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Customs, Courtesies, Traditions, Symbols and Lingo

You have joined the Air Force family, which is rich in tradition. It instills pride in its members because of the history, mission, capabilities, and the respect it has earned in the service of the United States. A reflection of that pride is visible in the customs, courtesies, and traditions the Air Force and all Department of Defense entities hold. Military customs and courtesies are proven traditions that explain what should and should not be done in many situations. They are acts of respect and courtesy when dealing with other people and have evolved as a result of the need for order as well as the mutual respect and sense of fraternity that exists among military personnel. Military customs and courtesies go beyond basic politeness; they play an extremely important role in building morale, esprit de corps, discipline, and mission effectiveness. Customs and courtesies ensure proper respect for the military members and build the foundation for self-discipline. Customs and courtesies are outlined in four sections: Symbols, Professional Behavior, Drill and Ceremony, and Honor Guard. Not all-inclusive, this chapter highlights many of the customs and courtesies that make the Air Force and its people special.


Protocol is the set of rules prescribing good manners in official life and in ceremonies involving governments/nations and their representatives. Protocol is an internationally recognized system of courtesy and respect. Protocol for the military and government agencies is a code of traditional precedence, courtesy, and etiquette in matters of military, diplomatic, official, and celebratory ceremonies. Military protocol encompasses the knowledge, accumulation, and application of established service customs. In modern practice, protocol combines the traditional codes of conduct with contemporary etiquette and courtesy. The goal is to avoid disputes, insults, embarrassment, and distractions by following a set of objective and generally accepted criteria. As times change, so do the manners of the people; protocol must keep pace with developing official life. Though only a guide, the following sections will help you avoid protocol pitfalls.


Our National Flag​

The universal custom is to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness. All flags should be illuminated when displayed with the flag of the United States. Air Force installations are authorized to fly one installation flag from reveille to retreat, normally on a flagstaff placed in front of the installation headquarters.

Reveille and Retreat​

The daily ceremony of reveille and retreat constitutes a dignified homage to the American flag at the beginning of the day, when it is raised, and at the end of the day, when it is lowered. Installation commanders direct the time of sounding reveille and retreat. During reveille, the flag is hoisted at the first note. During retreat, field music will play “To the Colors,” and the flag will be lowered. The lowering of the flag is regulated and timed to coincide with the flag being completely lowered on the last note.

You should become familiar with your installation’s policy regarding the observance of reveille and retreat. Normally, if walking on the installation during these ceremonies, a person is required to stop, face the flag, or if the flag is not in view, face the direction of the music and stand at attention until the ceremony is complete. If in a vehicle, stop the vehicle, and sit at attention until the ceremony is over.

When the flag is passing in a parade or in review on a military installations, all persons present, except those in uniform, face the flag, and stand at attention with the right hand over the heart. Those present in uniform render the appropriate military salute. Those not in uniform remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand over the heart. Military retirees, veterans, and military members not in uniform are authorized to render a hand salute during the hoisting, lowering, or passing of the flag.


Listen to Reveille

Listen to Retreat

Our National Anthem​

During any rendition of the National Anthem when the flag is displayed, you should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over your heart until the last note is played. Those not in uniform remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. When the flag is not displayed, those present face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2009 authorizes military retirees, veterans, and military members not in uniform to render a hand salute at the playing of the National Anthem.

Constitution and Citizenship Day​

While July 4th celebrates the founding of our nation, September 17th, the date in 1787 on which the delegates of the Philadelphia Convention completed and signed the United States Constitution, celebrates the founding of our government. The ideas on which America was founded, commitments to the rule of law, limited government, and the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice, are embodied in the Constitution. Constitution Day is intended to celebrate not only the birthday of our government, but the ideas that make us Americans. Citizenship Day provides an opportunity to honor those people who have become U.S. citizens. In addition, it is an important reminder of the rights and responsibilities associated with U.S. citizenship. Citizenship Day has been celebrated in some form since 1940. Section 111 of Public Law 108-447 (36 USC Section 106) designates 17 September of each year as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day to commemorate the United States Constitution.

Armed Forces Day​

President Truman led the effort to establish a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank our military members for their patriotic service in support of our country. Armed Forces Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in May.

Air Force Birthday​

In 1947, the U.S. Air Force gained its independence. The official Air Force Birthday is recognized as September 18, 1947, which is the date of the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. This established the United States Air Force as a separate branch of military service. Annually the AF birthday is celebrated on 18 September. World War II had been over for two years, and the Korean War lay three years ahead when the Air Force ended a 40-year association with the U.S. Army to become a separate service. The U.S. Air Force thus entered a new era in which airpower became firmly established as a major element of the nation’s defense and one of its chief hopes for deterring war. The Department of the Air Force was created when President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947. Lawmakers explained why they felt the U.S. needed to evolve the Army Air Corps into an independent branch in a Declaration of Policy at the beginning of the National Security Act of 1947: To provide a comprehensive program for the future security of the United States; to provide three military departments: the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force; to provide for their coordination and unified direction under civilian control and to provide for the effective strategic direction and operation of the armed forces under unified control. The 1947 law created the civilian positions of Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Air Force, to be filled by presidential appointment. The functions assigned to the Commanding General, Army Air Forces, were to be transferred to the Department of the Air Force. The act provided for the orderly transfer of these functions as well as the property, personnel, and records over a two-year period.

