Joining the Air Force requires a lot of adaptation. One fun and frustrating example of this is learning to “speak Air Force.” When serving in any military unit, you’ll encounter ideas that just have no equivalent expression in regular civilian discourse. Today we’re going to look at several different types of Air Force terminology.
The goal here isn’t to make you an expert…that’ll happen in time. However, understanding this terminology will help you as you begin your service. It’ll make it easier to understand what people are saying during your application processes, and it’ll help you sound like you know what you’re talking about once you finally earn your commission and start UPT. So, let’s start getting educated!
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The concept of rank is fundamental to any military’s ability to function. In an extreme case, there could be a situation in which one person has to order another to take an action that will result in death. As long as that order is lawful and it’s truly necessary for the survival of the United States of America, the lower-ranking person is obligated to follow that order. In practice, this is a one in a million situation, but there are plenty of less significant orders that you’ll still have to follow as a member of the military.
We wrote an article about Understanding Rank from the ANG Pilot Perspective a couple years ago. I recommend going back and reading that one if you haven’t already. I hope to review and expand on those concepts here.
You need to know and understand Air Force ranks so that you can always identify where you stand in any given situation. Visit this page at defense.gov to start studying. If your mom is pestering you to put more crap on your Christmas list and you’re having trouble thinking of something, I recommend this deck of cards as another good study tool.
Overall there are two classifications of ranks: officer and enlisted.
In the Air Force we refer to enlisted service members as “Airmen.” (We’ll see shortly that this can get confusing because there are four enlisted ranks that include the title “Airman.” We’ll sort that out.) Enlisted Airmen are also sometimes referred to as “troops.”
Airmen join the Air Force by “enlisting.” That’s frequently a process of talking to a recruiter at the nearest strip mall, or by talking directly with a local Guard or Reserve unit. They enlist for a specific term, usually 4 or 6 years at first. They fill a wide variety of specialties. On the aircrew side, you could potentially see flight engineers, loadmasters, air refueling boom operators, gunners, linguists, and medics. You’ll also encounter crew chiefs and other maintenance personnel on the flight line.
Airmen have to qualify to join the Air Force, but they only need a high school diploma (though many have advanced degrees). If they qualify, they can volunteer to sign up on the spot. Officers, on the other hand, must have at least a college degree. We volunteer to serve but have to be “commissioned” by an approved source. (college ROTC, OTS, or the USAF Academy.)
When it comes to rank, there’s another term called “grade.” Rank is the title that goes with the pin or stripes on a person’s uniform. Colonel, Sergeant, General, etc. Grade is just an alpha-numeric designation associated with the rank. Enlisted grades start at E-1 (rank of Airman Basic, or AB) and go up to E-9 (Chief Master Sergeant, or CMSgt). In the Air Force, E-1 through E-4 are considered “Airman” ranks, E-5 and E-6 are considered “Non-commissioned Officers” or NCOs. E-7 through E-9 are considered Senior NCOs or SNCOs.
Officer ranks are higher than all enlisted ranks. They run from the grade of O-1 (Second Lieutenant, or 2Lt) up to O-10 (General of the Air Force). O-1 through O-3 are considered “Company Grade Officers” or CGOs. O-4 through O-6 are “Field Grade Officers” or FGOs. O-7 through O-10 are General Officers (GOs) or Flag Officers.
Part of making rank work is that we show respect, even deference, to people who have more rank than us. In the case of superior officers, we address them as [Rank] + [Last Name], or Sir/Ma’am as appropriate. You’ll also hear Air Force enlisted troops referring to higher-ranking enlisted people as Sir/Ma’am. (As far as I can tell, this is somewhat unique to the Air Force. If someone were to address a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant or an Army Sergeant Major as Sir or Ma’am, that poor enlisted troop would be doing push-ups until his arms fell off.)
As a pilot, you’ll be an officer. When in doubt, you should refer to enlisted Airmen as [Rank] + [Last Name]. For any rank the word Airman in it (E-1 through E-4) you can just call them “Airman Jones.” Some of the Air Force enlisted ranks have long names. Technical Sergeant or Senior Master Sergeant are very cumbersome to use in regular conversation. It’s okay to refer to a Staff Sergeant (SSgt), Technical Sergeant (TSgt), Master Sergeant (MSgt), and probably even a Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt) as just “Sergeant Jones.” A Chief Master Sergeant is “Chief Jones.” Don’t make the mistake of calling him or her “Sergeant”!
