Uniforms of the United States Air Force

The uniforms of the United States Air Force are the standardized military uniforms worn by airmen of the United States Air Force to distinguish themselves from the other services.

Air Force uniform variations through the years


Early designsEdit

Army uniform used by U.S. Air Force after 1947, with airman rank insignia attached to the uniform.
First distinctive blue service uniforms for the U.S. Air Force in early 1950s

When the U.S. Air Force first became an independent service in 1947 airmen continued to wear U.S. Army uniforms and insignia. The trade badges were similar to the Army as well, except the Air Force adopted nickel-plated versions in the place of the Army's bronze or silver metal badges and eventually developed their own designs. The Air Force even adopted redesigned enlisted and non-commissioned insignia in 1948 to further distinguish themselves. The major difference was that it was now worn with polished black leather instead of russet leather.[1] The old uniform items were allowed to be worn until they wore out due to the extensive stocks the US Air Force had.

The first Air Force-specific blue dress uniform, introduced in 1949, was in Shade 1683, also dubbed "Uxbridge Blue" after the former Bachman-Uxbridge Worsted Company.[2][3] It was cut similarly to Army service dress uniforms, with a four button front and four coat pockets. An Eisenhower jacket, also inherited from the Army Air Forces but in Shade 1683, was an optional uniform item; it was phased out by 1965. In the early 1960s, the blue uniform transitioned to a new and slightly updated version known as Shade 1084. The shades were updated again in the 1970s, with the coat and trousers becoming Shade 1549, while the shirt is Shade 1550.

In 1966,[4] a long sleeve winter blue shirt with epaulets was introduced. Epaulets were unadorned, with officers wearing small rank insignia on the collar and enlisted personnel sewn-on cloth insignia on the sleeves. These would be phased out in the early 1980s.

Tan summer service dress uniforms for officers, nicknamed "silver-tans" for the sheen of Shade 193, saw into use into the early 1960s. Tan short-sleeve cotton shirts and trousers for males, known as 1505s after their shade, continued in use until the early 1970s, while females wore light-blue combinations. In the early 1970s, a version of the blue service uniform with a short-sleeve shirt replaced these, as the blue uniforms became the single form of service dress.

A short-lived "ceremonial blue" uniform and "ceremonial white" uniform was also implemented in the mid-1980s and discontinued by 1 August 1994 and 1 March 1993 respectively.[5] Mandatory for field grade officers and above, the blue version was identical to the blue service uniform with the exception of silver metallic sleeve braid replacing the dark blue mohair sleeve braid and hard "shoulder board" insignia from the officer's mess dress uniform worn in lieu of large metal rank insignia. The white uniform was identical in cut and style to the blue version and also incorporated the metallic sleeve braid and shoulder board rank insignia.

Merrill McPeak wearing the short-lived uniform redesign he introduced as Air Force Chief of Staff, 1993

In 1993, then Air Force Chief of Staff, Merrill McPeak introduced a new three-button service coat which featured no epaulets and silver sleeve braid loops on the lower sleeves denoting officer rank (see also: United States Air Force officer rank insignia). This style of rank insignia for officers, while used by British Royal Air Force officers and other air forces inspired by their uniforms, was unpopular and many senior Air Force generals commented that the uniforms of the Air Force now looked identical to those of commercial airline pilots. Epaulettes were put back on the coat for metal officer rank insignia and blue braiding returned to the bottom of the sleeves, in the style of the previous four-button, four-pocket coat worn prior to the adoption of the three-button coat. As of 2020, this remains the coat used as part of the service dress blue uniform.

