Change of Command

Change of Command

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'

QUESTION: When does your new commander get his/her first impression of the command and your office?

ANSWER: During his/her Change of Command ceremony!

Reviews can be traced to the Middle Ages when rules, as a way of showing their strength, were likely to have military ceremonies. The change of command ceremony, when properly executed, is still an impressive event.

This chapter offers a detailed discussion of conduct of a change of command ceremony and introduces other ceremonies, to include promotion ceremonies, award ceremonies, etc. The planning required for all of these different ceremonies, while having some differences, is very similar. A "standard" macro-level sequence of events for a change of command ceremony might include the following:
  • Arrival of new command designee and distinguished visitors
  • Pre-ceremony coffee
  • Change of command ceremony
  • Post-ceremony reception
  • Departure of relieved commander and distinguished visitors
Early planning is the key to the successful execution of a change of command. Coordinate for any out-going commander's guidance or desires. You will have to coordinate with staffs and agencies from the entire base. Coordinate a firm date for the event as early as possible. This will aid the coordination of those actions requiring long lead times (band, officers' club, air traffic clearances, etc.). Expect some amount of higher HQ input and guidance as to dates, uniform, etc. Anticipate questions and problems in a proactive manner. The protocol officer plays a supporting role with a more senior officer acting as the overall project officer. Have no doubt that your protocol office will be involved in all facets of the ceremony(ies)!


You should coordinate invitation lists with out-going and in-coming commanders, and should mail those invitations NLT three weeks prior to the event. Suggest the use of a dedicated phone line, with an answering machine for peak periods, for RSVP purposes. RSVP mail card(s) should allow for all pertinent information: number of attendees, names, travel information, and any special requirements. Invitations should include any required parking passes, gate permits, seating cards, and any required documentation for invitees to limited attendance events. Some invitations will be used for combined change of command and retirement ceremonies and should be constructed accordingly. The reviewing officer and any guest speakers should receive written invitations early in the planning process.

We have found change of command ceremonies to be among the most challenging for us in terms of invitations and related printed products. There are typically several different but related functions you're inviting people to; the same people don't get invited to every function (i.e., you're using different invitation lists); you're frequently involving downtown civilians who need access to the base (and directions!); and you've got different reserved seating sections. In the spring of 1997, we were especially challenged when we planned on a change of command ceremony combined with a retirement ceremony for the AFMC Commander. The outgoing commander's retirement ceremony was approved, but the new AFMC commander was not yet confirmed by the Senate. We proceeded with a retirement ceremony, followed by a reception. Then, 2 weeks later, we had an assumption of command ceremony. Following are examples of various products used in a change of command you may find useful to emulate:

Here's an example of combined changed of command and retirement ceremony invitation:
Combined Change of Command/Retirement Invitation

When we learned there would be no change of command ceremony from General Barry to his successor, here is a sample of the retirement ceremony invitation:
General Barry's Retirement Invitation

Here's what you could use for the pre-ceremony coffee to gather family and principals involved in the ceremony together before the ceremony begins:
Pre-ceremony Coffee Invitation

Here's a sample invitation insert for a community leader reception following the ceremony to honor the new commander:
Community Leader Reception Invitation

Here's the RSVP card for the retirement ceremony. Note that we included space to write in spouse and/or guest name(s) -- you need to know whom and how many are coming, especially if you planned to assign seating by name!
Retirement Dinner and Change of Command RSVP Card

Here is a sample of a single RSVP card for all three events for those key invitees who were invited to the pre-ceremony coffee, the ceremony, and the reception following the ceremony:
Key Invitee RSVP Card

Here's what we use for DV passes. They're printed on card stock, with the pass information on one side and a map to where the DV should park his or her vehicle on the other side. They're folded in half and inserted with the invitation. Note that you can date stamp the front of the pass if required by your Base Security Police.
Distinguished Visitor Base Pass

You also could use Bus Boarding Passes for those invitees deemed appropriate to use mass transportation. This card is also useful for reminding invitees when the last bus leaves for the ceremony location.
Bus Boarding Pass