The Air Force is also unique in that if you work with an Airman on a regular basis, it’s okay for you to just use his or her first name in most settings. He or she will still call you Sir/Ma’am.
Although you technically outrank all enlisted personnel, you still have to respect them as fellow servicemembers. One of the most important parts of being an officer is taking care of your troops. If there’s only one line at the chow hall, you make sure your Airmen all have food before you get yours. If a crew rolls into a lodging office, you make sure all your troops have rooms squared away before you get your key. Servant leadership is a real thing. If you can’t get on board with that, you have no place in the military.
It’s also important to note that although you outrank NCOs and SNCOs, as a young lieutenant, you are basically John Snow. Only a great fool would ignore advice from a senior enlisted Airman, or act like you’re in some way better than him or her.
You also need to know that although the divide between officer and Airman seems artificial at times, you absolutely must respect it. You’ll learn that there are times and ways when it’s appropriate for officers and Airmen to socialize, and then there are other times. The quickest way for an officer to get fired and/or sent to jail is to start up a romantic relationship with an enlisted troop. Just don’t do it!
As a pilot, you’ll also need to deal with some considerations on the officer side.
In the Air Force, most pilots earn a callsign. Though not officially official, there is procedure and ceremony associated awarding that callsign. You don’t choose your callsign, it’s chosen for you. It’s generally meant to sound cool to an outsider, but carry at least one double meaning that’s funny or embarrassing. This is good – it’s a constant reminder that each of us needs to remain humble.
As a lieutenant, you need to refer to superior officers by rank and Sir/Ma’am by default. Once you get to know people around the base, you’ll be allowed to address all fellow lieutenants and most captains by first name or callsign. Beyond this, there’s usually a one-rank rule. You can refer to someone one rank higher than you by first name or callsign, as long as you know that person. Beyond that, keep things official. A captain should probably not call the Lieutenant Colonel squadron commander “Scuba” to his face unless it’s been specifically authorized. It’s okay to refer to someone else in the third person by their callsign when talking to others.
If you’re a civilian rushing a unit, you’re in a unique situation. You have no rank, so your default should be to refer to everyone, of every rank, as Sir/Ma’am or [Rank] + [Last Name]. When you visit the squadron, people may introduce themselves by first name or callsign only, which means it’s okay to refer to them as such. I would still answer yes or no questions with “Yes, Sir” or “No Ma’am” with each person you meet until they insist that you stop.
We’ve covered a lot of ground just thinking about how to address people. There’s more nuance involved, but this is enough to get you started. Next, let’s look at how units are organized.
The fundamental unit of the Air Force is a Squadron. Each squadron flies one type of aircraft or fills one function. You wear your squadron’s patch on your shoulder, and it’s the place you talk about when you say you’re “going to work.”
A flying squadron is a wonderful thing to be part of. Anyone of your own rank becomes a built-in friend the day you show up. Once you show that you’re competent at your unit’s mission…or at least that you’re working very hard to become competent…you’ll be welcomed and taken care of no matter what.
Each squadron has a commander, usually an O-5, Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col). The Air Force is obsessed with what it calls “office symbols.” The office symbol for the squadron commander is SQ/CC. In the Air Force, a squadron’s second in command is the Operations Officer (SQ/DO). (You’ll be tempted to say “Director of Operations” based on that office symbol, but you’ll be wrong if you do. I was once told by a slightly crusty Lieutenant Colonel that the title of “Director” is reserved for positions above the squadron level.) The Operations Officer is frequently referred to as just the “DO.”
In other military branches, the second in command is frequently referred to as the Executive Officer, or XO. The USAF has executive officers, but they’re more a combination of secretary, gopher, administrative assistant for the squadron commander. The office symbol is SQ/CCE, and if the commander is a Lt Col, the exec is probably a 1Lt or Captain.
The DO may have a few Assistant Operations Officers (ADOs) that are Lt Cols or Majors. You should respect them and follow orders, as with any superior officer, but as a line pilot your first link in the chain of command is your Flight Commander (Flt/CC). This is the person officially in charge of you. He or she approves your leave requests, passes on orders from the commander to you, and writes your annual performance report. Here’s how that organization looks:
Get used to seeing things like this in the military. Called organizational charts, org charts, or spaghetti charts, these things are how commanders compare how important they are. They’re also useful for understanding who you’re working for.