Gen. C. Robert Kehler models a test version of the proposed Air Force service dress

On 18 May 2006 the Department of the Air Force unveiled two prototypes of new service dress uniforms, one resembling the stand-collar uniform worn by U.S. Army Air Corps officers prior to 1935, called the "Billy Mitchell heritage coat," and another, resembling the U.S. Army Air Forces' Uniform of World War II and named the "Hap Arnold heritage coat".[6][7] In 2007, Air Force officials announced they had settled on the "Hap Arnold" look, with a belted suit coat.[8] However, in 2009, General Norton Schwartz, the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force, directed that "no further effort be made on the [Hap Arnold] Heritage Coat" so that the focus would remain on near-term uniform needs.[9] While the evaluation results of the heritage coat would be made available to the Air Force's leaders should they decide to implement the uniform change, the uniform overhaul is currently on hold indefinitely.

Combat uniformEdit

USAF airman wearing the Army Combat Uniform in the MultiCam camouflage pattern during the mid-2010s

U.S. Air Force combat uniforms have continuously evolved since the Air Force became an independent service in 1947. Until the late 2000s, USAF combat uniforms were the same as those of the U.S. Army, with the exception of unique USAF insignia. The fatigue uniform differed from its Army counterpart with white lettering on an ultramarine blue background for "U.S. AIR FORCE" and last name tapes above the pockets, white-collar rank insignia on a blue background for officers (with the exception of yellow thread replicating gold for rank insignia for 2nd Lieutenants and Majors) and blue and white sleeve rank insignia for enlisted, a full color patch of the major command (i.e., SAC, TAC, MAC, ATC, etc.) worn on the right pocket, and a blue belt.

As the Army transitioned to black and brown subdued insignia on a green background on their combat uniforms in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Air Force effected a similar transition to subdued insignia in the 1980s, transitioning to blue or brown on a green background and with subdued major command patches also employing subdued reds and black.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as the Army increasingly transitioned to the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) in woodland camouflage, the Air Force also followed suit, retaining the USAF versions of the subdued cloth insignia of the previous utility uniform. As the Army began using the first version of the Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) at the time of the first Gulf War in 1990, so did the Air Force, followed by its replacement the second iteration of the DCU worn by all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces from the mid-1990s through 2011. In the case of the Air Force, subdued brown insignia on a tan background was worn on the DCU, with the exception of black officer rank insignia for 1st Lieutenants and Lieutenant Colonels.

U.S. Air Force airmen in the Airman Battle Uniform

The Airman Battle Uniform (ABU) replaced BDU as a general fatigue uniform, the latter having been discontinued after 31 October 2011.[10][11] The ABU was issued to Airmen deploying as part of Air Expeditionary Force 7 and Air Expeditionary Force 8 (AEF 7 / AEF 8) in Spring 2007. In October 2007, ABUs were issued to enlisted Basic Trainees at the Basic Military Training School (BMTS) at Lackland AFB, Texas, and became available for purchase at AAFES outlets by the rest of the Air Force in June 2008.[12]

Due to its lack of flame resistance, the ABU is no longer considered an appropriate uniform for combat duty. Beginning in August 2010, the Air Force began to issue Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern uniforms for Air Force personnel deploying in support of that operation.[13][14]

Current uniformsEdit

Standard uniformsEdit

Service dressEdit

Current Service Dress uniforms worn by senior general officers and the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

The current U.S. Air Force Service Dress Uniform, which was initially adopted in 1994 and made mandatory on 1 October 1999, consists of a three-button coat with silver-colored buttons featuring a design known as "Hap Arnold wings", matching trousers, and either a service cap or flight cap, all in Shade 1620, also known as "Air Force Blue". This is worn with a light blue shirt (Shade 1550) and a herringbone patterned necktie (Shade 1620). Silver mirror-finish "U.S." pins are worn on the lapels. Officers' coats feature epaulets on the shoulders, while enlisted airmen have plain shoulders.

Enlisted airmen wear cloth rank insignia on both sleeves of the jacket and shirt, while officers wear metal rank insignia pinned onto the epaulets of the coat, and Air Force Blue slide-on loops ("soft rank" shoulder insignia) on the epaulets of the shirt. Officers also wear a band of dark blue cloth sleeve braid loops 3 inches from the cuffs of the sleeves of the coat. Braid is worn in a 1/2-inch width for officers in the rank of colonel and below and in a 1-inch width for general officers.

