The AW: What Aircrew Wore

I was asked the other day about the flight suits we wore, and how we dealt with differing climates, etc.  I figured it might be interesting to the readership, or maybe not. However, it’s the little details that historians are interested in, so what the heck. Maybe someday this will help some kid’s report.

To put this into perspective: I am only going to discuss what I wore and why, and a few general details and observations. It pertains to P_3 flight crews only, as from platform to platform, the gear changes to reflect the particular needs and environment.

Anyway….. Navy flight suits (during the Cold War) started out as international orange. That was a good idea for crew who might be forced to ditch at sea, or bailout over water, especially in peacetime. When the country got involved in Vietnam, all that changed. Being seen from a distance wasn’t a great idea when those looking for you were more likely trying to capture or kill you.

The Navy switched over to sage green flight suits and equipment, the same basic shade as the Air force. It was a good all-round color, hid dirt and stains easily, and blended in with a lot of things.

I was issued my flight gear when I arrived at NAS Jacksonville, and reported to VP-30. VP-30 was the RAG, or Replacement Air Group, the training squadron for all P-3 crewmen. No matter your job, if you were P-3 aircrew, you went through VP-30 to learn your position and how to work as a team.

My initial issue was 2 flight suits, 1 pair of gloves, 1 pair of boots, 1 helmet, 1 leather flight jacket, and a helmet bag. Since Jacksonville, Florida, is a warm area, we were issued summer-weight gear. Navy regulations required that gear be issued according to the climate in the area where it was issued.  Thus, even though I was eventually sent to Maine, I was still issued summer-weight gear, and, in most all cases, left otherwise to fend for myself when warmer gear was needed.

After the initial issue, my next stop was to an off-base tailor shop. This specialized in military clothing, and I had them sew a VP-30 patch and a US flag onto my jacket, and a US flag onto each of my flight suits. In addition, I purchased and had embossed, a leather name plate with a velcro back to go onto the left upper breast of my flight suit.

The flight suits and gloves were made of Nomex, so as to be fire retardent. They wouldn’t burn, but they would char if enough heat ws applied. The one thing that we all learned to demand was Natural Materials.  In a fire, man-made materials and synthetics will melt and attach themselves to skin. That’s NEVER a good thing, so we stayed well away from those items and learned to check the labels of anything we bought.

Out of Brunswick, most of our missions were over the Atlantic, and especially the North Atlantic. Half the year in Maine is cold, too, so we learned to dress in layers. There was a two-fold purpose behind that. One was that layers of clothing protect better than one thick garment. The other was that occasionally, we might need to divert somewhere, and it would be nice to have some extra clothing with you, so why not wear it?

I started out with basic t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of 100% cotton socks and dog tags (yes, the Navy uses dog tags too). Those help to wick sweat away from your feet better than anything else. If you are going to be wearing a pair of steel-toed flight boot for 18-20 hours, you need to keep your fet as dry as possible.

Next, I would add a pair of long-underwear. Again, 100% cotton and just the lower part. Over the T-shirt went a red Flight Deck Jersey. These were heavy cotton, and since our squadron color was red, all the crews got them. Next, I put a pair of wool socks over the cotton ones. The inside of the P-3 is kept at around 52 degrees, so you can chill easily. It also added an extra layer of cushioning.

Next I’d put on my flight boots. I had these modified with a lace-in zipper to help me get them on and off quickly. Anyone who has worn jump boots or flight boots will know what these are.  I also, like many flight crew, laced onto one boot, under the zipper, an extra dog tag. The reader should be able to understand the purpose.

Over all this went the flight suit.  The suit is comfortable, and adjustable. There are two velcro tabs on each side of the waist to tighten or loosen the fit. The wrists also have velcro closures, and their are zippers at the bottom front of each leg so you can take your suit on and off without removing your boots. The suit has a number of pockets. There are pockets on the outside of the legs,  thigh pockets on the front of each leg, a pocket over each breast, and a pocket on the left upper arm that also has slots for pens and pencils.