Within a squadron, there are also several “shops” that carry out the functions need to run things. Your first squadron will probably have shops for Training, Mobility (deployment prep), Standardization/Evaluation (check rides), scheduling or “current operations,” plans (longer-term scheduling), and more. Although the commander is in charge of the whole squadron, the DO and ADOs generally run them from day-to-day. While you’ll be assigned under a Flight Commander, you’ll also get assigned a job in one of these shops. You’ll be a worker bee, but there will be a Shop Chief, a fellow pilot (or WSO/CSO if you have those in your squadron). This means that you have two immediate bosses to answer to.
Although the Squadron is the fundamental unit of the Air Force, it’s always part of a larger structure. Each Air Force Base is the location of at least one Wing (WG). (Larger bases may have more than one Wing.) Most Wings are divided up into four Groups. Flying squadrons fall under the Operations Group (OG), and there will probably be a Maintenance Group (MXG), Medical Group (MDG), and Mission Support Group on base (MSG). Here’s what that looks like:
It’s important to realize that the people working on your aircraft don’t answer to your squadron commander, or even his or her immediate boss, the OG/CC. The OG/CC and MXG/CC try to work well together, but if you have any major issues with maintenance, your commander is going to have to go all the way to the Wing to address them.
The Medical Group will have either a clinic or a full hospital on base. As a pilot, you get to be seen by the Flight Medicine clinic as your primary care provider. The doctors who work on you are Flight Surgeons, or more frequently called “flight docs.” Your family may have access to the Flight Medicine clinic at a small base, but if they’re busy they’ll have to go to the Family Medicine clinic. Your base will have clinics for specialty services like radiology, optometry, dentistry, and pediatrics. If you need a service not on base, the Air Force has to pay to transport you to a place that does have it. You simply cannot beat the terms of service for Tricare, the military health care system.
The Mission Support Group is very important. They have squadrons or offices for things like your pay, your housing, your pilot gear, base infrastructure, and much more. Security Forces (the Air Force’s military police) also fall under the MSG. It’s a good idea to be polite to everyone around you, but I’d be extra careful not to piss these people off!
The things we’ve discussed so far are important, but let’s get to what we really care about. We’re pilots, which means we love aircraft.
If you want to be a pilot in the Air Force, I hope you already know a lot about our aircraft. (If you don’t start reading the fact sheets here!) While those fact sheets are a good resource, most aircraft aren’t referred to by their official names. We’re going to look at how Air Force pilots actually talk about these things. In general, we don’t use the official nickname assigned by the Air Force for any of these aircraft. If you want to refer to one, go with its official designation: KC-135 or C-5. It’s acceptable to refer to the -135 (KC-135) or -130 (C-130) but other than that don’t drop the letter(s) off the front of the name.
Rather than looking at the entire Air Force inventory, we’re only going to look at exceptions to these rules here.
Official Name(s): Thunderbolt II, Warthog
Commonly Called: Hawg
The Hawg is awesome. It’s a master at Close Air Support (CAS) which means attacking bad guys on the ground when there are friendly troops nearby. This requires extra care so that you don’t accidentally shoot the good guys. The A-10 is one of the best at this mission.
Official Name(s): Ghostrider (J), Stinger II (W), Spooky (U)
Commonly Called: ACJ, the Whiskey, the U-Boat
Also Known As: The Gunship
Air Force Special Operations Command has had several versions of AC-130 over the years. The new hotness is the AC-130J, and it’s all but replaced its predecessors. In addition to the cannons sticking out the side of the aircraft, it’s capable of carrying a significant load of GPS-guided GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs, and AGM-176 Griffin missiles.
Official Name(s): Lancer
Commonly Called: Bone
B-1. B-One. Get it?
Official Name(s): Stratofortress
Commonly Called: BUFF
Yes, BUFF stands for what you think it does.
Official Name(s): Eagle
Commonly Called: Eagle
Also Known As: Mighty Mighty, Light Greys
If someone says they fly the F-15 outside any other context, they probably mean this one. F-15Cs are single-seat and painted in a light grey color that contrasts with the dark grey shade and two-seat F-15E. Also, they don’t carry bombs.
