Military insignia is an outward sign of an individual's rank. Military rank is a badge of leadership, command, and determines whom has authority over others. The rank structure is a ladder system, which means that one ascends in rank and gains leadership, responsibility, and authority. The insignia that represents the rank is a symbol designed to immediately identify the rank of someone without ambiguity. Insignia allows the level of authority and responsibility of an uniformed airman to be determined quickly and easily. All branches of the United States Armed Forces use rank insignia, but with different appearance and regulations for wear and location.
Generally one doesn't ascend in rank because they are performing well at the level of their current rank. A promotion indicates that the airman or officer is, rather, performing at a level commensurate with a higher rank, and are therefore deserving of it. The promotions also tend to get slower as one rises in rank. It takes only a very short time to progress from Second Lieutenant to First Lieutenant, but could take many years for a jump from Lieutenant Colonel to Colonel.
The United States Air Force is the youngest of the United States' four military branches. Military aviation originally was the domain of the United States Army Signal Corps (in the new Aeronatical Division), starting in 1907. Military aviation then broke off into its own Army branch - the US Army Air Corps - on July 2, 1926. Personnel assigned to the Army Air Corps wore US Army uniforms and had US Army rank. Congress later created the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in 1941, at which point the Air Force began deviating from the Army uniforms and rank structure. Finally, the United States Air Force was born by act of Congress on 1947, when President Harry S Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947.
It took a little while to completely deviate from Army rank and uniform resemblance. US Air Force distinctive uniforms and ranks were developed and the current blue uniform was approved on January 18, 1949. The current design for the enlisted chevrons was decided on after all the airmen at Bolling AFB were polled in 1948, and 55% picked this design - thus the Generals were probably pleased somebody made the pick for them and stamped it into existence.
Even though the U.S. Air Force has only been around since 1947, the rank structure and insignia is still steeped in meaning and tradition. The Air Force, like the other branches, divides its ranks. However, the Air Force only divides ranks into Enlisted and Commissioned Officer. There have been no Warrant Officers in the Air Force since they were phased out in the 1950s.
The Enlisted personnel of the Air Force, often referred to as Airmen, are the backbone of the Air Force and are the workers who perform the jobs, carry out the tasks, and keep the Air Force operating. Enlisted airmen (which can refer to both male and female enlisted) are the mechanics, crew chiefs, cooks, munitions handlers, maintenance people, air traffic controllers and so on. Their ranks are represented by smoothly curved chevrons on their uniform sleeves, or embroidered on epaulets placed on their shoulder for the top few enlisted ranks. Very simply, the more chevrons, the higher rank.
The Commissioned Officers, or just "officers," of the Air Force are the "management" and the pilots. All pilots are officers, as are most navigators. Most leadership positions are filled by officers. Certain professions also automatically confer a commission on an individual, most namely that of medical doctors, lawyers (legal officers), and ministers and priests (chaplains). The officer ranks are represented by various symbols on the epaulets of their shoulders.
Enlisted Rank Insignia
The insignia worn by enlisted of America's Air Force is different in multiple respects from other rank insignia. For one, the curving lines of the chevrons are unlike the pointed chevrons of the other branches. It is said by some that the curving lines of the enlisted stripes was inspired by the sloping wings and aerodynamic designs of the aircraft.
Current enlisted insignia consists of chevrons that are curved downward and do not come to a point. They have a 5-point, pierced star inside a centered circular blue field around which the stripes curve. Higher ranked enlisted personnel also have upward pointing stripes or chevrons which come to a point, on top of the downward stripes. The stripes, star, and other insignia are silver embroidered on a dark “Air Force” blue background.
Enlisted rank insignia is worn on the sleeve for pay grades E2 through E6 on all uniforms, including mess dress, “blues” and BDUs. Senior NCOs have the privilege of wearing their rank in epaulet form, like officers, on their shoulders with the dress blues shirt (but on the sleeve like other enlisted with all other uniforms, such as mess dress, service coat, and BDUs). The grades of Senior and Chief Master Sergeants were not added until the 1960s, and until the late 1990s, Master Sgt. and up had one more stripe on the bottom and one less up top.