In those pockets I carried a number of items, some of which I still have. The lower left (calf) held a heavy clear plastic bag withing which I kept a copy of my shot card, and any special notes or materials for that mission. In the right calf pocket I put a bag of hard candy. Just in case.

The thigh pockets were normally empty, but there was a slim pocket beside one which held a shroud line cutter on a long lanyard.  The right breast pocket normally held a small version of a composition book. I kept mission-specific notes there, as well as anything else I needed to write down.  It also had a handkerchief. The left breast carried a thin wallet. Since we spent a LOT of time sitting at our stations, carrying a heavy wallet in a back pocket (for those who wore dungarees under their suits, some did) was likely to put pressure on the sciatic nerve and make things very uncomfortable after awhile.  I bought a thin leather wallet, and put my ID card, a Credit Card, a Calling Card and some cash in there, just in case.

In the left upper arm pocket went a roll of antacid tablets, a small tin of Altoids, and, outside, a pen, fine point felt marker, and a mechanical pencil.  This was my basic personal load. Over the top went the flight jacket, and the gloves were usually stuffed into the lower right pocket on the leg for easy access.

Helmet-wise, we were issued with standard white helmets. These are designed to absorb shock, and, as we joked, mostly so your casket could be left open. Regulations specified that 70% (or more) of the helmet surface had to be covered with reflective tape.  This came in 1″ wide rolls, and you got it through the Paraloft.  As long as it wasn’t obscene, you could put just about anything you wanted on it for a design. I drew out a checkerboard pattern on the visor cover, and made a white & yellow pattern there. On the back, I used orange reflective tape to make an arrow pointing down the back of the helmet to it’s base, with blue letters saying “Dig Here”. The skipper thought it was funny, at least.  The helmet had two visors, one clear, and one tinted. One or both could be used at the same time.  There was also a square patch of velcro on the upper right part of the visor cover. This was used to attach a salt-water activated strobe light, incase you had to go into the water. It kept the light above you and out of your eyesight. The helmet also had headphones and a cable to connect to the ICS system, though, except foe the pilots, we had to use hand-held microphones for talking.

The helmet came in a zipper-topped bag that was padded for protection. In addition to the helmet, it also carried my NATOPS manual, a my checklist, and usually a couple cans of soda and a travel coffee mug.

Before flight, we donned our LPA’s. These were like a tactical vest, and had leg straps that attached in front. This vest carried all your survival gear, as well as floatation bladders at the neck and on each side at the waist.  These bladders were activated by pulling on cords when you got into the water, and they inflated FAST. The pockets held a knife with compass in the handle,  a plastic pint flask for water, shark repellent, dye marker, a strobe light, a pencil flare gun and flares, Waterproof matches, and a pocket for a sidearm and ammunition.  I carried a .45 and 3 magazines rather than the issue .38.

This then was the basic gear for your humble author. In wintertime, we were cold. In summer time, we were hot. But every crewman learned to adjust his load so as to be most comfortable for him. After awhile, it became second nature, and if not comfortable, at least tolerable and efficient.

I’ll get back to ASW soon. Promise!

Except for the helmet color, not much has changed.


19 Responses to “The AW: What Aircrew Wore”

  1. 1 SCOTT the BADGER
    April 29, 2010 at 17:26

    You drew a 1911 from the Armory, instead of a .38? Or did you have to buy your own? I suspect the first, but one hears tales of people buying better than issue stuff, for thier own peace of mind. Was the weapon pouch water proof? Finally, was it the magazine in the weapon, and 3 extra, or a total of 3?

    52 degrees is a cold temp to be at for long periods of time. You chaps must have guzzled a lot of coffee.

    Where did you find blue reflective tape to cut the letters out of? That stuff is hard to find.

