Customs, Courtesies

Customs, Courtesies

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'

Customs, courtesies and tradition are part and parcel of our daily lives. They are very real aspects of life, and in the aggregate, form the special culture and lifestyle uniquely characteristic of the military profession. The Air Force, being the newest of the Armed Forces, draws many of its customs, courtesies and tradition from its parent service, the U.S. Army. However, in less than 50 years of existence, we've still managed to develop some peculiar customs and traditions of our own.

This chapter provides a thumbnail sketch of the customs, courtesies and traditions of the Air Force and our sister services you should know, or may find useful. In truth, most of the preceding chapters, and the chapters that follow on military ceremonies are based on custom and the rendering of courtesies and steeped in tradition. How and why we toast. Rendering honors to the flag. Why we seat distinguished guests where we do. Why and how we address distinguished persons. These are all based on long standing custom or tradition. In this chapter we'll focus on those elements for which we haven't found a place for in other chapters. We'll also provide some interesting anecdotes along the way.

We are particularly indebted to the following references in building this chapter:
  • Military Customs and Traditions, by Major Mark M. Boatner III, (1956)
  • Naval Ceremonies, Customs and Traditions, by VADM William P. Mack and LCDR Royal W. Connell (1980)
  • USAFA Cadet Decorum Handbook, (circa 1986) and Contrails 1993-1994, United States Air Force Academy
  • The Air Force Basic Trainee Handbook, (1992)
  • The 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron's Song Book "Bawdy Ballads, Tasteless Toasts, Meaningless Miscellaneous" (circa 1982).
A word of caution - this treatment barely scratches the surface of the rich body of history and tradition that is the Air Force. Hopefully, we'll whet your appetite for more and encourage you to do your own research into this most interesting subject.


Nothing is more embedded in the military culture than saluting. All services teach this in their basic officer and enlisted training programs, and it is reinforced throughout the service member's career.


No one knows for sure the origin of the hand salute. Many references point to the knight's symbolic gesture of raising his visor to reveal his identity as a courtesy on the approach of a superior as its origin. We do know that from earliest times and in many races the right (weapon) hand has been raised as a greeting of friendship. Boatner believes the origin of our hand salute derives from the long established custom for juniors to remove their headgear in the presence of superiors. In the British Army as late as the American Revolution a soldier saluted by removing his hat. As the British soldier's hat became more cumbersome, the act of removing the hat degenerated into a gesture of grasping the visor. The following entry in the "Order Book of the Coldstream Guards," dated 3 September 1745, supports this view: "The men ordered not to pull off their hats when they pass an officer, or to speak to them, but only to clap up their hands to their hats and bow as they pass." Over the years the practice evolved into something like our modem hand salute.

No matter what its origins, the hand salute today, while it varies across the globe, says in effect "I greet you." Returning the salute says in turn "I return your greeting." The gesture is always friendly and rendered cheerfully and willingly. It is rendered with pride and as a recognition and sign of respect between comrades in the honorable profession of arms.

Whom to salute.

Tradition has it if you are junior, you salute first. (The one exception is when a unit commander gives an official report to an adjutant who might be junior.) Any commissioned or warrant officer, as well as any commissioned officer of a friendly foreign country is entitled to a salute. You should also salute the President of the United States, Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force. Additionally, you need not be in uniform to salute another. Some Military members still customarily exchange salutes whenever they recognize one another, even if in civilian clothes. It goes without saying that you should return salutes rendered by subordinates.

When to Salute.

Your guide for saluting should be recognition. Distance and uniform should not be criteria for saluting. Salute at a distance at which recognition is easy and audible. Offer your salute early enough to allow the senior time to return it and extend a verbal greeting before you pass. The practice of the verbal greeting has become universal in the Air Force - give a "Good Morning, Ma'am" or "Good Afternoon, Sir." If you know the senior by name, personalize the greeting with "Good Evening, General Jones." They should respond in kind if they know your name. Personalized greetings are always the best.

When outdoors and in uniform, you should exchange salutes. If you are standing in a group with no one in charge, the first person to see a senior officer will call the group's attention to his approach, and all members, if junior, will salute. If in military formation, the person in charge salutes for all members of the formation (unless the formation is four or less, in which case everyone salutes). Members of a work detail are not required to salute if working. If an officer addresses a detail member, the member comes to attention and salutes. At the conclusion of the conversation, salutes are again exchanged. If a government vehicle has rank displayed (on either a bumper plate or plate on the dashboard inside the windshield), you should salute as soon as you recognize the vehicle and hold your salute until the vehicle has passed or your salute has been returned. Do not salute an empty staff car!

