This is Part II of a multi-part series on Navy’s SERE school. You can read part I here. Stay tuned for the next part.

0530 hrs.

It was still pitch black in Norfolk when my alarm clock went off waking my three other roommates, who profanely cursed me and rolled over for another half hour of sleep until their own alarms would go off at 0600. I put on thermal underwear, then my flight suit, and zippered my steel-toed flight boots over a pair of warm wool socks. Those steel caps in the toes were the bane of naval aircrewmen: In the summer, direct sunlight on the top of boot would feel like your toes were being lit on fire, and in the winter they’d get so cold the tops of your boots would gather frost.

Norfolk was an ugly town in winter, at least to a guy from Florida. Every tree and blade of grass went to a dead, drab, tan color in winter and stayed that way until spring. The wind coming off the Chesapeake was cold and gusty as I made my way the half-mile on foot to the naval air station side where I could down a couple of cups of coffee while waiting for the P-3 Orion to crank up its four Allison engines and take off for Brunswick, and eventually SERE School.

When I arrived at the passenger lounge at Chamber’s Field I presented my travel orders. I noticed two other guys from my squadron there wearing their dress blues. They were surprised to see me in flight gear, “You were supposed to travel in your dress uniform Spoonts,” one of them said to me. “You’re going to get in trouble.” I pulled out my travel orders and sure enough, it said that dress blues was the required uniform for travel. I had just skimmed it like an idiot. A small wave of panic ran over me. Would I have time to duck into the head (Navy-lingo for “bathroom”) and change quickly? I then remembered that there was no “quickly” when it came to getting into your dress uniform. It was custom-made for you at boot camp to be tight-fitting: the pants had a front flap with 13 individual buttons and just getting the tunic over your head could be like wrestling a greased python.

I was pretty sure I was screwed and imagined being written up or worse, not being allowed on the plane. In those days, SERE was a “No-Fail” school. If for some reason you don’t make it through they revoke your security clearance. If that happened, I’d be done as an anti-submarine warfare operator and off to a carrier flight deck as a green-shirt handler. A fate worse than death.

Standing near the door were a couple of the P-3 aircrew to check in, I supposed, the six-eight passengers that would be aboard that flight. I walked over to a 2nd Class Petty Officer with a Tom Selleck mustache who was flight gear. I asked him in how much trouble I might be. He pretended for a moment that I was in a ton of trouble and then smiled and said it would be no problem.  We got to chatting about some of the gear on the P-3. I was very interested to hear about the infrared camera system they had on board and said I would like to see it.

He looked at me for a couple of seconds, asked for my travel orders, and said he would be right back. When he returned he handed me a sheet of paper that was a copy of the flight manifest. He said that he had spoken to the aircraft commander and that I was being reclassified from “passenger” to an “Aerial Observer” on the flight. I asked him what that meant, he replied, “Hell, it means you’re on the flight crew, you can sit at the IR station and I’ll show you how it works.”