    • April 29, 2010 at 17:52


      I drew a 1911 from the armory on base, but I ended up buying my own at a local gun show. I had one in the pistol and two spares. The LPA had a pouch/holster section, but it wasn’t water proof. I just kept the weapon well cleaned and oiled.

      The inside of the aircraft had to be kept cool because of all the elctronics aboard. There were a few remedies. The Sensor Stations had radiant heat floor panels to keep your feet warm, and many an AW would crawl underneath the equipment in front of the seats to catch a few zzz’s on the way to or from the OpArea. It was warm, but only room for one. the other place was beside the starboard overwing hatch, which is where I am in the pic on my Facebook page.

      The Paraloft had a whole rainbow of colors for reflective tape. Even white. They kept a jealous guard on it, but you could use as much as needed to dress up your helmet.


  2. 3 SCOTT the BADGER
    April 29, 2010 at 18:01

    I asked about the waterproofing because I know that back during WWII, aircrew that ditched in the Pacific, found that a 1911 would rust into unusablity in as little as 2 days. So a waterproof pistol pocket would make sense.

  3. April 29, 2010 at 20:21

    Huh, I always thought the Aviator Ray-Bans were issued too.

    • April 29, 2010 at 20:26


      Depends. I had a set issued because, at the time, I wore glasses. Other guys purchased their own styles. You could get them issued, but it did seem to take a fair amount of time to get them. It was also like anything else the government does: You put in a request for them and then had to have the eye clinic guys approve the request. When they finally showed up, you had to go there and have them “fitted”. Most guys I knew who didn’t wear glasses simply bought something they liked out on town.


  4. 6 virgil xenophon
    April 29, 2010 at 21:44

    Geezer that I amwe wore the USAF silver-grey inflamable flight suits when I first went to pilot tng and my whole combat tour in Vietnam. For some reason that period, 67-68 saw the Army & Marines wearing Nomex while the Navy continued in the light tan inflamable stuff like ours. We were allowed six (6) flt suits/yr. Were the Marines on the other side of the runways ever jealous! Nomex for us started to be issued at the end of my tour.

    Standard issue was the 38, COULD NOT get the .45 issued in the USAF! And buying your own was seriously frowned upon. A lot of us carried .22 cal pistols as an additional gun to use to kill small game if downed w.o. making a lot of noise. Many of us either made or bought from a guy in VA strictly war-crime, courts-martial offense, illegal silencers for the 22 to kill small game, etc. w.o. attracting attention if downed. Things were only good for about 10-12 rounds, tho. Reality was most either got picked-up right away or got captured/killed in short order in most cases.

    Didn’t have blue lenses for strobe lights in those days, so painted the white deoderant-shaped lens blue so as not to be confused w. AAA. Although we were supposed to fly w. no ID one wx divert to strange base taught us to carry AF ID and some money–being stuck away from home drome with no money is no joke.

    Was issued Vietnam black & green Vietnam leather and canvas boots with drain holes for water, but I flew with my high-top ROTC-acquired Korean-era style Paratroop steel-toe jump boots.

    xtras were mostly spare batteries for the survival radios and xtra water bottles. Began tour issued white helmets, switched to cammo “ballistic” helmet mid-tour. (supposedly more resistant to small arms fire. HA!)

  5. 7 ewok40k
    April 30, 2010 at 14:46

    Ah well, nice to hear some practical-side stories of cold war… And that girl on the photo looks very cute!

    Regarding gun, .38 snubby revolver was a joke really, while 1911 at least could drop reliably a single enemy soldier random encounter – a two (or more) man patrol was a different matter, though

    Virgil, what plane type you were flying?

  6. 8 virgil xenophon
    April 30, 2010 at 15:13

    F-4C as a 1/lt backseater at DaNang, ewok40K, then extended tour and was a FAC flying O-1/O-2s for six mo. Then became a front-seater in F-4D stationed in UK after making Capt.