If you can't get them to salute when they should salute and wear the clothes you tell them to wear, how are you going to get them to die for their country?
General George C. Patton, Jr.

Saluting the U.S. Flag.

When outdoors in uniform, and an uncased U.S. flag passes by, stand at attention, salute six paces before the flag is even with you and hold your salute until the flag has passed six paces. When in civilian clothes, stand at attention and place your right hand over your heart. A male wearing a hat will remove it and hold it in his right hand over his heart. Females are not required to remove their hats. If the flag is cased (furled and covered with a canvas case), honors are not required.

Flags on stationary flag staffs are only saluted during Reveille, Retreat or special ceremonies. An exception is when boarding a ship of the U.S. Navy it is customary to first salute the "ensign" (U.S. flag) flying aft prior to saluting the officer of the deck and requesting permission to board the vessel (see discussion of Navy customs later in this chapter).

Courtesies to Reveille, Retreat, To the Colors, or the National Anthem.

When outdoors and in uniform, face the flag, if visible, or face the music. Stand at attention and salute on the first note of the music (or if no music, when you see the flag first being raised or lowered). Drop your salute after the last note is played, or when the flag has been fully raised or lowered, depending on the ceremony. (During the playing of "Sound Retreat" which precedes the lowering of the flag, stand at Parade Rest.) If in a vehicle during Reveille or Retreat, pull the car to the side of the road and stop. All occupants sit at attention until the last note of the music has played. When in civilian clothes and outdoors, stand at attention and place your right hand (with a hat if wearing one) over your heart.

The ceremonial occasions when the salute is rendered, outdoors only, include the passing of the uncased Colors, the playing of "Ruffles and Flourishes," "Hail to the Chief," or the National Anthem of any nation, and "To the Colors."

When indoors and in uniform or civilian clothes, face the flag (or the music if the flag is not visible) and stand at attention when the National Anthem or "To the Colors" is played (do not place your hand over your heart). There are two exceptions. If you are in uniform, under arms, you should salute. The other rule is when you're a spectator in uniform at a military ceremony inside where "outdoor" rules apply. A good example is when a change of command ceremony planned for outdoors is moved inside a hangar due to inclement weather.

No courtesies are rendered to either the National Anthem or "To the Colors" when the ceremonies are broadcast remotely by radio or television. If the flag is raised or lowered for any reason (maintenance, adverse weather, etc.) you should stop and salute while it is moving up or down the pole.

Courtesies to the Air Force Song.

When outdoors, stand or march at the position of attention from the first to last note of the music. Do not salute. The same courtesy is rendered to sister service songs.

On the Flight Line.

Requirements for saluting may differ from base to base, depending on command and operational activity. Members of a formal greeting party always salute the arrival and departure of an aircraft carrying a DV and displaying the appropriate general officer or positional flag/plate. A few other guidelines are: Saluting is normally required around the Base Operations building, the Passenger Terminal, and similar locations. Saluting is not normally required in aircraft parking areas, areas designated for aircraft maintenance, aircraft static displays, or an aircraft alert hangar area. Regardless of the location on a flight line, if the situation in your judgment appears convenient for you and the senior officer, you should salute. It's an expected courtesy. The old saying still goes: "When in doubt, salute!"

When With an Officer and a Second Officer Approaches.

When in the company of a senior officer and a more senior officer approaches, you should tactfully ensure the officer with you is aware of the senior's approach. When he salutes, you should salute at the same time. If you are in the company of a senior officer, and a junior approaches, salute at the same time as the senior, and hold your salute until after the senior has dropped his (drop yours after the "junior's" if he or she ranks you!). If the senior is unaware of the junior's salute, do not interrupt by rendering your salute to the junior.

When at a Military Funeral.

You should salute the caisson or hearse as it passes and the casket as it is carried by your position. You should also salute during the firing of volleys and the playing of Taps.

When at Double-Time or Jogging.

Slow your pace to quick-time, render the salute, and resume your pace. If overtaking a senior officer, slow to a normal pace and overtake the officer on his left. As you approach within three paces, we suggest you use the Navy's practice (and that of the Air Force Academy) and announce "By your leave, Sir" and render the salute. The senior officer should acknowledge your request "Carry on" and render a return salute. Complete your salute and resume your pace after the exchange of salutes.

Exceptions to Saluting.