The current USAF service dress uniform continues to include the three-button blue coat. However, as a matter of practicality for daily duty, particularly in warm weather climates, USAF personnel will typically wear the short-sleeve or long-sleeve Shade 1550 light blue shirt (for men) or short-sleeve or long-sleeve light blue blouse (for women) as an outer garment, with or without a tie or tie tab, with applicable rank insignia, speciality badges and a blue plastic name tag (ribbons are optional). A variety of alternate outer garments are also authorized for this uniform combination such as blue pullover sweater, blue cardigan sweater, lightweight blue jacket, or brown leather A-2 flight jacket (A-2 flight jacket wear is limited to aeronautically rated officers, enlisted aircrew, and officer and enlisted missile operations personnel only).[15]

Women's service dress uniforms are similar in color and style to the men's service dress uniforms, but can also include additional articles including a skirt, stockings, and women's style flight cap. A maternity uniform is also authorized.

Mess dressEdit

Mess dress for general officers (left) and officers (right)

The Mess dress uniform is worn to formal or semi-formal occasions such as Dinings-in, Dinings-out, the annual Air Force Ball, weddings and other formal functions where civilian "black tie" would be prescribed. Until the early 1980s, this uniform differed from the current version, previously consisting of separate mess jackets, a white mess jacket worn in spring and summer and a black mess jacket worn in fall and winter, combined with black trousers and ties for males and an options of a black cocktail length or black evening-length skirt for females. Black cummerbunds for males and females and white and black service hats for males were also prescribed, although wear of these hats was often optional. The current mess dress uniform in use since the early/mid-1980s consists of a dark blue mess jacket and mess dress trousers for males and a similar color evening-length skirt for females. As of August 2020, females have the option to wear mess dress trousers.[16] The jacket features ornate silver buttons, and is worn with the service member's awarded medals in miniature size, wings in miniature size, or other specialty insignia over the left breast, command insignia over the right breast for colonels and below (if applicable), satin air force blue bow-tie for males or tab for females, and a satin air force blue cummerbund. Cufflinks are to be either shined or flat round silver or have the air force star and wing emblem, dark blue suspenders may also be worn, but remain hidden while the jacket is on. Commissioned officers, USAFA and AFROTC cadets, and OTS officer trainees wear hard shoulder epaulets (i.e., shoulder boards) similar to those worn by commissioned officers of the U.S. Navy. Cadets and officer trainees wear insignia on their shoulder boards as applicable to their pre-commissioning rank position in their respective officer accession programs. Commissioned officer shoulder boards for colonels and below feature an officer's rank insignia in raised metallic thread, bordered by two silver vertical metallic stripes similar to sleeve braid. General officers wear shoulder boards covered nearly the entire length and width in a silver metallic braid, with silver stars in a raised metallic thread in number appropriate to their rank. Enlisted personnel typically wear the same large rank insignia that they would wear on their service dress coats. Officers also wear a single silver metallic sleeve braid on the lower sleeves of the Mess Dress coat, with sleeve braid coming in two widths, in a 1/2 inch width for colonel and below, and in a 3/4 inch width for Brigadier General and above. Enlisted personnel normally wear no sleeve braid. No hat or nametag is worn with the Air Force Mess Dress Uniform.[15]

Combat uniformsEdit

On 14 May 2018, the U.S. Air Force announced that all airmen will transition to the Army Combat Uniform in Operation Camouflage Pattern (OCP), which the Air Force refers to by the latter term.[17] All airmen will be allowed to wear OCPs beginning on 1 October 2018, and the wear out date for the ABU is 1 April 2021.[18]

Pilots, navigators/combat systems officers, aircrews, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) crews, and missile crews continue to wear olive green or desert tan one-piece flight suits, or the two-piece OCP pattern flight suit. All three are made of Nomex for fire protection when performing or in direct support of flying or missile duties, or when otherwise prescribed. The one piece flight suits are required for any aircrew position in which ejection seats are used. Aircrew not in an ejection seat and ground based crews, like RPA and missile crews, may wear either the two or one piece flight suits.