You might also want to plan on color-coded reserved seating. You could have three different reserved seating locations: one was assigned by name for family and high-level DVs (white); one for other general/flag officers and civilian equivalents (blue); and one for colonels and equivalent civilians (red). They can be printed on colored card stock and inserted in the invitation package. This will significantly facilitate seating by ushers at the ceremony location; and allow you to hold off until the last minute placing any names against the assigned seating (white). Ushers should be given seating assignments and can easily direct guests to their seats as they get off buses by noting the color of their pass, or in the case of assigned seating, looking up the seat number and directing them accordingly
Color Coded Seating Cards


While a detachment level change of command is relatively straightforward, a MAJCOM change of command will require an OPlan to ensure that all responsibilities and actions are completed. As a minimum, the change of command OPlan should include the following:
  • General guidelines/Major planning milestones
  • Detailed guidance for pre-change of command ceremonies and events
  • Detailed change of command ceremony/Sequence of events
  • Detailed guidance for post-change of command ceremonies and events
  • Foul weather plan
  • Support responsibilities
  • Change of Command Checklist
Inclement Weather Plan.

The danger of inclement weather will require you to coordinate a detailed foul weather plan. The indoor forum required in case of inclement weather may cause significant changes in the event from that planned for the outdoor site. Recommend you walk-through the foul weather plan also. Ensure that all key planners fully understand who will decide upon foul weather plan execution and what the "alert" process is.


If at all possible, make arrangements for a band. A band's presence permits the proper rendering of honors to general officers and adds zest and a military atmosphere to the entire event. Military bands are a scarce resource and you should not delay coordination for their participation. Some commands will have an opportunity to invite the participation of foreign national bands.


The old adage "You'll fight in war as you train in peace" holds true for change of command practices/rehearsals also! Practices/rehearsals identify awkward situations and highlight planning flaws. All practice/rehearsal sessions should be as reasonably realistic as possible. Any final dress rehearsal(s) should exercise the exact ceremony sequence including all personnel (ushers, VIP stand-ins, security police, etc.) and all equipment (vehicles, comm, etc.) necessary for the actual event.


Transportation has the potential to make or break your event! Identify your requirements early on. Coordinate the transportation plan with your base security police. Recommend small buses for family members and the highest level DVs. Recommend other vehicles (sedans, DV vans, etc.) commensurate with the rank with other DVs. Ensure that all DV sedans, if used, are the same type and color. Don't let the administrative support system screw this up! Sequencing of DV vehicles to and from the ceremony is relatively straightforward. The out-going commander and spouse should be the last to arrive at the ceremony, even if some guests and participating officials outrank him/her. The new commander and spouse should be the first to leave the ceremony after its completion so that they can welcome guests at the follow-on reception (if scheduled). This requires that you discreetly rearrange the DV vehicles during the ceremony to support the departure sequence. DV drivers should be totally familiar with (1) their vehicles (locks, truck release, etc.), (2) primary/alternate route(s), (3) transportation and parking plans, and (4) overall sequence of events.

Ceremony Site.

You should lay out the ceremony site so that the guests have the best possible view of the site. The principals should be centrally located. If possible, they should be seated on a raised platform in full view of the audience. Proper positioning of the ceremony reader to a flank will preclude his/her attracting undue attention. DV by-name seating should include the families of the in-coming and out-going commanders and other guests of honor.

Traffic Control and Parking.

Coordinate traffic control and parking with security police or other involved agencies. Your traffic control plan should mutually support the overall parking plan and the DV transportation plan. Brief all drivers in detail as to the traffic control plan.

The overall parking plan should support the concept of the operation and allow efficient support to DV participants and the mass audience. Local resources and base geography will dictate the appropriate parking plan for the mass audience. DV participants should have parking available at the ceremony site. Vehicle drivers should receive detailed information as to parking locations and sequences. All parking arrangements must coincide with the traffic control plan.


Flags should always be used during the change of command. Your event will most likely include a combination of national, service, and general officer flags. See Flag Etiquette for correct sequencing. Be advised the DV participants may very well bring their positional/command flag(s) with them and you will have to coordinate timely transportation of the flag(s) to and from the ceremony site. This may be a very last-minute action! Don't forget the DV in the process! Other DVs in attendance (i.e., the audience) do not warrant inclusion in the flag display. Effective flag bases will preclude strong winds affecting your display and any necessity of using flag bearers. Also, there is a difference between indoor and outdoor flags. Make sure you use the correct ones.


