Commentary by Lt. Col. Marty Easter
21st Space Operations Squadron Det 3 commander
As a long-time member of the Air Force space community, I’m a little wary of any traditions that carry a strong aviation flavor. But after a few years away from Air Force Space Command bases, there is one pilot tradition I’ve seen that continues to amuse me “Mustache March.” I suspect some of you have never heard of Mustache March, but possibly many of you reading this are already familiar with the tradition. It is also possible that a few of you are already on your way to an impressive mustache of your own. Whatever group you may fall into, Mustache March has some lessons for us all.
As the youngest of the nation’s military services, the Air Force inherited many of its customs, courtesies and traditions from the Army. However, Mustache March is uniquely an Air Force creation. The concept is to grow a mustache during the month of March. With enough people, it can even become a competition. Most attribute the origins of the tradition to Robin Olds who retired as a brigadier general from the Air Force. Olds entered the Army Air Corp late in WWII, scoring his first kill in August 1944. By the end of the war, at the age of 22, Olds had a total of 13 aerial victories, had been promoted to major and was a squadron commander. But what Olds is best known for is his time as a wing commander in Vietnam. It was during this time that he grew the waxed handlebar mustache which spawned today’s Mustache March.
At the time Airmen were not allowed to grow any type of mustache. Olds wore it as a way to express his individuality. In the Air Force we do many things to be the same: we wear a uniform, receive similar training and share a common lingo of acronyms and expressions. We do these things because they build a team and without teamwork our mission will suffer and fail, but who we are as individuals should also strengthen the team. Not every member of a band plays the same notes or the same instruments, but when you put them together the right way the results are amazing.
The ability to foster independent thought within the framework of a team is the key to innovation. While Olds’ mustache was an expression of his individuality, he used it to strengthen his entire team. The element of personal flair combined with a strong mission focus and aggressive approach earned him historical recognition as the most effective wing commander of the Vietnam War. Olds led “Operation Bolo” which effectively lured enemy MiGs into an ambush by making them think they were attacking bombers, not F-4 Phantoms looking for an air-to air fight. Olds and his team found an innovative way to gain an advantage over the enemy while complying with the stringent rules of engagement. Our ability to innovate has always been an asset to the Air Force and nation, but as we move toward a smaller Air Force innovation becomes even more critical.
There is no wrong time to rethink how we approach problems. There is also no wrong scale. From strategic doctrine to better methods to counting nails in supply, innovation is a force multiplier. As individuals we owe it to the team to find better ways of doing business. When you think of a new approach, share it with a peer, a supervisor or the Air Force IDEA program, just don’t let the opportunity to improve pass.
After his tour as wing commander, Olds reported in to then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John McConnell. McConnell pointed at the mustache and directed, “Take it off.” Olds simply replied “Yes, sir.” and complied. As military professionals we balance the push for innovation and compliance with existing guidance. Even though Olds selectively violated the rules, I believe that ignoring guidance we don’t agree with is the wrong answer for today’s Airmen. Instead I recommend we follow the example he set with “Operation Bolo.” Comply with guidance, but seek new and even potentially unorthodox ways to complete the mission. We must also be willing to invest the time and effort needed to improve AFIs, policies and checklists wherever we have the opportunity to work smarter.
Today mustaches are allowed in the Air Force. So, even if you haven’t started growing your mustache yet, maybe today is the day you take a look in the mirror and ask yourself how you would look with some extra hair on your lip or maybe it would be better just to bring a spirit of innovation to your workcenter.