  7. 9 Flugelman
    April 30, 2010 at 21:15

    ’66-’67 VP’s still flying P-2’s were still wearing the orange flight suits and using the “Mae West” style flotation gear. We started getting the green suits during that time but didn’t get the LPA-2 until we transitioned to the P-3.

    We got all our patch sewing done in the squadron rigger’s shop (PR’s). They would even make the embossed name tags for jackets and flight suits. For a little incentive (carton of smokes, bottle of Jim B., etc) they would sew up a helmet bag to your specifications. I still have mine floating around somewhere. Those things were indestructable!

    In time I collected 3 leather jackets due to squadron decommissions or homeport changes. They must have been an inferior quality as all three have shrunk over the years…

  8. April 30, 2010 at 23:09

    I got to fly a “crosseck” mission with a P-3 squadron out of Catania in 1976. I was a Track Supervisor on a CGN. No one told me. I showed up in dungarees and a windbreaker. That was the coldest twelve hours I can remember. Funny. No one from the squadron wanted to crossdeck on to the ship.

    • 11 Flugelman
      May 1, 2010 at 00:17

      Are you kidding, Steve? Crossdeck on a ship? I spent 22 years in and nary a day aboard ship, and I liked it that way. When I called my detailer at the end of my last shore duty tour, the first words out of him were “Senior Chief, YOU are going aboard ship!” I put my papers in…

      I did however visit the Enterprise on invitation from some Chiefs we met in the Cubi Chief’s club. I made the JO at the brow promise not to untie any ropes while I was aboard.

  9. 12 ewok40k
    May 1, 2010 at 07:27

    Virgil, how would you rate the F-4 as fighter and attack aircraft respectively? Closest equivalent on our side of the Iron Curtain would be Mig-23, which was not very maneuvrable but fast, and most pilots preferred older Mig-21…

  10. 13 virgil xenophon
    May 1, 2010 at 22:28

    Well,ewok40k, like the Mig-23, the Phantom was originally designed as a long-range air defense interceptor for fleet defense for the Navy. It, quite by accident, turned out to be more maneuverable than the MiG-23 which was fortunate, as neither the Navy nor the Air Force had a follow-on air-to-air fighter in time for the Vietnamese War. This was because, like the Soviets, everyone assumed the days of dog-fights were over and long-range interception with missiles was the wave of the future. The Soviets were even more wedded to the concept than us, as all operations were tightly controlled by ground operators using GCI (Ground Controlled Intercept) techniques via data-link eschewing voice communications which are more easily jammed. (We are just now getting around to building our ops & capability around data-link, btw) As best as I can tell, the SU didn’t much care for a long time if they had air-to-air capability. They thought their interceptors would take care of any “first-wave” and that their attack/CAS air-to-ground Fitters/Flankers could operate with impunity as they and their short, medium-range missiles would destroy all our bases to prevent follow-on ops. So
    they didn’t even try to tweek/modify the MiG-23 to make it more maneuverable or usable in either the air-to-air or ground attack role.

    The F-4 was a different story. As I said, it was inherently more maneuverable, which is why the USAF bought what was a plane designed as a Navy interceptor for use as an all-purpose fighter when they realized they had no follow-on to the highly specialized F-105 which was really good only as a high-speed supersonic low-level tac nuke delivery platform–which is why it had an internal bomb-bay.

    The AF constantly modified the original C-model. First the D model had a computerized bombing system to improve air-to-gnd delivery thru the “dive-toss” computerized bomb release system and use of off-set aim points (OAP) and add. of bleed-air boundary layer control for wings (BLC–a controversial feature no longer used as often failed asymetrically) Next came the E-model which had an internal gun for better air-to-air dogfight capability. Followed by the G-model which removed the gun and replaced it with improved radar homing for use against SAMS (Iron Hand msns) Thanks to improved tactics and training (Top Gun[Navy]/Red Flag-Aggressor Squadrons[USAF]) even the C & D models became creditable dog-fighters. The bottom line problem was that the F-4 was the zenith of analog aircraft. It had an incredibly complex instrument panel almost impossible to scan easily and, when combined with difficult handling characteristics (one had to be gingerly on the controls–no “yank and bank”) meant that it took the better part of 5 yrs–a pilots 1st tour/hitch to become truly proficient/comfortable in the aircraft. By contrast the consensus seems to be that the “glass-cock-pit” digital pilot-friendly models like the FA-18 , F-16, etc, take only about 18 months to master the aircraft.