The black leather boots and sage or green suede boots previously worn were discontinued with the phase out of the BDU and ABU respectively. All personnel now wear the coyote brown suede boots with all combat uniforms authorized.

Physical Training UniformEdit

Airmen wearing the AFPTU

The Air Force Physical Training Uniform (AFPTU), first released on 1 October 2006 consists of shorts, short-sleeve and long-sleeve T-shirts, jackets, and pants. The shorts are AF blue with silver reflective stripes on the legs, a key pocket attached to the inner liner and an ID pocket on the outside of the lower right leg. The T-shirts are light grey with moisture-wicking fabric with reflective Air Force logos on the upper left portion of the chest and across the back. The jacket is blue with white piping and a reflective inverted chevron across the chest and back. The pants are blue with silver reflective stripes on the lower legs. At one point, the jacket and pants were redesigned with a lighter, quieter material that didn't make noise with movement.[19] A line of commercially manufactured running shorts is also authorized for wear.

Distinctive uniformsEdit

U.S. Air Force uniform regulations authorize personnel assigned to public duties, and some other, units to wear "distinctive uniforms," a similar concept to the "special ceremonial units" identified in U.S. Army uniform regulations.

Band uniformsEdit

Chief Master Sgt. Edward J. Teleky in the uniform of USAF Band Drum-Major

Personnel assigned to the United States Air Force Band, the United States Air Force Academy Band, and regional bands of the U.S. Air Force wear the ceremonial band tunic: a blue blouse with a choker-style, instead of open, collar, and silver-braided epaulettes. The uniform may be worn with either white or black gloves, at the local commander's discretion. Nametags are not worn with the ceremonial band tunic. As with other United States military bands, drum-majors may replace the blue peaked hat with a bearskin helmet, and add a baldric with campaign ribbons.

Command uniformsEdit

Gen. Norton Schwartz, Gen. Mark Welsh III and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Roy wearing command ceremonial uniforms in 2012

The Air Force Chief of Staff and the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force are authorized to wear a special ceremonial uniform consisting of a choker-style blouse with silver-braided epaulettes. Blouses for the command ceremonial uniforms are similar to the ceremonial band tunic, however, they have different collars and add a silver-braided belt. Each uniform costs $700 with the wearer required to personally pay for purchase.[20]

Equestrian uniformEdit

Maj. Laurie Lanpher in Air Force equestrian uniform

The U.S. Air Force "Equestrian Competition Service Dress Configuration" is a special uniform authorized for wear during formal dressage events sponsored by the United States Equestrian Federation. The equestrian uniform is similar to service dress, but features white riding breeches in lieu of blue trousers. Black gloves, a black helmet, and black riding boots with silver spurs are also worn.

Honor guardsEdit

U.S. Air Force SNCO in honor guard uniform with ascot

The U.S. Air Force Drill Team, a special demonstration performance unit, as well as base honor guards, and the USAF marching unit, wear the distinctive honor guard uniform. Modeled on the service uniform, the honor guard uniform adds a silver-braided belt, silver aiguillette, white cotton gloves, and white ascot. Large medals are worn in lieu of ribbons. "Ceremonial headgear" consists of a blue peaked hat with polished black visor.

Informal uniformEdit

Bandsmen, recruiters, chaplains, and fitness center staff are permitted to wear the Air Force "informal uniform" while on duty. This civilian business casual–style dress consists of a blue Air Force–logo polo shirt, khaki trousers, and solid black athletic shoes.

