Air Force Customs and Courtesies

Saluting and standing at attention are among the Air Force's customs

American airwoman outdoors
DanielBendjy/E+/Getty Images

Within the Air Force, there are numerous customs and courtesies that have evolved. These come from both a need for order and an established tradition of respect among military personnel. 

These customs aren’t just basic politeness but are important parts of morale-building and discipline. And military customs and courtesies are designed to help ensure respect for the chain of command.

One of the oldest and most revered traditions across all branches of the U.S. military is showing respect for the American flag. Saluting is an important way for junior military members to show respect for officers. And even things like entering or exiting a vehicle have a proper order when it comes to a group of mixed-rank military members. 

Here are some of the most fundamental courtesies expected of Air Force (and other U.S. military) personnel. 

Showing Respect for the American Flag

All personnel in uniform and outside must face and salute the flag while it is raised and lowered. When the national anthem or the bugle call “To the Colors” are played, all personnel in uniform who aren’t in formation are expected to stand and face the flag and hold a salute until the song is ended. Any vehicles in motion should stop as the music is played, and occupants should sit quietly until the music ends. 

When wearing civilian clothes, military personnel should face the flag and stand at attention with the right hand over the heart.

If indoors during retreat or reveille, there’s no need to stand or salute. However, everyone must stand during the playing of the national anthem, such as before a movie is played in a base theater. There’s no expectation for military personnel to salute a folded or cased flag, or to stand during the national anthem when it is performed on television or the radio. 

Saluting Senior Military Officers 

The salute is a greeting that requires the junior member to acknowledge the senior member first. A salute is also rendered to the flag as a sign of respect. Any airman, noncommissioned officer (NCO) or officer may salute at any time. When saluting, the head and eyes are turned toward the flag or person saluted. When in ranks, a position of attention is maintained unless otherwise directed. 

Outdoor salutes are exchanged between officers or warrant officers and enlisted members of the armed forces whenever they are in uniform. Enlisted members are not required to salute among themselves. This applies both on and off military installations.

The junior member should always begin a salute in time to allow the senior officer to return it. If the superior officer has his hands full or is otherwise unable to return the salute physically, he can nod or acknowledge it verbally. 

These procedures are also followed when greeting an officer of a foreign nation.

When in formation, members do not salute unless given the command to do so. Normally the person in charge salutes on behalf of the whole formation. If a senior officer approaches a group, not in formation, the first person who notices the officer calls the rest of the group to attention. Then, all face the officer and salute. All in the group must remain at attention unless otherwise ordered if the officer addresses the group or a member of the group. Once the conversation has ended, the group salutes the officer. 

Salutes between individuals are not required in public gatherings, such as sporting events or meetings, or when a salute would be inappropriate or impractical. Salutes between military pedestrians such as gate sentries and officers in moving military vehicles are not required. If a passenger in the vehicle is easily identified, such as in a marked staff vehicle, a salute is expected.

Military members in uniform may salute civilians, and must always salute the president of the United States, in her capacity as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Also, if appropriate, it is customary for military members in civilian clothes to exchange salutes upon recognition.

When in a work detail, individual workers do not salute, rather the person in charge salutes for the entire detail. And when indoors, except for formal reporting and some military ceremonies, salutes are not required. 

Some Exceptions to Saluting

If your arms are full, you don't have to salute; simply extend a verbal greeting. Always try to carry items in your left hand if possible so you can salute.

If an officer's arms are full, but yours are not, extend a verbal greeting and salute. Once the officer acknowledges your salute or passes you, drop your salute.

Salutes are not required if either member is in civilian clothing. You may salute if you recognize the officer.

Do not salute empty staff vehicles or ones without an officer bumper plate or flag.

If you and an officer are walking in the same direction, and you overtake the officer from the rear, you may pass the officer from behind without saluting. An appropriate verbal greeting, such as "by your leave, sir," is customary.

In addition to common etiquette such as being on time, refraining from gossip and using "please" and "thank you" whenever possible, there are some additional expectations within the military.

Military members should address civilians with courtesy titles such as "Mr." or "Ms." as a general rule. Always address a superior formally, unless otherwise instructed. 

Courtesies to Other Services

The Air Force, Army, and Navy, Marines and Coast Guard all are part of the military team, so military members should extend the same military courtesies to members of the other services. 

This is equally true of the friendly armed forces of the United Nations. Salute all commissioned officers and pay the same respect to the national anthems and flags of other nations as rendered the American national anthem and flag. While it is not necessary to learn the identifying insignia of the military grades of all nations, you should learn the insignia of the most frequently contacted nations, particularly during an overseas assignment.

When walking, riding or sitting with a senior officer, the junior person should take the position to the senior’s left.

Unless told otherwise, rise and stand at attention when a senior official enters or departs a room. If more than one person is present, the person who first sees the officer calls the group to attention. However, if there is an officer already in the room who is equal to or has a higher rank than the officer entering the room, do not call the room to attention.

Military personnel enter automobiles and small boats in reverse order of rank. Juniors will enter a vehicle first (and take their appropriate seat on the senior’s left). The senior officer will be the last to enter the vehicle and the first to leave it.

Upon entering or leaving transport aircraft, the senior officer enters last and exits first. This procedure only applies to passengers and not to crewmembers of the aircraft.

Addressing Senior Officers by Name

Senior service members frequently address juniors by their first names, but this practice does not give juniors the privilege of addressing seniors in any way other than by proper titles. If airmen are present, senior service members should address junior service members by their titles. 

Service members of the same grade, when among themselves, may address one another by their given names. Junior service members should always be conservative until they can sense what is appropriate. It's always better to err on the side of being too formal rather than too familiar.