If your arms are full, you are not required to initiate or return a salute; however, you should always extend or respond to a verbal greeting. Obviously, you should attempt to carry objects in your left arm to keep your right unencumbered for the salute, if possible. (The Army does not require the verbal greeting, but its practice is growing.) However, you always salute a superior if he is encumbered and you are not, even though he can't return your salute! In the Air Force and Army we do not salute indoors except during a formal report. Here are some other situations where saluting is not appropriate:
  • At any time the salute is obviously impractical or will seriously interfere with the performance of official duties.
  • Indoors, when a senior enters your office. But, you would stand.
  • When you are in the ranks of formation; however, if at ease in a formation, come to attention when you are addressed by a senior officer.
  • When working as a member of a detail or engaged in sports or social functions.
  • When you are a spectator at a sports event. Come to attention if spoken to by a senior officer.
  • When you are the driver of a moving vehicle. However, when practical you should return the salutes of others. This most frequently occurs when an officer driving a vehicle returns the Security Policeman's salute at the entry gate of an Air Force base.

Indoors the salute is not used as a greeting, but only when reporting to a senior officer, and again when leaving. Headgear should never be worn inside (Army and Air Force) unless under arms. Headgear will be worn inside (Navy) the "skin" of a naval vessel when "12 o'clock" reports are made to the captain while the vessel is underway. Secure permission to enter, and walk to within two paces of the officer or desk, halt, salute, and report. Hold the salute until it is returned. (Naval officers probably will not return your salute if they are uncovered. In such cases, drop your salute when you finish your report.) If your visit is brief, and the only conversation between you and the senior is the acknowledgment of the report, you should salute only once. If there is prolonged conversation, you should, prior to departing, take one step back, render your salute, face about and leave in a military manner. If under arms reporting to a superior indoors, the procedure remains the same except you do not remove your headgear. If you are armed with a rifle, enter the senior's presence at trail arms, halt, and render your report while saluting at order arms.

Visiting Ships of the Navy.

Customs and courtesies while visiting Marine and Naval land installations are much like those of the Air Force and Army. However, things change when visiting ships of the Navy.

The ceremony of boarding a Naval vessel, regardless of size, is an old and highly respected tradition. For example, it's generally believed that the salute to the quarter-deck derived from the very early seagoing custom of the respect and obedience that all paid to the pagan altar on board ship. With the advent of Christianity, the pagan altar was replaced by a shrine or crucifix. It's a salute to the seat of authority, the place nearest the Colors. The earliest salutes were performed by uncovering. The custom of salutes while boarding a Naval vessel is adhered to rigidly regardless of the high rank of the visitor.

"A boat is called a she because there's always a great deal of bustle around her...because there's usually a gang of men around...because she has waist and stays...because she takes a lot of paint to keep her looking good...because it's not the initial expense that breaks you, it's the upkeep...because she is all decked out...because it takes a good man to handle her right...because she shows her topside, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys."
George Moses in Falmouth, Massachusetts

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz put it more succinctly in an address to the Society of Sponsors of the United States Navy: "A ship is always referred to as 'she' because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder."
Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions.

On larger naval vessels (aircraft carrier or amphibious ship), the side is attended by side boys when visiting officers of the armed forces come onboard for or depart from official visits in uniform. Smaller naval vessels do not routinely provide side boys for official visits unless it is a formal ceremony like a change of command, for example. Officers of the rank of second lieutenant to major are given two side boys and a lieutenant colonel and colonel, four side boys. Brigadier General and Major General warrant six side boys and Lieutenant General and General warrant eight side boys. Full guard and band are also given to general officers. The senior officer always boards the ship first and departs last.

If the visiting general's approach to the ship is by boat, the boatswain pipes when the boat comes alongside. Then he pipes again and the side boys salute when the visiting officer's head reaches the level of the deck.

When a ship has gangways rigged on both sides, the starboard (right) gangway is reserved for officers and the port (left) gangway for enlisted men, unless otherwise directed.

Regardless of the size of the ship's complement, when reaching the deck you face the Colors, or aft if no Colors are hoisted, and salute. Immediately thereafter you salute the Officer of the Deck (OOD) regardless of his or her rank, and say "Request permission to come aboard, sir." The OOD returns the salute. Normally, in the case of a visiting general officer, the captain of the ship and any officers of Flag rank aboard will be standing near the OOD to welcome the visitor the moment the above time-honored ceremony has been completed. If civilian dignitaries are visiting a naval vessel, they should uncover when paying respect to the flag by removing headgear as soon as they clear the ladder or gangway and stand at attention for a brief moment and bow towards the Colors.

The bridge is the "command post" of the ship when underway (unless in a combat environment), as is the quarter-deck while the ship is at anchor. It is likely that the ship's captain will escort the general and his aide immediately to the quarter-deck. When pacing the deck with another officer the place of honor is outboard, and when reversing direction each turns toward the other. Everyone salutes the quarter-deck when entering. The starboard side of the quarter-deck is reserved for the ship's captain (and admiral, if a flagship). The port side of the quarter-deck is reserved for commissioned officers, and the crew has all the other weather decks of the ship.