Cadet uniformsEdit

U.S. Air Force Academy cadets wearing parade dress uniforms

Prospective commissioned officers in a pre-commissioning status, for example, U.S. Air Force Academy cadets wear slide-on cadet or officer trainee "soft rank" insignia on their shirts and hard "shoulder boards" (similar to commissioned officer mess dress shoulder epaulette insignia) on their service dress coats, again with cadet or officer trainee rank insignia. College and university AFROTC cadets and OTS officer trainees will also wear the soft ranks on their shirts, but will also wear on the service coat. The hard ranks are only worn on the Mess Dress uniform for ROTC or OTS cadets. The typical headgear for all is a flight cap with medium density silver metallic thread piping and the prop & wings insignia for cadets who successfully complete recognition (USAFA), Field Training (ROTC), or the first half of OTS in place of the traditional officer insignia.

Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy are also authorized a unique, institutionally-authorized parade dress uniform consisting of blue-grey shell jackets worn with a gold waist sash, white trousers, and white peaked hats. The cadet parade uniform was designed by Hollywood film director Cecil B. DeMille, who received the Secretary of Defense Exceptional Civilian Service Award for his work on the academy's uniforms.[21]

The cadet parade dress uniform was modified for the graduation of the 2020 class, and 2021 class. Space Force cadets of the class of 2020 and class of 2021 wore a platinum sash instead of the gold sash during their graduations.[22]

High school Air Force Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadets wear the Air Force enlisted service dress uniform with an Air Force Junior ROTC patch and unit patch sewn onto the left and right sleeves respectively of the coat and shirt. Cadet officers and enlisted cadets both wear pin-on metal ranks on the lapels of their coats. Cadet officers wear slide-on soft ranks on the epaulets of their shirts while enlisted cadets wear pin-on metal ranks on the collar of their shirts. All Junior ROTC cadets wear the same flight caps as Air Force enlisted personnel with no thread piping, and cadet officers wear an officer version of the AFJROTC insignia on their flight caps to distinguish themselves from enlisted cadets. Service caps are currently optional to wear for all cadets. Cadets on JROTC teams like colour guard, and drill team, could be authorized by their instructors to wear distinctive team berets. Cadets in leadership positions, and on JROTC teams, could also be authorized by their instructors to wear aiguillettes. [23]

Special uniform situationsEdit

Campaign hatsEdit

As with the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps, drill instructors in the U.S. Air Force—known as Military Training Instructors—are authorized to wear a campaign hat. The Air Force campaign hat is navy blue and features the Great Seal of the United States within a silver ring.

Highland dressEdit

In 1950, US Air Force (USAF) General S. D. "Rosie" Grubbs began organizing an Air Force Pipe Band, as part of the USAF Drum and Bugle Corps. The United States Air Force Pipe Band was organized as an independent band in 1960 under Colonel George Howard. Standardized wear of Highland dress, including sporran and Mitchell Tartan kilt, in honor of General William "Billy" Mitchell, was authorized by General Curtis LeMay.[24] The pipe band was disbanded in early 1970, but wear of the official Active Duty Mitchell tartan (also known as the Hunter, Galbraith, Russell, or Milwaukee County) has been used since by U.S. Air Force Heritage Band Celtic Ensembles.[25][26][27][28]

