It’s March. The month, of two months out of the year, where the wives and girlfriends of fighter pilots smile through thinly-veiled disdain and start counting the days until April arrives. Of all things that could be causing such contempt – Red Flag, Green Flag, TDYs, Air Wing workups at Fallon, or CRIs – the one thing guaranteed to get hackles up in the ladies who so steadfastly support their aerials warriors…are mustaches.
“Mustache March” is predominantly an Air Force tradition with roots going back to the Vietnam era, thanks to none other than Brigadier General Robin Olds. In the heady days of Olds’ tenure at the helm of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, he was known for being bold, aggressive, and he had little to zero regard whatsoever for senior leadership trying to micromanage and dictate to him how to fight.
Olds was the man’s man, an officer and fighter pilot whose exploits became legend. He was a triple Ace, with a total of sixteen air-to-air kills combined between World War II and Vietnam. If you ask any fighter pilot what makes Olds famous, most would say it had absolutely nothing to do with his prowess in the cockpit. Olds was a leader of men. A warfighter.
He never asked those under his command to do anything he wasn’t willing to do first, or hadn’t already done himself. If anyone asked where he could be found, the response was almost always in the opposite direction of his office. Olds led the “Wolf Pack” by example. He was a risk-taker. He eschewed the trappings of the spit-and-polish, rear-echelon form of leadership. He led from the cockpit. He was not a yes-man, often putting him at odds with higher ranking officers (notice the lack of the word “superior” used to describe them).
As the story goes, Olds started his “bullet-proof mustache” in March of 1967 following the successes his unit enjoyed during Operation Bolo. The superstition proclaiming the presence of a mustache bestowed the wearer with an impenetrable shield around him and his aircraft. It was during that period of time that Olds shot down four MiGs, nearly becoming a Vietnam ace. He had many opportunities to shoot down more, but the fear of being relieved of his command and becoming a publicity tool for the Air Force forced Olds to exercise restraint. Instead, he vectored other jets in to get those kills. Even with a restriction from higher headquarters limiting him to 100 sorties, Olds flew more than 150.
His mustache became a symbol of defiance as it continued to grow, expanding out of the restrictive Air Force regulations of the time and becoming a waxed masterpiece of handlebar awesomeness.
These days, Airmen must follow the guidelines in Air Force Instruction 36-2903, Dress and Appearance.
Section 18.104.22.168. states, “… male Airmen may have mustaches; however they will be conservative (moderate, being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme) and will not extend downward beyond the lip line of the upper lip or extend sideways beyond a vertical line drawn upward from both corners of the mouth.”
So to the chagrin of Air Force wives, this particular tradition lives on. Even Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh threw down the gauntlet last year, calling for an Air Force wide competition to see who had the best ‘stache at the end of those 31 magnificent days.
And if the boss says its okay, it must be…right?! Since General Welsh himself is an F-16 pilot, we wouldn’t expect anything less.
(Featured photo courtesy of a nameless and blameless fighter pilot at a forward-deployed location)