Naval customs such as those relating to messes, calls on the captain, and permission to visit the bridge are normally not applicable, as such, to a general officer. But here are a few points concerning "covered" vs. "uncovered" and other rules while aboard a Navy vessel:
  • Warrants and junior officers remove caps in wardroom country.
  • All officers uncover when passing through Captain's or Admiral's country except when in full dress or wearing a sword.
  • All remove caps when passing through crew's quarters at meal times.
  • All remove caps when entering sick bay - this is derived from the old mark of respect paid the sick—men who were about ready for "slipping the cable" (dying) - when they were admitted to the sick bay in the days of sail.
  • Officers do not uncover in the open except for divine worship, funerals, and other religious ceremonies.
  • "The very old courtesy of passing a senior going in the same direction with a 'By your leave, sir,' is not supposed to be forgotten when the midshipman leaves the Naval Academy!"
  • When an officer reports on board ship, he should call on the commander within 48 hours. A junior never presents his "compliments" to a senior; instead, he "pays his respects." It's courteous, but not required, to leave a calling card.
  • On leaving the ship, the inverse order of embarking is observed. With junior officers first, you salute the OOD and request permission to leave the ship. (If a boat is used, the OOD will indicate when the boat is ready.) Then you face the Colors (or the quarter-deck), salute, and disembark.
In the Army and Air Force, salutes are always rendered with the right hand. The Navy may use the left hand if the right is encumbered. Army and Air Force personnel may salute when seated or uncovered; Navy personnel do not.
Naval Ceremonies. Customs. and Traditions

Other Forms of Salutes.

The idea of holding your weapon in a harmless position seems to be a universal and very old way of showing respect. Here's a few examples from Boatner's Military Customs and Traditions and Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions of other forms of salutes that hold this trait in common.

"Present Arms."

The movement of "Present arms" with the rifle is a token of submitting your weapon to the person being honored. The origin of this movement has been traced to the return of Charles II to England in 1660 to claim the throne. The Coldstream Regiment, which professed the desire to place themselves at his service, was formed in a field. When the monarch approached, the command was given to "Present your weapons for service under His Majesty." Each man held his pike or musket forward in the position we now call "high port." Then, "Ground your weapons," was ordered. The next command was, "In His Majesty's cause, recover your weapons." The King, with an eye for the dramatic, ordered that this ceremony be prescribed as the "Present Arms" for all future inspections as a mark of respect.

Sword Salute.

The first movement of the sword salute - bringing the hilt up opposite the chin, point of the sword in the air -- is said to be a relic of the days when the Crusader kissed the cross (hilt) before battle. The second motion -- lowering the point to the ground -- symbolizes the trust of "putting down your guard."

Gun Salutes.

High military and civil officials are honored by a prescribed number of gun blasts. The custom has been traced to the days when it took a long time to reload guns. By firing off all your guns at the approach of a VIP, you rendered your ship, fort or battery defenseless. (A similar rendering of honors was performed by sailing ships by lowering their sails, thereby making them vulnerable.)

The reason for an odd number of shots appears to be steeped in superstition. In Boteler's Dialoques of 1685, the captain, referring to a very distinguished visitor aboard says, "Have his farewell given him with so many guns as the ship is able to give; provided that they always be of an odd number." Even numbered shots were reserved when the captain, master, or master gunner died during the voyage.

Why the 21 gun salute?

Great Britain, as the premier sailing power, set precedence on the open seas, and the highest honor accorded was a 21 gun salute for national honors. The British proposed to the U.S. that they standardize when the U.S. seemed ready to exceed this number for rendering honors. The U.S. agreed to limit the maximum number of gun shots to 21 guns on August 18, 1875.

Places of Honor

The principle that the right side of a person or thing is the position of honor is one of those time honored customs and courtesies passed down from early days. The "right of the line" was the critical side in ancient battle formations and is the place of honor in ceremonies today. The practice probably originates from the days when gentlemen carried swords for protection. The stronger swordsman was given the position of honor (the right) so that his sword arm would be unhampered for a fast draw.

The right is also the point of honor in heraldry. The field of blue on the American Flag is the point of honor, so the U.S. flag is always displayed with the field of stars to the flag's right . The one exception is when the flag is placed over a casket and the point of honor is to the left of the body, where it's more fitting the field be over the heart.

The starboard (right) side of a ship is reserved for officers to board, while enlisted visitors and crewmen use the port gangway.