Change of Command​

The change of command ceremony is a clear, legal, and symbolic passing of authority and responsibility from one commander to the next. The official orders are read while the unit guidon (or colors) is passed from the outgoing commander to the incoming commander. The senior non-commissioned officer (SNCO) also participates in the passing of the colors. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the new commander normally goes to the reception area while the outgoing commander usually does not attend the reception.


“Taps” concludes many military funerals conducted with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as hundreds of others around the United States. The tune is also sounded at many memorial services in Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater and at grave sites throughout the cemetery. It became a standard component to U.S. military funerals in 1891. “Taps” is sounded during each of the 2,500 military wreath ceremonies conducted at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every year, including the ones held on Memorial Day. The ceremonies are viewed by many people, including veterans, school groups, and foreign officials. “Taps” also is sounded nightly in military installations at non-deployed locations to indicate that it is “lights out.”


Listen to Taps

Hail and Farewell​

A Hail and Farewell is a traditional military event whereby those coming to and departing from an organization are celebrated. This may coincide with a change in command, be scheduled on an annual basis, or be prompted by any momentous organizational change. It is a time to honor those who have departed the unit and thank them for their service. At the same time, it is a welcome to those who are joining and introduces them to the special history and traditions of their new organization. This celebration builds organizational camaraderie and esprit de corps. It supports a sense of continuity through change.

Department of the Air Force Seal​

The official Air Force colors of ultramarine blue and Air Force yellow are reflected in the Air Force Seal; the circular background is ultramarine blue, and the trim is Air Force yellow. The 13 white stars represent the original 13 colonies. The Air Force yellow numerals under the shield stand for 1947, the year the Department of the Air Force was established. The band encircling the whole design is white edged in Air Force yellow with black lettering reading “Department of the Air Force” on the top and “U.S. of America” on the bottom. Centered on the circular background is the Air Force Coat of Arms, consisting of the crest and shield.

The crest consists of the eagle, wreath, and cloud form. The American bald eagle symbolizes the U.S. air power and appears in natural colors. The wreath under the eagle is made up of six alternate folds of metal (white, representing silver) and light blue. This repeats the metal and color used in the shield. The white clouds behind the eagle denote the start of a new sky. The shield, directly below the eagle and wreath, is divided horizontally into two parts by a nebular line representing clouds. The top part bears an Air Force yellow thunderbolt with flames in natural color that shows striking power through the use of aerospace. The thunderbolt consists of an Air Force yellow vertical twist with three natural color flames on each end crossing a pair of horizontal wings with eight lightning bolts. The background of the top part is light blue representing the sky. The lower part is white representing metal (silver).

Air Force Symbol​

The symbol has two main parts. In the upper half, the stylized wings represent the stripes of our strength—our enlisted men and women. The wings are drawn with great angularity to emphasize our swiftness and power, and they are divided into six sections which represent our distinctive capabilities—air and space superiority, global attack, rapid global mobility, precision engagement, information superiority, and agile combat support. In the lower half are a sphere, a star, and three diamonds. The sphere within the star represents the globe. Moreover, the symbol reminds us of our obligation to secure our nation’s freedom with global vigilance, reach, and power. The globe also reminds us of our challenge as an expeditionary force to respond rapidly to crises and to provide decisive air and space power worldwide. The area surrounding the sphere takes the shape of a star. The star has many meanings. The five points represent the components of our one force and family—our Regular Air Force, civilians, Guard, Reserve, and retirees. The star symbolizes space as the high ground of our nation’s air and space force. The rallying symbol in all our wars, the star also represents our officer corp central to our combat leadership.

The star is framed with three diamonds that represent our core values—integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. The elements come together to form one symbol that presents two powerful images—at once an eagle, the emblem of our nation; and a medal, representing valor in service to our nation.



Pay GradeTitleInsignia
E2Airman (Amn)e2
E3Airman First Class (A1C)e3
E4Senior Airman (SrA)e4
E5Staff Sergeant (SSgt)e5
E6Technical Sergeant (TSgt)e6
E7Master Sergeant (MSgt)e7
E8Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt)e8
E9Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt)e9
E9Command Chief Master Sergeant (CCMSgt)e9
E9Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF)e9
E9Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman (SEAC)e9

Commissioned Officer​

Pay GradeTitleInsignia
O1Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt)o1
O2First Lieutenant (1st Lt)o2
O3Captain (Capt)o3
O4Major (Maj)o4
O5Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col)o5
O6Colonel (Col)o6
O7Brigadier General (Brig Gen)o7
O8Major General (Maj Gen)o8
O9Lieutenant General (Lt Gen)o9
O10General (Gen)o10
SGGeneral of the Air Force (GAF)SG

Civilian Rank Equivalents​

GS1Airman Basic
GS3Airman First Class
GS4Senior Airman
GS5Staff Sergeant
Technical Sergeant
GS6Master Sergeant
Senior Master Sergeant
Chief Master Sergeant
Command Chief Master Sergeant
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force
GS7Second Lieutenant
GS8First Lieutenant
GS13Lieutenant Colonel
SES Tier 1Brigadier General
SES Tier 2Major General
SES Tier 3Lieutenant General