It’s March, and signs of spring are everywhere: bulbs are blooming, birds are singing, and mustaches are sprouting out all over. That’s right: It’s time for that U.S. Air Force tradition known as “Mustache March,” when airmen encourage their facial hair to flourish for 31 days.
Legend has it that Brigadier General Robin Olds began the tradition while serving in Vietnam. (More about him in a minute.) However the custom started, we think aviators and their freaky facial hair deserve some recognition.
One of the best-known aviator ‘staches belongs to Frenchman Louis Blériot (pictured above), who became world famous in 1909 when he flew across the English Channel in his monoplane. After his daring feat, Blériot told the New York Times in a special cable, “Soldiers in khaki run up, and policemen. Two of my compatriots are on the spot. They kiss my cheeks.” (We can see why they avoided planting one on his kisser.)
Blériot’s mustache remains famous today. His image was recently posted on the “guess the face” portion of PhotoCamel.com. “Chromenut” correctly identified the aviator by saying: “Let’s see, it’s not Adolphe Pagoud, his mustache was way smaller. And I don’t think it’s Roland Garros, his mustache went straight across. Can’t be Louis Paulhan, he’s too goofy looking. So I say it has to be Louis Blériot.”
See the gallery below for more memorably mustached aviators. If we left somebody out, let us know by posting a comment below. And airmen who submit photos of their own Mustache March projects to our online Reader Scrapbook this month are guaranteed posting.
Orville Wright (seated at right, with Wilbur) wears what’s known as “the Chevron,” a thick mustache that covers the top of the upper lip. “He had sported a reddish mustache since high school,” writes Tom Crouch in his 2003 book The Bishop’s Boys. “Once full, almost a handlebar, it was now clipped short, just bushy enough to cover a pair of very thin lips that turned up at one corner when he smiled. He was the enthusiast of the pair, ever on fire with new inventions, and the optimist as well, the one who always saw the brighter side.”
There was a (small) outcry when Orville didn't make The Art of Manliness’ list of “35 Manliest Mustaches of All Time.” The father of aviation lost out to a puppet—the Swedish Chef from "the Muppet Show"—and a cartoon character, Yosemite Sam.
Aviation pioneer and inventor Glenn Curtiss “had a few ‘stache-n-beard combos that were decidedly Zappa-esque,” says Paul Glenshaw, director of the Discovery of Flight Foundation and a frequent contributor to Air & Space/Smithsonian.
The future aircraft designer got his start by manufacturing motorcycles, setting a speed record at Ormond Beach, Florida, on January 23, 1907. At that time, no human had ever traveled faster. The Chicago Daily News enthusiastically reported: “Bullets are the only rivals of Glenn H. Curtiss.” The Windy City also displayed a duplicate of the 8-cylinder engine at the Chicago Automobile Show.
Chicago’s interest in Curtiss may be linked to its status as “the most mustache-friendly city in the United States (a title bestowed by the American Mustache Institute.) According to the Institute, “From Civil War generals like Lew Wallace to the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft (the last Mustached American President), people of Mustached American descent were chainsaw wielding men of power, good looks, martial arts abilities, and long-lasting virility.”
The “toothbrush” mustache is normally associated with Adolf Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, and Michael Jordan. We’re not sure why famed helicopter designer Igor Sikorsky opted for this style. A September 1984 Popular Mechanics article notes, “Igor Sikorsky’s thin, drooping moustache, gentle eyes and his famous fedora hat give him more the look of a pensive professor than a canny genius with a genuine love of people, who has more practical aeronautical engineering tucked away than any man alive.”
The Sikorsky Historical Archives goes one step further, describing the Russian genius thus: “His thin black mustache, drooping to the corners of his mouth, suggested a Tartar tribesman, but his soft dark eyes bespoke the mysticism of an Asiatic holy man.”
And here’s the man alleged to have started it all, Brigadier General Robin Olds, commander of the U.S. Air Force 8th Tactical Fighter Wing during "Rolling Thunder," the first sustained U.S. air assault on North Vietnam. The leader of the F-4 Wolfpack, Olds writes in his memoir Fighter Pilot, “[In 1966,] Evenings at the O club were great fun. The ‘Wolfpack’ had taken on a life of its own. A new spirit and camaraderie evolved. One evening I sat at the bar talking to a young guy named John Harris, who sported a nice, neatly trimmed, regulation mustache. I asked him if he thought I’d look good in one. What did I expect him to respond, ‘No, Colonel’? Starting that day, I grew my mustache. When it had respectable growth to the edges of my mouth (still correctly trimmed) I decided the David Niven look wasn’t for me. What the hell, I’d look a whole lot better with a full Tommy Burne-type World War II mustache, so it grew well beyond the regulations. What was anybody going to do—send the secretary of the air force over to knock me out, sit on me, and shave it off? It became the middle finger I couldn’t raise in PR photographs. The mustache became my silent last word in the verbal battles I was losing with higher headquarters on rules, targets, and fighting the war.”
Upon his return to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Olds met with General John P. McConnell, chief of staff of the USAF. Olds writes, "The general pointed a forefinger under my nose and said, 'Take it off!' Just like that. He obviously meant my rather flamboyant mustache, which I knew somehow had outgrown all semblance of air force propriety. To tell the truth, I wasn't all that fond of the damned thing by then, but it had become a symbol for the men in the 8th Wing. I knew McConnell understood. During his visits to Ubon over the past year he had never referred to my breach of military standards, just seemed rather amused at the variety of 'staches sported by many of the troops. His 'Take it off!' was the most direct order I had received in twenty-four years of service."
Which brings us to present day Air Force Dress and Personal Appearance standards, a whopping 180-pages (document no. 36-2903) of detailed instructions on the topic. The standards, which were last updated on July 18, 2011, advise airmen on how (and how not) to wear the Air Force uniform; permutations of various uniforms (including semi-formal, service dress, battle, and camouflage); the placement of badges; outer and under garments, and, yes, grooming standards. (We can't help but think of the "police your mooostache" scene from "Generation Kill.")
The document notes: “Commander’s discretion may be used to determine if individual’s personal grooming is within standards of this instruction. Commanders do not have authority to waive grooming and appearance standards except as identified in this instruction. The personal grooming standards listed are minimum standards that represent common appearance issues and are not all-inclusive. Although Airmen have the right, within established limits, to express their individuality through their appearance, the Air Force has defined what is and what is not an acceptable, professional military image for Airmen.”
Section 184.108.40.206. Mustaches. “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. See Figure 3-1 [above], reference points B, C, and D.”
Remember, airmen who submit a photo of their own Mustache March projects this month are guaranteed posting to our online Reader Scrapbook.
Captain Michael Jackson, a pilot at Whiteman Air Force Base, where he is the 509th Bomb Wing Operations Group executive assistant, has been "actively participating in the wonders of Mustache March since early childhood." The Captain modestly notes that "The 'stache has traveled with me around the world on five separate deployments. It has received six Air Medals to date. If I could describe my 'stache in one sentence, it would be: 'My 'stache is a hybrid-cross between a dragon and a tiger that was raised by Chuck Norris.'"