"Pilots, Man Your Planes!"   
                                         WWII U.S. Naval Aviation Collector's Guide                                                                              
U.S. Navy A-14 Oxygen Masks
Eight victorious pilots from Fighting Squadron Thirty Two, all with A-14 oxygen masks, compare their scores by finger count. The official caption, on the back of the photograph, as shown below, gives us the details of their epic fight. Photo from Gregory Pons.

                                                                           THE NAVY A-14 OXYGEN MASK IN WWII


We’ve all seen dramatic film footage showing B-17 crewmen, bundled in high altitude flight clothing, breathing through oxygen masks, fighting off Me-109 attacks and dodging flak barrages in the hostile skies over Germany during the 8th Air Force’s daylight bombing campaign. We’re also familiar with the countless images of dashing ETO fighter pilots, before take off or after a mission, where an oxygen mask can be seen hanging from their flight helmets. A number of reference books are available to aviation collectors today that will provide details of the various oxygen masks that were used by the A.A.F. and furnish the history behind them. 

 If your interest runs more toward Naval Aviation however, you might ask “What about the Navy?” “Didn’t they use oxygen masks too?” Unfortunately, a COLLECTOR’S MYTH persists that Navy pilots rarely used oxygen equipment during WWII because they flew at lower altitudes in the Pacific Theater (even some of the most recent collector’s references maddeningly continue to perpetuate this old myth). The myth usually even goes so far as to suppose that on those rare occasions when they did operate at higher altitudes, the use of the Mine Safety Appliance re-breather oxygen system met all their requirements. As we will see, nothing could be farther from the truth!

 There would appear to be several factors that have combined to contribute to this particular myth hanging on over the years. First, and foremost, would seem to be the obvious lack of WWII vintage oxygen masks to be found in the hands of aviation collectors today with “U.S. Navy” boldly stamped all over them. You might ask, “If they really used them, why can’t I find one?” That’s a good question and we’ll try to answer it for you. I can still recall (as a novice collector in the pre-Internet days) clamoring to put together a set of WWII Navy flight gear and being told by a well known dealer (and “advanced” collector of the day) that the oxygen mask I should  look for was a version of the A-14, but made of gray rubber for the Navy. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen one in awhile and couldn’t recall any other details about this mythical item (which, of course, I later discovered doesn’t exist).

 Another factor that keeps this myth alive is a long standing shortage of published photographs (or films) showing Naval Aviators using oxygen masks of any type. In general, the lack of information on Navy flight clothing and equipment, based on original wartime Bureau of Aeronautics documentation, has always been a tough obstacle to overcome. Lastly, and more difficult to understand, would seem to be a peculiar mind set shared by some collectors. This “head in the sand” approach follows something along the lines that “If I don’t already have one in my collection, I’ll just ignore it and pretend it never existed”. If that’s your philosophy, please stop reading now as we’ll just be wasting your time here.

Our mission, hopefully, is to provide you with enough evidence to bust this tired old myth and then equip you with sufficient reference material to help fill the Navy oxygen mask gap (if there is one) in your collection. To accomplish this, we will focus on the A-14 oxygen mask. Experience dictates that this type will prove to be more readily available than any of the other masks as it was more widely used. Okay, let’s get started! 


The type A-14 demand oxygen mask was based on designs by Dr. Arthur H. Bulbulian of the Mayo Clinic Aero Medical Unit (his patent was applied for on July 1, 1943 and approved on June 6, 1944). Dr. Bulbulian and his colleagues, Dr. Walter M. Boothby and Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, had previously designed a nasal oxygen mask in the late 1930s. Known as the “B.L.B.”, (the designer’s initials, which also appear on the face mask of the A-14) it became the Army Air Corp’s type B-7 mask. In development since late 1941, the A-14 mask was manufactured by the Ohio Chemical and Manufacturing Company starting in the spring of 1943 and functioned as a component of the low pressure diluter-demand oxygen system that was adopted for use in all Army Air Force aircraft by the end of 1942.

Its predecessors, as initially used with this oxygen system, were the original type A-9 and the improved series of A-10 masks (including the A-10 (Converted), A-10 (Revised) and A-10A masks) which were produced by the Acushnet Process Company. Surviving examples of these masks, although not in great supply, can be found in today’s collector market. Although mass produced and widely used during the war, the Acushnet masks had problems with poor fit and dangerous ice build up at higher altitudes that led to a relatively short service life. The A-14 mask which replaced them was standardized by the A.A.F. in July of 1943. Featuring an improved fit, superior suspension system and being less prone to icing, these new masks were arguably the best of any developed during the war. Molded in dark green rubber, the mask body came in three sizes; small, medium or large. It included an interior pocket for a microphone. One end of the corrugated green rubber breathing tube attached to the mask body with an inlet bushing and was secured with a tubing clamp. The tube’s other end terminated with the mask portion of the quick disconnect coupling which was secured by a United Carr style tubing clamp.