Official Name(s): Strike Eagle
Commonly Called: Strike Eagle, E-Model
Also Known As: Mudhen, Dude, Dark Greys
Some pilots say “Air to Mud” because it sounds cooler than “Air to Ground,” the primary type of fighting that the F-15E does. They’re dark grey because that shade matches the dirt better than the sky.
I worked with F-15Es over the course of many deployments and “Dude” was the callsign they used. We ended up referring to them by that name.
Some uninformed aspiring pilots make the mistake of acting like the backseater in the F-15E, the Weapon Systems Officer or WSO, is a second-class citizen. Don’t make that mistake, especially if you want to fly one. Years ago, a USAF Academy cadet sent an email to an F-15E squadron hoping to get an incentive flight. He mentioned that he could ride in the back seat and not impact the mission because the WSO was superfluous. The poor cadet got a new bodily orifice torn open.
Official Name(s): Fighting Falcon
Commonly Called: Viper
Also Known As: Lawn Dart
It’s called the Lawn Dart because of the striking resemblance between the two after an engine failure.
The F-16 has several variants, designated by “blocks.” While there may still be some Guard units flying Bock 15 or 25 A/B models, most are at least flying Block 30 or Block 40 C/D models. Active Duty gets almost exclusively Block 50 models. You may hear the later models referred to as “widemouth.” This refers to the larger air intake that changed when they got a bigger engine.
Official Name(s): Raptor
Commonly Called: Raptor
Also Known As: The 22
Surprisingly, the name Raptor stuck with the F-22.
Official Name(s): Lightning II
Commonly Called: F-35
Also Known As: Panther (as in sex panther!)
The F-35 is a very cool aircraft in many ways. The Air Force thinks it’s a replacement for both the F-16 and the A-10. If you want to know why that’s a ridiculous idea, you can read this.
Official Name(s): Extender
Commonly Called: The Ten
Also Known As: Big Sexy
Non-tanker pilots love the KC-10 because it carries more gas than a KC-135 and its refueling boom is easier to stay connected to. KC-10 pilots love it because it’s spacious, comfortable, and quiet. If you’re going to fly a tanker, you want to fly this one.
Official Name(s): Jayhawk
Commonly Called: T-1
Also Known As: Tone, Beechjet, Beech 400
If you really want to do some civilian contract flying in your free time, a B400 type rating and a thousand hours in the T-1 are great resources.
Official Name(s): Texan II, JPATS (Joint Primary Aircraft Training System)
Commonly Called: T-6
Every Air Force pilot will fly this in UPT. It is so much fun. Get excited for it!
Official Name(s): Talon
Commonly Called: The 38, T-38
Also Known As: White Rocket, White Jet
Years ago, all USAF trainers were painted white. You’ll sometimes hear a pilot say “I fly white jets.” That means he or she is a UPT IP.
Official Name(s): Red Hawk
Commonly Called: TBD
The Air Force just awarded Boeing the contract to replace the T-38. They did a cool thing naming the aircraft the T-7A Red Hawk, in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen who flew aircraft with red tails in WWII. I doubt this name will stick in common parlance better than any other. I think it’d be cool if it did though.
The plane is gorgeous. If I thought it’d be operational any time soon, I’d be looking for a reserve T-38 IP job on the BogiDope job postings!
Having looked at some specific categories of Air Force terminology, we’re going to cover some items that just seem to pop up in daily conversation. We’ll cover a lot here, but it only scratches the surface.
When you get assigned to a new base in the Air Force, it’s called a Permanent Change of Station, or PCS. If you’re leaving an old base, you’ll get a lengthy checklist of base agencies with whom you need to out-process (check out) before you can leave. It’s a pain in the neck to get done. Then, when you arrive at your new (or “gaining”) base, you’ll have a similar in-processing checklist. Most units will give you a week or so free from almost any other duty to work on this checklist. Your new SQ/CC will get nasty-grams from the OG/CC if you don’t get your checklist done in time, so get to work!
Any time the Air Force sends you away from your primary base for longer than a flight, it’s considered Temporary Duty, or TDY. This could be for a conference, a training event like your aircraft qualification course, or a deployment.
Every TDY comes with a set of orders explaining where you’re authorized to go and what you’re authorized to spend money on. You need to read through those notes so you know whether you’re allowed to get a rental car, accept extra or overweight bag fees from the airlines you travel on, etc.
You’ll hear people say things like, “He’s not here. He’s TDY,” or “We’re sending you on a TDY to Nome, Alaska.” (Good luck with that!)