The first place of honor then is always on the right. You should always afford seniors this position when walking, riding, or sitting with them. When joining up with a senior, always assume a position to his or her left.

The second place of honor is that of being in front or "going first." As the junior, you should allow a senior to precede you through a doorway. If you board an aircraft in a group, the senior member will enter first to select a seat, and so on. On departing the aircraft, the same rule applies: the most senior officer departs first.

In the combination of a junior woman and a senior man, the senior man should precede the junior woman through the door. Unofficially, or in a "social" situation, the man may extend traditional courtesies and allow the woman the position of honor.

Two exceptions to these rules of courtesy and conduct are: (1 ) When an aircraft has been assigned a senior officer, all junior-ranking personnel board first and take their seats before the senior arrives at the aircraft. All should remain in their seats until the senior leaves the aircraft at its destination. (2) When entering an auto or a small boat, the senior officer is the last to enter and the first to leave. The position of honor in an automobile is in the rear seat to the right of the driver. If the driver cannot open or close the door, it's proper for the junior passenger to do so. See the chapter on Distinguished Visitor (DV) Visits for suggestions on seating passengers by precedence in automobiles.

Wear of the Uniform

Respect the uniform. It represents the country you serve and identifies you as a fellow comrade at arms. Your uniform appearance reflects directly on you. Wear the uniform properly and proudly.

The hat is part of the uniform and must be worn when outdoors at all times (there may be local exceptions to this on the flight line). Always wear your hat while under arms, no matter where you are. If you are an "inspecting officer," you are considered "under arms" and should wear your hat indoors if performing your duties as inspecting officer.

Why Silver "Ranks" Gold

At the start of the American Revolution, officers in the Continental Army wore no rank insignia; it soon became apparent that some means of identifying the officers was required. As an expedient, field officers were ordered to wear red cockades on their hats, captains wore yellow or buff and lieutenants were provided with cockades of green.

In 1782 Washington implemented a system where epaulettes would be worn by officers as indicators of rank: major generals wore epaulettes with two stars on each shoulder, brigadier generals epaulettes with one star on each shoulder, field graders a plain gold epaulette on each shoulder, captains wore a single epaulette on the right shoulder, and subalterns wore one on the left.

In 1821 this practice was abolished in favor of using chevrons to denote rank. Chevrons for officer rank did not last long (except at West Point, where they're still used today to designate cadet officer rank), and in 1832 epaulettes came back. (This was also when the spread eagle was adopted as the insignia for full colonels.) Infantry officers wore silver epaulettes; all others wore gold. For example, an infantry colonel wore a gold eagle on his silver epaulette, and all other colonels wore silver eagles on gold.

In 1836 the shoulder strap replaced the epaulette on field uniforms. It had a border of silver or gold depending on the color of the epaulette it replaced. The leaf and bars appeared at this time, but the colors were not fixed—officers wore gold insignia on silver-bordered shoulder straps and vice versa. In 1851 all epaulettes and shoulder strap borders became gold and the insignia on the epaulettes were silver. Majors and second lieutenants wore no rank insignia—they were distinguished only by the type of fringe on their epaulettes. Rank insignia on shoulder straps were silver for all officers down to and including lieutenant colonels; captains and first lieutenants wore gold insignia.

When epaulettes were abolished in 1872 and replaced with shoulder knots which had no fringe, it was necessary to devise some insignia to distinguish the majors from second lieutenants. So the gold leaf was adopted to denote majors, and that's why lieutenant colonels wear silver leaves and majors gold. At the same time the color of the bars for junior officers was changed to silver. The second lieutenant still wore no insignia, and was only distinguished by the shoulder strap or knot.

Finally, in 1917 the second lieutenant got some "respect" and the Army decided to adopt a new insignia for him. The plan called for the least disruption to other rank insignia, so it was decided to follow the color precedent established in devising major's insignia and adopt the gold bar for the second lieutenant.
  • Do not wear your hat indoors or under cover. In public buildings, it's always proper to remove your hat.
American Military Decorations

The U.S. was very slow in establishing a system of military decorations. The first American decoration was developed by George Washington in 1782 when he had the "purple heart" created. It was to be awarded for "singularly meritorious action" and consisted of a small purple cloth heart to be worn over the left breast. Three were awarded in 1783, but records show no others since then.

In December of 1861, Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa introduced a bill that resulted in the establishment of a Medal of Honor for Navy enlisted men. This is the first decoration formally authorized by the American government to be worn as a badge of honor. The Army followed suit in 1862, and officers were declared eligible for the medal in 1863.