In 1961 the US Air Force Reserve (USAFR) organized a pipe band, due in part to the popularity of the USAF Pipe Band. The modern U.S. Air Force Reserve tartan was authorized and approved in 2001,[29] however, the previously used "Lady Jane" tartan was adopted from the Strathmore Woollen Company in 1987.[30] The Band of the Air Force Reserve Pipe Band, wears highland dress, including kilt and sporran. The band of the United States Air Force Reserve had one of the last U.S. military service pipe bands and closed down in 2013 due to sequestration. One piper is assigned to the United States Air Force Band in DC and a few other pipers still perform at official ceremonies across the Air Force.[26]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The US Army slang term "Strack" meant to have a smart appearance. It was a holdover from the Army Air Force's postwar STrategic Air Command (1946-1947) whose personnel were required to have a well-pressed uniform and highly polished boots.
  2. ^ "Getting the Blues, by Tech. Sgt. Pat McKenna". Air Force Link. Archived from the original on 2 February 2007. Retrieved 24 September 2007.
  3. ^ "walking tours-Uxbridge". Blackstone Daily. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 23 September 2007.
  4. ^ Commanders Digest. 2. US Government Printing Office. 1966. p. 4.
  5. ^ Air Force Personnel Center. "PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE PHASEOUT DATES FOR UNIFORM ITEMS Archived 22 February 2013 at the Wayback Machine"
  6. ^ Whatever Happened to the Plain Blue Suit? Archived 16 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine By Bruce D. Callander, Air Force Magazine Online; Journal of the Air Force Association, July 2006, accessed 11 November 2007.
  7. ^ Air Force News. New service dress prototypes pique interest. Retrieved 18 May 2006.
  8. ^ New service coat to better represent Airmen set for testing, by Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski, Air Force Link (official USAF website), 19 July 2007, accessed 11 November 2007.
  9. ^ New uniforms: Comfortable, functional are goals, by Col. Steve Gray, Air Force Link, 15 May 2009, accessed 24 August 2009.
  10. ^ Air Force Link, (2006). Airman Battle Uniform finalized, ready for production. Retrieved 17 March 2006.
  11. ^ Memo from HQ AFPC Sep
  12. ^ Air Force Link, (2006).Battle Uniform available to deploying Airmen this spring. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  13. ^ Air Force Link (2010). [1]. Retrieved 10 Jun 11.
  14. ^ Military Times (2010). "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 13 November 2011. Retrieved 10 June 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link). Retrieved 10 Jun 11.
  15. ^ a b "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 October 2012. Retrieved 25 January 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ "Air Force women can now shed floor-length skirt for pants in formal 'mess dress' uniform". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 5 August 2020.
  17. ^ United States Department of the Air Force (15 April 2019). "Air Force Instruction 36-2903" (PDF). Air Force E-Publishing. pp. 10–11–12–13–14. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
  18. ^ Cox, Matthew (14 May 2018). "Air Force transitions to a single combat uniform". AF.mil. Archived from the original on 14 May 2018. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  19. ^ Air Force Times. [2]. Accessed 10 Jun 11.
  20. ^ "Formal unis for top 2 leaders bring controversy". Air Force Times. Retrieved 1 January 2014.
  21. ^ Nauman, Robert (2004). On the Wings of Modernism: The United States Air Force Academy. University of Illinois Press.
  22. ^ Golightly, Chase. "Select group of AFA graduates assigned to work with US Space Force". KRDO.com. KRDO. Retrieved 19 April 2020. Those headed to Space Force will be wearing platinum and silver sashes instead of gold for Air Force.
  23. ^ "Air Force Junior ROTC Cadet Handbook" (PDF). cisd.org. Retrieved 6 May 2021.
  24. ^ "Musicians produce one-of-a-kind sound". Archived from the original on 5 May 2013. Retrieved 15 November 2015.
  25. ^ "Air Force Celtic Band Takes Wing in Philadelphia - irishphiladelphia.com". irishphiladelphia.com. Archived from the original on 15 July 2016. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  26. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 November 2015. Retrieved 15 November 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  27. ^ "Tartan Display - Scottish Tartans Authority". tartansauthority.com. Archived from the original on 17 November 2015. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  28. ^ "Tartan Display - Scottish Tartans Authority". tartansauthority.com. Archived from the original on 28 September 2017. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  29. ^ "Tartan Display - Scottish Tartans Authority". tartansauthority.com. Archived from the original on 28 September 2017. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  30. ^ "Tartan Display - Scottish Tartans Authority". tartansauthority.com. Archived from the original on 29 September 2017. Retrieved 2 May 2018.

External linksEdit