Change of command programs are not only helpful for the guests, but also serve as welcome souvenirs of this memorable event. Note that those programs allocated to DV seating may have subtle upgrades (tassel, braid, etc.) to distinguish them from those programs issued to the mass audience. You should consider the following key areas for inclusion in your program:
  • Command or unit insignia on the cover
  • Schedule of events with detailed guidance for civilian guests
  • Customs and courtesies
  • When to rise or be seated
  • Any specific foul weather guidance
  • Biographies of the in-coming and out-going commanders

Your plan should include ushers in adequate numbers to support the overall concept of the operation. They should accompany the guests on mass transportation, if used, and be available at the different seating areas of the ceremony site. All ushers should have a final copy of the seating plan so that they may offer assistance to guests. You should brief the ushers as to the detailed seating plan. It is advisable to have a least one senior usher who actually knows and recognizes the local dignitaries in attendance. His/her knowledge is invaluable during the simultaneous arrival of multiple guests at the ceremony site. Ushers should greet all guests in any DV seating area and should offer their left arm to female guests.

DV Seating.

Everyone involved in planning the event will be concerned about DV seating! You should limit by-name seating to some portion of the DV seating area. Likewise your office will have to recommend or decide who is/is not a DV for your specific event. The seating plan should allow for other guest seating in reserved seating areas without by-name seating. Invitations should include a color-coded card (red, white, or blue) that corresponds to three seating areas (again, red, white, or blue). In this example red seating might be "DV, reserved, not by-name" seating; white seating might be "DV, reserved, by-name" seating; and lastly, blue seating might be "non-DV, reserved, not by-name" seating. For your own sanity, try to limit the amount of "by-name" seating! Be prepared for last-minute special seating requests for handicapped or elderly guests.


Honors includes saluting during "Ruffles and Flourishes" and the "General's/Admiral's March." If you conduct your ceremony in a hangar, assume you are outdoors for the purposes of saluting and wearing headgear. Make sure guests and participants understand the ground rules. Comments by the narrator in conjunction with a notice in the ceremony program should suffice. Should your ceremony include a pass in review, it is appropriate for all civilians (men and women) to stand and place their right hand over the hearts, and as the colors pass in review, military personnel salute. All civilians should stand during the playing of "Ruffles and Flourishes" and the "National Anthem." All civilians should also stand during the reading of the promotion/change of command/retirement order(s), during award presentations, and during the playing of the "Air Force Song."

Sequence of Events.

A commonly accepted sequence of events for a generic change of command ceremony, to include a "pass in review", would include:
  • Formation of troops
  • Arrival of DVs, families, and participants
  • Presentation of troops and honors to the senior commander, when participating, and to the former commander
  • Inspection of troops (if desired)
  • Presentation of colors
  • Presentation of decorations/awards (if scheduled)
  • Formal change of command (with comments, if desired)
  • Troops pass in review
  • Departure of relieved and incumbent commander, families, DVs

Fly-bys also present an impressive image and greatly enhance any ceremony. Fly-bys are executed IAW AFI 35-105 and AFI 11-209 and any other pertinent flight safety directives. If included in the ceremony, the aircraft should conduct the fly-by at the end of the "pass in review" portion of the ceremony.


Flowers for the female spouse of the outgoing commander are a nice touch. Recommend the senior usher present the bouquet at the conclusion of the ceremony. Don't worry about any particular color unless there are strong likes or dislikes involved.


The new commander will most likely host a reception immediately following the change of command. The new commander, accompanied by his/her spouse, will have to quickly move to the reception site so that the receiving line can start. The receiving line comprises the individuals receiving the guests. The reception line is the guests themselves. The receiving line at the reception is normally comprised of the aide or executive assistant as announcer, the new commander as host, his/her spouse, and an additional male attendee in that order. The latter, if used, is added to prevent a lady at the end of the line and may be a staff officer, public affairs officer, or a protocol officer. Suggest the use of a "gatekeeper" near the head of the receiving line to remind guests to give the announcer their names and to otherwise control the flow of guests. Also recommend you place a table near the "gatekeeper" position so that the guests can leave any food/utensils there. You can route some of the guests to a food/drink area, possibly in another room, if the reception line is especially large or slow moving. The receiving line should include flag support to the rear. By tradition, the relieved commander seldom attends the new commander's reception. Some change of command DV participants/guests will attend the reception for a short time period and will then require transportation to their departing aircraft.

"Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It's not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it's when you've had everything to do and you've done it."
Margaret Thatcher