A Brief History

Two decades after the US Air Force became a separate military service, momentum began to grow for a new type of leader—an enlisted Airman who could represent and inspire the enlisted force from the highest levels of the Air Force. During the decade that saw promotion stagnation and confusion following the Korean War, combined with the ever-increasing reality of a lengthy war in Vietnam, enlisted Airmen felt they needed a voice.

As early as March 1964, the Air Force Association’s Enlisted Council recommended the Air Force establish a “Sergeant Major of the Air Force.” The individual would advise the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force and be a representative to whom the enlisted Airmen could “freely express their opinions and recommendations on matters ranging from mission effectiveness to personal problems.”

The proposal was turned down. Air Force leaders felt the position risked undermining the chain of command, but a year later, it became clear that actions from other services and elected leaders on Capitol Hill would force their hand. In 1965 the Army established the Sergeant Major of the Army (the Marine Corps had established the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps in 1957), and the following year Cong. L. Mendel Rivers (D–SC), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced a bill that would mandate each service create a senior enlisted advisor position to “advise the leadership on the morale, welfare, and career opportunities of the enlisted men and women of their respective service.”

Although the necessary votes for the Rivers’s bill failed to materialize, Air Force leaders recognized the momentum and enthusiastic support for the position from the enlisted force. Gen John P. McConnell, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, began to solicit advice and consider his options, and in August 1966 adopted the idea by announcing the “Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force” (CMSAF). The position “ was to be filled by an individual who will become the highest ranking enlisted member of the Air Force.”

“We were at the start of a period when the leadership realized suddenly that they needed better communications”

The Air Force established selection criteria for the position, which whittled potential nominees down to 2,200 chief master sergeants from the more than 5,900 chiefs on active duty. Candidates had to have at least 22 years of activeduty service and two years’ time in grade as a chief master sergeant. They also had to have a high school diploma and represent the highest standards of integrity and performance.

Commanders nominated 21 chiefs, and a selection board narrowed them down to three finalists: CMSgt Conrad Stevens of the Military Airlift Command, CMSgt Jefferson “Red” Marsh from Pacific Air Forces, and CMSgt Paul Airey of the Air Defense Command. In January 1967 Gen. McConnell announced CMSgt Paul Airey would be the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Airey assumed the role on 3 April 1967 during a ceremony in the Secretary of the Air Force’s conference room.

“We were at the start of a period when the leadership realized suddenly that they needed better communications,” Airey said, reflecting on the time years later. “Many people say that’s the reason this job was established: to give enlisted people a route right to the top without going through the various channels, so that they would have somebody up there representing them.”

Although the position was established and Airey was given an office in the Pentagon, the influence and impact of the CMSAF did not arrive overnight. Airey had to establish relations and build influence, often needing to press against the notion that enlisted Airmen should have no bearing on Air Force decisions. In an interview with the Air Force Historical Research Center in 1981, Airey reflected on the lessons he learned in the first few months in the position:

“Being Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is 90 percent common sense and 10 percent knowledge. You have to try and get along with the Air Staff. That’s whom you are going to be working with. You have to try to get along with certain people in order to best represent the force. There are people who will make a patsy out of you, both officer and enlisted. There are people who will use you. There are people, I am sorry to say, who have axes to grind. Or they will ask you for a favor, and you will look into it and find they don’t have a good reason, and because you tell them that, they don’t want to hear that, then you are no good.”

“I think we all have the duty to touch those things that directly impacted the day-to-day lives of the enlisted force”

Airey had the fortitude and patience to calmly build credibility in the position. By the time he passed the baton to Donald L. Harlow, the influence had begun to grow. In The Enlisted Experience, Harlow recalled that full acceptance and influence did not come until years later:

“There was an awful lot of opposition. Even CMSAF Dick Kisling ran into it. It wasn’t until later on that the leadership started to realize that it was a good position. We had no authority; we couldn’t sign anything. When Paul and I were asked to comment on various issues, usually through staff summary sheets, we gave our input. As each one of us got into the position, the job increased in importance and significance. Those who followed served on more committees and got to go over to Congress to testify on various issues. The position became more visible, and I think that was great.”

As the position became more widely accepted and commanders began to realize the importance of an enlisted Airman on the staff, commanders began to hire their own senior enlisted advisors. It began in major commands, then down to the wings and other commands where the position still exists today. The position is called the Command Chief Master Sergeant, a title introduced in 1998 during CMSAF Eric W. Benken’s tenure.

In the 50 years since Airey first stepped in as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, the Chiefs have heavily influenced the direction of the enlisted force. Airey was involved with the first efforts to standardize and centralize enlisted promotions and helped develop the Weighted Airman Promotion System. All the chiefs have pushed for better professional development through enlisted professional military education, establishing the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy and evolving the delivery of professional military education over the years. The chiefs have also addressed social issues, working to build an environment that better supported racial and gender equality among the force, and have had a significant impact on recruitment and retention, especially following the transition to an all-volunteer force. They have advocated for positive changes to quality-of-life initiatives, including pay, housing, fitness, wounded warrior care, education, and more. They have also been through times of adversity, leading the enlisted force through budget cuts, promotion freezes, and force draw downs. Each CMSAF has left his mark and moved the enlisted force forward. Today the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force continue to count on the CMSAF to influence policy changes that better support the enlisted force.

“Being Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is 90 percent common sense and 10 percent knowledge.”

“I think we all have the duty to touch those things that directly impacted the day-to-day lives of the enlisted force,” CMSgt Thomas Barnes said in The Enlisted Experience. He summarized that the Chiefs have a say on many things, from uniform changes to budgetary decisions:

“There were the opportunities to initiate things. There were review activities associated with the budget cycle where the hardware and the people issues occurred. The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force was not excluded. You went in and had a chance, if nothing else to say your piece and understand the process.”

In many ways, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force has truly embodied the communication channel first envisioned when the position was created. Although Airey was adamant not to become the Airmen’s inspector general, he did understand the value of travel and face-to-face communication with enlisted Airmen around the world. Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force have often travelled up to 300 days a year visiting Airmen to hear concerns firsthand and help shape the culture of the enlisted force. They have also taken advantage of communication mediums as technology has evolved. The rise of the Internet and e-mail has allowed direct messages from the CMSAF in a variety of forms. CMSAF James A. Cody communicated with Airmen through social media channels and originated a CHIEFchat web-video series to engage with Airmen and address questions on enlisted programs.

Although today’s challenges differ from those present when the position first emerged in the 1960s, the top enlisted leader’s primary role—supporting and shaping the enlisted force by advising the secretary of the Air Force and chief of staff of the Air Force—has not changed. Aviation technology has continued to modernize in a digital age. Career specialties have evolved to encompass the newer realms of space and cyberspace. Technology and structure have changed, but Airmen, the people who voluntarily serve their nation in the US Air Force, continue to be the Air Force’s most important asset. The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force continues to represent them all and confidently takes on the challenge to lead them into the future.