The criteria for presenting the Medal of Honor were very much lower in our early wars than they are now. It wasn't until 1902 that steps were taken to establish lesser awards. The Distinguished Service Cross was established in 1918 for "extraordinary heroism in military operations against an armed enemy" under circumstances not deserving award of the Medal of Honor. Between the World Wars, a "pyramid" of fifteen distinct awards for valor and merit was established, with the Medal of Honor on top. Campaign medals and their ribbons were not authorized until 1905.

Some "little known, but interesting facts" concerning the Medal of Honor:
  • Five men have won two Medals of Honor. In 1918 the regulations were changed to prevent any one person getting it more than once.
  • Although awarded "In the name of Congress," this decoration is properly known as the "Medal of Honor," not the "Congressional Medal of Honor."
  • Former soldiers and airmen who have won the Medal of Honor are entitled to an annual pension of $120 on reaching the age of 65.
  • There is no basis in fact that enlisted men holding the Medal of Honor are entitled to a salute from officers.

    Although it is customary for the junior to initiate the exchange of salutes, it is completely proper for the superior to salute first. It's possible that after some commanding officer saluted a Medal of Honor winner, the word got around that this was expected of all other officers in the command.
Other "Official" Customs of the Service

The Desire of the Commander.

The "wish" or the "desire" of the commander has the same weight as an order. Military law backs this idea to the extent that a person can be convicted for failing to obey an order even though that "order" was expressed in the form "I would like you to do so and so."

RHIP (Rank Hath Its Privileges).

RHIP refers specifically to those special courtesies which persons of junior rank or status extend to their "seniors." When you extend a verbal courtesy (such as "Sir") or physical courtesy (such as a salute) to a senior, you are not just acknowledging that senior's service longevity or age; rather you're acknowledging a privilege the senior has earned and therefore has a right to expect from you. It is an acknowledgment of authority; it is also an acknowledgment of respect which reflects positively on both you and that senior. Rank of course has its obligations - not the least of which is to see that one's subordinates' rights are respected; and that they get the privileges they deserve.

Calling a Room to Attention.

The enlisted custom is for the first person to see an officer entering the room to call the room to attention. If an officer of equal or higher rank is already in the room, the room is not called to attention. When the officer departs, the room is called to attention again.

However, it's not proper for officers to follow this practice. How do you then get junior officers to render proper courtesies when a senior enters the room? Here's how many units over the years have handled the situation. When gathered in a conference room or theater awaiting the arrival of a senior officer, someone is posted to watch for his or her arrival. As the senior officer approaches, the watcher may sound off "At ease, ladies and gentlemen," as a warning. When the senior enters the room, one officer will announce "Ladies and gentlemen, the commanding officer," or "Ladies and Gentlemen, General Jones." All officers stand at attention until told to be seated.

Note that common sense has to play in deciding when a work center is called to attention. If bringing the room to attention could cause an adverse safety or mission impact, it should not be done. When a senior officer enters an operations center, for example, it's customary for them to be announced, but operators remain seated at their consoles and politely acknowledge the superior's presence by sitting at attention and making eye contact, if doing so does not affect the performance of their job.

No Excuses.

All military members are taught from their earliest basic training days the only acceptable responses to a superior's questions are "Yes Sir," "No Sir," and "No excuse, Sir." In the military, we assume an order given will be executed fully. It's a measure of the trust we place in each other in this most demanding of professions. In the event of failure to execute an order, the assumption's often made that the individual didn't try hard enough or lacked the necessary aptitude to carry out the order. The answer is "No excuse, Sir."

There will be times when a commander will want to know the reason for a failure. If a subordinate wants to volunteer reasons he must be sure they are valid and not simply excuses with which he hopes to exonerate himself. As a rule it's best to remain silent even at the expense of suffering a minor injustice.

A military leader must remember that his subordinates also are brought up in the tradition of "no excuses." He must not be taken in by the slick talker who can justify all his failures; he must not assume that the man who takes his medicine is doing so only because he has nothing to say in his defense.

By Direction of the President.

Only "by direction of the President" can an officer be required to serve as a subordinate to one whom he or she ranks. This is in line with the time-tested military principle that seniority must be respected. However, there are many situations when assignment on the basis strictly of seniority will work to the detriment of military efficiency. Orders assigning any officer to a position of command over an officer senior to him will include the phrase "by direction of the President."

"Officer and a Gentleman."

Many chuckle over the phrase "an officer and gentleman by act of Congress." However, military tradition dictates that an officer is expected to act like a gentleman. In early armies, military leadership was a monopoly of the nobility or "gentlemen." Officer rank is now bestowed on the basis of merit, but those chosen are still expected to act like gentlemen. An officer's commission carries with it the obligation to act in a "gentlemanly way." For example, in military law an officer can be court-martialed for "ungentlemanly conduct," whereas an enlisted person cannot.

