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Air Force Museum Foundation

History of the Enlisted

Note: This exhibit is located at the end of the Museum Store.

From the first volunteer to the vast numbers of today, the enlisted component of the U.S. Air Force has embraced numerous changes through the years. Over the decades, the progress of technology resulted in and increased reliance on, and recognition of, the enlisted component of the Air Force team. In addition, some individual enlisted personnel accomplished their duties far above expectation. They provide shining examples for future airmen to follow.

On the eve of World War I, the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps was authorized to recruit 101 airmen. A small number of these men were accepted for flight training while the rest became aircraft mechanics or operated in support roles. These men were all volunteers and many accepted reduction in rank to private in order to join. While there was a small number of enlisted pilots during WWI, none are known to have flown in combat in Europe.

In the interwar period, the Air Corps focused on building up the enlisted force in the 1920s, and then emphasizing quality in the 1930s. Many young men were attracted to this exciting and rapidly developing service. The Air Corps advertised the benefits of technical training with the motto "Earn and Learn." The economic uncertainties of the Great Depression were an additional incentive to join. By 1939, the Air Corps enlisted ranks grew to more than 20,000.

During World War II, many enlisted served as combat aircrew in bomber aircraft. In addition, there also was a relatively small number of sergeant pilots. Enlisted maintenance personnel became more specialized. There were eight broad specialties covering 47 subclassifications, further divided by aircraft type. WWII also effected a change in attitude towards the enlisted contingent's role, with the airmen portrayed as an integral part of the whole team and not just secondary to the officers. 

The late 1940s and 1950s saw wide-ranging changed in the enlisted force. With the introduction of the rank of Airman, the newly independent U.S. Air Force created a new rank structure for the enlisted. It incorporated new policies to improve the lives of airmen, such as a 20-year retirement, pay rates, quarters and subsistence pay, and the Airmen Career Program, which provided the enlisted person a clear occupational path. With military desegregation, opportunities for minority airmen progressively improved. In addition, the Women's Armed Service Integration Act officially confirmed the role of women in the military. In 1960 Grace A. Peterson became the Air Force's first female Chief Master Sergeant.

The 1960s and 1970s saw further specialization among airmen as increasingly complicated aircraft and systems were introduced, such as the SR-71 Blackbird and the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. In addition, lessons learned in the war in Vietnam brought a second round of significant changes to the enlisted component in the 1980s.

One of these changes was to entrust the enlisted force with greater authority to make decisions. This confidence in the airmen was vindicated during the Gulf War in 1990-1991. As Gen. Charles A. Horner related, "Our leaders put people at the lowest level in charge of the Air Force. In Desert Storm the results were spectacular -- people were truly empowered."

The enlisted component of the U.S. Air Force has been through great changes over the past 90 years. Today, the composition of the Air Force airmen reflects the society that it protects, and through increased responsibility and reliance, is an indispensable part of our nation's Air Force.
Click on the following links to learn more about Air Force enlisted heritage.

Distinguished Enlisted
Enlisted Heritage Uniforms

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