    In Vietnam we in the Air Force ran into mainly MiG-21s, while the Navy seemed to be opposed by mainly the more maneuverable Mig-17s in their Haiphong northernmost area of ops, “Route-Package 6B” We were all afraid of the MiG-19 (Mig-17 maneuverablity with MiG 21 speed) For some reason they weren’t used until Christmas bombing campaign in 72. We lost 9 USAF F-4s to 19s while shooting down 10…

  11. 14 virgil xenophon
    May 1, 2010 at 23:18

    PS I should add that later generation fighters almost all have the decided advantage of the digital ‘Heads-up” (HUD) instrument displays on the cockpit canopy as well as additional controls mounted on throttle quadrants–neither of which the F-4 had. As a dog-fighter I’d rate the airframe a B-/c+ but with superior tactics and pilot tng it was a B+/A- aircraft against most of its contemporaries. As a ground attack ac it was pretty fair for a jet as compared to more accurate propeller ac like Skyraiders,etc. I’d give it a range of A-to A+ depending on model and experience of aircrew. “In-Country” in S.Vietnam the F100C/D was considered more accurate by most in the Army–but that was because most were ANG (Air Nat. Guard) units flown by more experienced pilots with lots of hours in that aircraft more than any inherent superiority of the airframe/electronics (Although, again, the F-100 WAS an easier aircraft to handle, but had inferior electronics–was strictly a “day-fighter.”)

  12. 15 ewok40k
    May 2, 2010 at 06:24

    Well, Su-7->Su-22 line of aircraft seems roughly equivalent of F-105, designed to be tac nuke delivery system. Some Su-22s are still operating here in Poland! One local thing is unique about them is extensive training in adapted road field strips, something our AF exercises due to 1939 campaign experience (only dispersal to field strips saved our small AF back then from total annihilation by Luftwaffe) We have been training this along with Swedish AF even back in the cold war years. I think the biggest advantage to F-4 over its long lifetime were avionics and armament upgrades. With AIM-9L (L for lethal as dubbed after Falklands) and internal gun it was very credible dogfighter, and latest German versions were using even AMRAAM… In the ground attack role the advent of laser guided bombs was probably biggest force multiplifier for F-4, as well as development of G Wild Weasel version.
    I am greatly impresed by the US idea of ANG, all those civilian pilots with decades of experience in flying are great asset.

    • 16 SCOTT the BADGER
      May 3, 2010 at 01:43

      Virgil, did you ever fly the F-15? What did you think of the attempt by General Daniel “Chappie” James to get the Tomcat for the USAF?

  13. 17 virgil xenophon
    May 4, 2010 at 23:44

    No, Scott, I left the service before I got the chance. I was unaware about Chappie’s move (I briefly lived in the same Quonset hut he did in the 50s when he was in the 81st TFW in USAFE in the UK) But for Alaskan AD, etc., it made sense–what with the long-range Phoenix system as a dedicated Backfin/Blinder killer and ability to simultaneously track multiple tgts. But it was all political. The AF had sworn never to admit they didn’t have the right aircraft such that they were forced to buy a Navy airplane ever again–not after the F-4, A-7, etc.

  14. 18 SCOTT the BADGER
    May 5, 2010 at 05:51

    Well, they sure seemed to get the F-15 right. I still have my doubts about the F-16. I am a believer in the 2 engines are better than one theory.

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