Addressing Junior Officers.

In the Army and Air Force, only academy cadets and warrant officers are addressed as "Mister"; all other officers are addressed by their rank. The Navy still clings to the old traditions and frowns on addressing officers below the rank of Commander by their titles. When speaking—socially or officially - to naval officers below the rank of Commander you should use "Mister."

Courtesy Visits/Calls.

It's traditional when visiting any military organization or Navy ship to pay a courtesy call on the commanding officer. On an Army installation, the first call should be to the commanding officer, even if the visitor ranks him or her. When reporting in on a Navy vessel, you should report to the ship's captain within 48 hours of arriving.

There used to be very formal rules in all the services for leaving "calling" (business) cards and paying social calls to the commander and his spouse when arriving at a new duty station. This is one tradition is fading, but if visiting a Naval or Army installation, you should check beforehand and determine the local practice.

This doesn't mean business cards are in disrepute. When meeting new people in either an official or social capacity, it is good manners to offer business cards. The Japanese custom of presenting your card with both hands, card face up so that it can be read by the other person, and that good eye contact be made is one to strongly consider using. In any case, give the presenter of the card the courtesy of reading it before putting it away.

Service Semantics.

It's a good idea when visiting another service's installation or ship to know the proper terminology or jargon. Take the time to learn these if you're scheduled to visit a Navy ship or Army post. Here are a few:
  • Soldiers are "soldier" or "men." They are not "guys" or "boys."
  • Flags are only flown at "half-mast" on board ships or on naval installations. In the Army and Air Force we say flags are flown at ''half-staff."
  • In the Army, only women and midshipmen wear "pants." Men wear trousers.
  • Know the Navy and Marine Corps lingo for navigating aboard ship. "Decks" are floors, "Ladders" are stairways, "Starboard" is right, "Port" is left, "Aft" is rear, "Below" is downstairs, "Forward" is towards the front, and one in particular you'll want to get right, "Head" is the bathroom.
Air Force Traditions

Tradition is a process of handing down, or passing from one to another, knowledge, beliefs, feelings, ways of thinking, manners or codes of behavior, a philosophy of life or even a faith, without written instructions. Tradition helps define who we are, it provides us identity unique from all other peoples and professions.

Although the youngest of the armed services, the Air Force has a rich tradition stretching back to 1 August 1907 when the Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army established the Aeronautical Division, consisting of one officer. Since then, we've had a stream of airpower heroes: Ben Foulois, Billy Mitchell, Raoul Lufbery, Eddie Rickenbacker, Frank Luke (the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor), Jimmy Doolittle, Ira Eaker, Carl Spaatz, Benjamin Davis, Hap Arnold, Claire Chennault, Dick Bong and Bill McGuire (Medal of Honor winners in the Pacific Theater), Curtis LeMay, Chuck Yeager, Joe McConnell and James Jabara, Bernie Schreiver, Hilliard Wilbanks (posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam), Karl Richter, Robin Olds, Steve Ritchie, Chuck DeBellevue, Bernie Fisher, Chappie James, Lance Sijan, Ed White, Chuck Horner, and Bill Andrews. In less than 50 years as a separate service (we'll celebrate our fiftieth anniversary 18 September 1997) we've built a proud tradition upon which those who follow can and will build.

The Fighter Pilot
Say what you will about him: Arrogant, cocky, boisterous, and a fun-loving fool to boot. He has earned his place in the sun. Across the span of fifty years he has given this country some of its proudest moments and most cherished military traditions. But fame is short lived and little the world remembers. Almost forgotten are the 1400 fighter pilots who stood alone against the might of Hitler's Germany during the dark summer of 1940—and gave in England the words of Winston Churchill, "It's finest hour." Gone from the hardstands at Duxford, are the P-51's with their checkerboard noses that terrorized the finest squadrons the Luftwaffe had. Dimly remembered— the fourth fighter group that gave Americans some of their few proud moments over the skies of Korea. How fresh in the recall are the air commandos who valiantly struck the VC with their aging "Skyraiders" in the rainy and blood-soaked valley called A-Shau? And how long will be remembered the Phantoms and Thuds over "Route Pack Six" and flak-filled skies over Hanoi. Barrel Roll, Steel Tiger and Tally Ho. So here's a "nickel on the grass" to you, my friend, and your spirit, enthusiasm, sacrifice and courage—but most of all to your friendship. Your's is a dying breed and when you are gone, the world will be a lesser place.
43 TFS Song Book

Much of our tradition is found in song and verse. "There Are No Fighter Pilots Down in Hell" lived through three wars; "Throw a Nickel on the Grass," "Itazuke Tower," and "Give Me Operations" came to us from the Korean War and were modified to fit the Vietnam experience; and no one can or will forget "Red River Valley," describing in graphic detail the horrors of Thud bombing missions over North Vietnam—"For we're going to the Red River valley, and my call sign for today is teak lead." Many songs originated with our British comrades in World War II. Many more were written by anonymous authors and have been handed down over the years. Most of these are not fit for mixed company, but graphically express the feelings, frustrations, and camaraderie unique to the pilot community. Ask a fighter pilot to sing for you "Picadilly," "My Husband's a General," "Wild West Show," or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" sometime!