The Military Personnel Flight, or MPF, falls under the Mission Support Group on your base. They’re in charge of a lot of things you care deeply about. If you get married or have kids, you have to stop by the MPF to get your new loved ones added to the military systems. You and your family members have to go to the MPF to get your military ID. Many bases require your vehicle to have a parking pass of some kind. That desk is usually located in or near the MPF building. You get your PCS orders from the MPF and they won’t let you go until you’ve completed your out-processing checklist.
Every year, your supervisor has to fill out an Officer Performance Report, or OPR, about you. It’s important to document anything you did well, or any big projects you helped with or ran during the year. This plays into your ability to get promoted (see “PRF” below.)
Although technically you’re not allowed to write your own OPR, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked for “inputs.” It’s important to try to quantify the things you do. How many missions did you fly? How many bombs did you drop or pounds of cargo did you carry? How many people benefited from the ground training event that you set up? The most detail you can give your immediate supervisor, the better your OPR will be.
An OPR isn’t written in anything resembling English grammar. It allows a total of 10 lines, formatted as bullet points, rather than sentences. Common terminology is abbreviated so much that it’s almost illegible. Lengthy terms can be abbreviated if they have a normal acronym, because it’s important to pack as much info into an OPR as possible. You may be asked to give your supervisor “some bullets for your OPR.”
One of the goals for OPRs is to get a stratification, or strat. This is where someone in your chain of command ranks you against your peers. Ideally, you want to be the “#1 of X” in whatever you do. Since there can only be a single #1 in a given category, you may be ranked other ways. Being #2 isn’t bad, and as low as #5 or so would be okay in a category of 80+ people. You might also get ranked as something like “Top 5%,” which is good.
Don’t get too worked up about strats. Your commanders know you need them on your record and they’ll look for opportunities to award them to you. If you deserve one, your boss will find a way to make it happen. If you feel like you really have to lobby hard to get one, then you may not have earned one. The best way to get stratified is to be the best at your job, and a good team player.
Air Force promotion boards are ungainly beasts. They have to review records for hundreds, or even thousands of people, and make life-changing decisions for each one. You have to be an O-6, Colonel, or higher to sit on the board. Those people are eternally busy, and they can only spare a couple days when they’re asked to sit on a board.
Although you might like the board to be able to see your entire service record, the sad truth is that 90% of their time is going to be spent scanning your Promotion Recommendation Form, or PRF. This is a 1-page sheet of paper that looks similar to an OPR. It’s also written in bullet format and it’s only allowed to contain things already documented on a past OPR. (There are ways around that rule, but it’s not especially common.) This is why it’s so important to pack as much as possible into your OPR.
The PRF used to have room for 6-10 bullets. However, the Air Force is trying to condense that down to just 2. The intent is for the vast majority of those bullets to be strats.
These abbreviations are all variations on the theme of Aviation Resource Management. The ARMS system is a database used to record your flight hours and qualifications. It’s very important. Your squadron has an ARM office…the SARM. There is also a group-level office called the HARM.
Although ARMS is a computer database, it’s ancient technology and not capable of much. The HARM office periodically prints out a summary of your flight time and uses a 2-hole punch to file it in a big green folder with your name on it. They have to do this on a regular basis, because the computer system is incapable of doing a long-term backup of your data. That big green folder becomes the only official record of your flight hours.
If that sounds moronic to you in the era of cloud computing, I agree. I believe that it’s critical to keep your own copy of your military flight hours in some form of electronic logbook. If you’re interested, I’m a big fan of MilKEEP, a company that can automatically convert scans of your Air Force paperwork into an electronic logbook with cloud backup. The company was founded by a C-17 pilot and his wife. They’re adding new features all the time, and it’s a fantastic service.
If you don’t want to shell out money for MilKEEP’s services right now, at least read this post I wrote about how to convert your military flight hours to civilian format. (When you see how convoluted it gets, you may want to hire MilKEEP to do it all for you, automatically.)
This should give you the basics for understanding what everyone is talking about when you start interacting with Air Force people for the first time. Don’t worry, they’ll expect you to be clueless at first, but if you can put some of this to use you might just impress someone enough to offer you a job. If I missed a term you think people need explained, or you find yourself hearing one that I didn’t cover, leave us a comment below. We’ll probably do a Part 2 for this post someday.