The NCO (Non Commissioned Officer, which comprises E4 through E9) of the unit who has the position of First Sergeant also has distinctive insignia. The First Sarge, who must be a Master Sergeant or above, has a horizontal diamond between the upper and lower stripes inside the blue field.
Commissioned Officer Rank Insignia
The Air Force completely borrowed the existing system of commissioned officer ranks from the US Army, without any change in symbols or rank names. Officers wear their rank insignia in several different places, depending on the uniform worn. For the dress uniforms, it can be found on the shoulders in the form of epaulets (or in the case of mess dress, on shoulder boards). On the BDUs, or Battle Dress Uniform, officers wear their rank insignia on both collars of the uniform in the form a sewn patch with subdued colors. Gold ranks become a tan/brown color, and silver ranks become dark “AF” blue on subdued insignia.
Officer ranks do not have a logical, sequential system like enlisted ranks (and Warrant Officers in other branches). Each officer rank is represented by a symbol, and when two ranks have the same symbol, a gold symbol represents the lower rank and silver the higher. The origin of why each symbol is representative of its specific rank is often debated and many theories exist, however there is no concrete historical documentation as to why certain symbols were chosen for specific ranks. Overall, many insignia are symbols of our nation, including oak leaves, eagles, and stars.
Furthermore, the officer ranks are broken up into three categories: Company Grade, Field Grade, and General Officers. Field grade officers have a silver stripe at the bottom of their epaulets and also enjoy silver embroidered clouds and lightening on the visor of their service cap (affectionately known as “farts and darts”). General Officers have a larger silver stripe at the bottom of their epaulets, and a silver stripe at the top as well. General officers also have “farts and darts” on their service caps as well as silver legging stripes down their dress pants, and silver cuff stripes on their service coats.
Since there is no progressive system of increasing stripes or bars, et cetera, in order to determine which officer rank is higher than another, one must memorize the system.
Company Grade Officers:
- O1 - Second Lieutenant: 1 gold bar (often called "butter bars")
- O2 - First Lieutenant: 1 silver bar
- O3 - Captain: 2 parallel silver bars, connected by two perpendicular silver rods (looking like “railroad tracks”)
Field Grade Officers:
- O4 - Major: 1 gold oak leaf
- O5 - Lieutenant Colonel: 1 silver oak leaf
- O6 - Colonel: 1 silver eagle, wings spread, perched on a branch.
- O7 - Brigadier General: 1 silver, 5-point star
- O8 - Major General: 2 silver, 5-point stars, linked point to point.
- O9 - Lieutenant General: 3 silver, 5-point stars, linked point to point.
- O10 - General: 4 silver, 5-point stars, linked point to point.
- O11 - General of the Air Force: 5 silver, 5-point stars, linked in a circle. (used only in times of major war, by appointment of Congress and to-date, only held once.)
While the system may seem confusing at first, after a little while looking at a chart one can quickly begin to identify ranks (or at least their pecking order, if not the names). If you join the Air Force, this entire system of ranks will be one of the first things drilled into you during BMT (Basic Military Training) or Officer Training School. By the time you leave basic, recognizing military ranks will be second nature to you.
If you work as a civilian on an Air Force installation or are involved with Air Force personnel in some manner, it would be very advisable to learn and know these ranks and their associated insignia. It is an expected courtesy to address military personnel by their rank - they’ve earned it. If you are a civilian, Air Force people will be equally impressed that you correctly identified their rank from their uniform.
In any case, pictures in a chart format of all US Air Force Rank Insignia are available from Airman Magazine, the official magazine of the US Air Force, at: http://www.af.mil/news/airman/0101/grades.html
- Personal Knowledge from 6 years in the US Air Force Auxiliary.
- Garamone, Jim. "Insignia: The Way You Tell Who's Who in the Military," <http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Nov1999/n11221999_9911224.html>