"Anything Else is Rubbish"

As we stand near the ringing rafters
The walls around us are bare
As we echo our peals of laughter
It seems as though the dead are still there.
So stand by your glasses ready.
Let not tears fill your eye.
Here's to the dead already
And Hurrah for the next man to die.

43d Tactical Fighter Squadron variation of Toast to Your Glasses and the Toast to Those
Who Fly, circa 1982

High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silver wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds-and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle flew;
and while, with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God

John Gillespie Magee, Jr

The Air Force Song

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,
At 'em boys, give 'er the gun!
Down we dive spouting our flame from under
Off with one helluva roar!
We live in fame or go down in flame, hey!
Nothing'll stop the U.S. Air Force!

Minds of men fashioned a crate of thunder,
Sent it high into the blue;
Hands of men blasted the world asunder;
How they lived God only knew!
Souls of men dreaming of skies to conquer
Gave us wings, ever to soar!
With scouts before and bombers galore, hey!
Nothing'll stop the U.S. Air Force!

Here's a toast to the host
Of those who love the vastness of the sky,
To a friend we will send a message of his brothermen who fly
We drink to those who gave their all of old,
Then down we roar to score the rainbow's pot of gold
A toast to the host of men we boast, the U.S. Air Force!

Off we go into the wild sky yonder,
Keep the wings level and true.
If you'd live to be a grey-haired wonder
Keep the nose out of the blue!
Flying men guarding our nation's border,
We'll be there, followed by more.
In echelon we carry on, hey!
Nothing'll stop the U.S. Air Force!

Robert Crawford

Air Force Blue

Take the blue from the skies
And a pretty girl's eyes
And a touch of old glory too,
And give it to the men who proudly wear
The U.S. Air Force Blue.
We know where we're going, we've set our course
The sky's the limit in the Air Force!

The U. S. Air Force Hymn

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces of the sky;
Be with them traversing the air
In darkening storms or sunshine fair

Thou who dost keep with tender might
The balanced birds in all their flight
Thou of the tempered winds be near
That, having thee, they know no fear

Control their minds with instinct fit
What time, adventuring, they quit
The firm security of land;
Grant steadfast eye and skillful hand

Aloft in solitudes of space,
Uphold them with Thy saving grace.
O God, protect the men who fly
Thru lonely ways beneath the sky.

Red River Valley

To the Red River valley we're going
For to get us some trains and some tracks
But if I had my say so about it
I'd still be back in the sack

Come and sit by my side at the briefing
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
To the Red River valley we're going
And I'm flying four in flight blue

We went for the check on the weather
And they said it was clear as could be
I lost my wingman round the field
And the rest augured in out at the sea

S-2 said there's no flak where we're going
S-2 said there's no flak on the way
There's a dark overcast oe'r the target
I'm beginning to doubt what they say

To the valley they say we are going
And many strange sights will we see
But the one there that held my attention
Was the SAM that they threw up at me

To the valley he said he was flying
And he never saw the medal that he earned
Many jocks have flown into the valley
And a number have never returned

So I listened as he briefed on the mission
Tonight at the bar teak flight will sign
But we're going to the Red River valley
And today you are flying my wing

Oh the flak is so thick in the valley
That the MiGs and the SAMs we don't need
So fly high and down sun in the valley
And guard well the ass of teak lead

Now things turn to shit I the valley
And the briefing I gave, you don't heed
They'll be waiting at the Hanoi Hilton
And its fish heads and rice for teak lead

We refueled on the way to the valley
In the States it has always been fun
But the thunder and lightning all around us
T'was the last AAR for teak one

When we came to a bridge in the valley
He saw a duty that he couldn't shun
For the first to roll in on the target
Was my leader, old teak number one

Oh, he flew through the flak toward the target
With his bombs and his rockets drew a bead
But he never pulled out of this bomb run
T'was fatal for another teak lead

So come sit by my side at the briefing
We will sit there and tickle the beads
For we're going to the Red River valley
And my call sign for today is teak lead