This object is not on display at the National Air and Space Museum. It is either on loan or in storage.

Collection Item Summary:

This is an example of a standard issue Royal Air Force service coat issued at the end of the World War I. The use of the standard army pattern continued with updated RAF insignia replacing those of the Royal Flying Corps. The RAF officially adopted the familiar blue gray color on September 15, 1919 but the use of the khaki army pattern continued to be used until 1924.

This coat was worn by Lt. Wes D. Archer, Royal Air Force, during World War I. Archer was born in the United States, but traveled to Great Britain to join the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. He served during World War I until his S.E.5 aircraft was shot down by German ground fire on October 9, 1918. A bullet almost reached his heart, but was stopped by his .45 caliber pistol which is now in NASM's collection (Ref: A19830217000). Archer is perhaps more famous for pulling off one of the biggest photographic hoaxes ever produced.

Upon his return to the U.S. in 1920, Archer became a set designer and worked on movie productions. He and his wife, Betty, moved to Nyack, New York in 1927. There, Archer honed his model building skills and assembled numerous replicas of World War I aircraft such as Fokkers, Albatrosses, S.E.5s and Nieuports. With these models and a camera, Archer fabricated aerial combat photographs. People thought they were authentic and boasted them as the best aerial combat pictures ever taken. G.P. Putnam's Sons publishing house in New York featured his photographs in an exhibition of aviation art titled, "The World in the Air." The popularity of the photographs increased when the book, Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot, written by Archer himself, was published in 1933. In it he created personas and a story about a RFC pilot who took a camera from a downed German aircraft and rigged it under his wing in order to take the pictures. The pilot had to conceal his identity because it was against RFC regulations to take unofficial photos of combat. Betty participated in the hoax by posing as Gladys Maud Cockburn-Lange. She sold the photographs, known as the Cockburn-Lange collection, to numerous individuals and publishing companies and assisted in the promotion of the book.

Interest in the photograph collection faded with the advent of World War II. Archer held a job for a short time in 1945 as an associate editor for Scientific American. In 1952, the Archer's moved to Havana, Cuba where Wesley died in 1955. Betty took the secret of the photographs with her when she died in 1959. The truth about the Archer's hoax was discovered in the 1980's by Peter Grosz when the museum received the collection from Archer's friend, John Charlton.