Image of the Air Force wings with the museum name underneath

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
FREE Admission & Parking

Enlisted Force: Foundation of Air and Space Power

From its earliest days, the highly-skilled, trained, and talented enlisted force has been the foundation for the daily operations of the Department of the Air Force.

Since 1907, enlisted Airmen have distinguished themselves as a technically minded and highly professional force. Their thirst for advanced skills, coupled with specialized training, makes them an elite group which produces quality results.

Whether repairing the first military aircraft, reporting the weather for D-Day, or flying remotely piloted aircraft, enlisted Airmen have contributed greatly in many career fields. Over time, their responsibilities have increased, and the force has become more diversified in abilities and characteristics.

Much of the success of the enlisted force, and the service as a whole, is owed to its noncommissioned officers. Their daily leadership binds the force together like glue, strengthening those around them through trusted guidance and decisive action.

Today, the Department of the Air Force enlisted force includes both Airmen and Guardians who provide a solid foundation for operations in air, space, and cyberspace.

Enlisted Milestones

1907: Corporal Eddie Ward becomes the first enlisted Airman

1912: Corporal Vernon L. Burge becomes the first enlisted pilot

1941: The first Black enlisted trainees are inducted into the Army Air Forces, later becoming “Tuskegee Airmen”

1947: US Air Force becomes an independent service

1948: Staff Sergeant Esther M. Blake becomes the first female to join the Air Force

1949: Air Force basic training ends racial segregation

1950: The term “Airman” is established for USAF enlisted personnel

1952: USAF enlisted rank structure implemented

1958: USAF establishes E-8 and E-9 ranks

1960: Grace A. Peterson becomes the first female Chief Master Sergeant in the USAF

1967: Paul W. Airey becomes the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

1972: Community College of the Air Force established

1973: Thomas N. Barnes becomes the first African American Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

1973: Elimination of the selective service draft and the introduction of the all-volunteer force

1975: USAF TSgt Leonard Matlovich becomes the first openly homosexual service member

1982: Air Force Space Command is established

2016: All military occupations and positions are opened to women

2019: US Space Force established

2019: SEAC Ramón Colón-López becomes the first USAF Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

2020: JoAnne S. Bass becomes first female Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

2020: The term “Guardian” is established for USSF personnel

2020: Roger A. Towberman becomes the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force

The Modern Enlisted Force

The Department of the Air Force (DAF) enlisted force of the 21st century continues to increase in diversity and education level. All jobs are now open to women, minorities comprise nearly one third of the force, and two-thirds of enlisted personnel have some college education.

Since the creation of the US Space Force in 2019, the DAF enlisted force also includes Guardians. Enlisted Guardians protect US interests in space and cyberspace through tasks like monitoring satellites, repelling cyberattacks, and assisting with rocket launches. Previously, some of these functions were executed by Air Force Space Command which was established in 1982.

USAF Enlisted Force: 60% have some college education, 2% have master’s degrees, 21% or 1 in 5 are women, average age is 28, half are married, 80% of active duty USAF are enlisted, 100% all-volunteer force.

Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard

In addition to active duty, enlisted Airmen also serve in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. Most serve close to home on a part-time basis: one weekend a month and an additional two weeks per year.

The Air Force Reserve Command is a strictly federal component and a major command in the Air Force. Reserve Airmen serve in a wide variety of roles, often assisting active duty units. They may be activated to support natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and combat operations.

Airmen with the Air National Guard stand ready for wartime mobilization and assist during national emergencies. When not mobilized or under federal control, units report to the governor of their state or territory.

Noncommissioned Officers

Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) are the backbone of the Department of the Air Force. The successes and failures of the two services largely correlate with the effectiveness of its NCOs who serve as emerging leaders and technical experts in their fields. Airmen at the NCO level manage and mentor junior enlisted while continuing their own professional development.

First Sergeants

First Sergeants assume responsibility for the quality of life of personnel within their organization. They foster the health, morale, welfare, and overall well-being of Airmen to maintain unit preparation and mission focus. First sergeants often serve as a bridge between officers and enlisted, improving information sharing on both sides.    

Known as the “first shirts” or “shirts,” the first sergeant is a special duty assignment held by a senior NCO, not a rank or permanent role (although this has varied). The origin of the “first shirt” nickname is unclear, though most theories point to early Army days when the first sergeant was often identified by a distinct “shirt.”

Chief Master Sergeants

The most senior enlisted rank in the Air Force is Chief Master Sergeant. They are commonly addressed as “Chief.” Chiefs provide strategic leadership and influence to all levels of the force. They model excellence, professionalism, and pride while managing people and programs to achieve mission success. Command Chiefs serve as the senior enlisted leader in large organizations, supervising the enlisted force and advising commanders and staff.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

Following the examples of the Marine Corps and Army, the Air Force created a senior enlisted leader to oversee the enlisted force in 1967. The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) is the highest enlisted rank that can be achieved in the Air Force.

CMSAF leads the enlisted force, advises the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force on enlisted matters, and represents the Air Force to its sister services, Congress, the American public, and foreign military leaders.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force

Much like their Air Force counterpart, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force (CMSSF) serves as the highest ranking enlisted member of the US Space Force. CMSSF leads the enlisted force and serves as its representative to the American public and to those in all levels of government.

CMSSF advises the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Space Operations on all issues regarding the welfare, readiness, morale, proper utilization, and development of the US Space Force.

Airman’s Creed I am an American Airman. I am a Warrior. I have answered my Nation’s call. I am an American Airman. My mission is to Fly, Fight, and Win. I am faithful to a Proud Heritage, A Tradition of Honor, And a Legacy of Valor. I am an American Airman. Guardian of Freedom and Justice, My Nation’s Sword and Shield, Its Sentry and Avenger. I defend my Country with my Life.I am an American Airman. Wingman, Leader, Warrior. I will never leave an Airman behind, I will never falter, And I will not fail.

World War I Mechanic (1918)

With the outbreak of World War I, the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps was authorized to recruit 101 men. The majority became aircraft mechanics or performed support roles essential to keeping aircrews flying.

World War II Public Affairs Specialist (1944)

Enlisted Women’s Army Corps members filled non-combat positions, freeing up men for combat. They weren’t restricted to administrative work, however. By 1945 enlisted women served in more than two hundred job categories in the Army Air Forces.

Cold War Air Police (1953)

The arrival of nuclear weapons and jet engine technology, combined with Cold War tensions, made security a higher priority in the mid twentieth-century. Enlisted Air Police guarded bases and protected people and equipment. As their duties increased, so did their prestige. 

Southeast Asia War Flight Engineer (1972)

As members of the aircrew, enlisted flight engineers performed a wide variety of tasks which ensured aircraft were mission ready during the Southeast Asia War. They were critical in helping rescue downed aircrews in grave danger.

Persian Gulf War Aerial Gunner (1991)

Enlisted gunners have filled key roles on aircrews since World War II, manning weapons systems to deter enemy aircraft. Nearly fifty years later, they remained vital to the air campaign during Operation Desert Storm.

Global War on Terrorism HALO Parachutist (2019)

Air Force Special Warfare Airmen use advanced techniques to reach dangerous locations. High Altitude, Low Opening (HALO) parachutists jumped from high altitudes to evade enemy detection during the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom.


Click here to return to the Enlisted Force Exhibit