Mustache March

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bobby Schmitt
  • 16th Space Control Squadron
Many Airmen have heard of the tradition of Mustache March. But how many understand the root of this tradition? Mustache March is a tribute to retired Brigadier General Robin Olds, who was easy to recognize during the Vietnam War due to his distinct handlebar mustache.

However, Olds is known for more than just his mustache. He was also a combat-tested fighter pilot and an innovative leader at a time when the Air Force desperately needed innovative leaders.
Innovation is essential to ensuring mission accomplishment. At home station, innovation drives down resource consumption by finding better ways to accomplish your squadron’s functions. It harnesses the intellectual power of your Airmen to improve operations and mission support to get the job done more effectively.

Innovation at home station sharpens a skill that prepares us to fight and win wars. In wartime, innovation is a “must-have” to outmaneuver the enemy. This was especially true in 1966, where the U.S. was engaged in a costly air war over North Vietnam. Olds, who had taken command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, witnessed the failure of the wing to innovate while executing their assigned missions, which was costing lives. Because the MiG-21 was a superior air-to-air fighter than the F-105, but was inferior to the F-4, the North Vietnamese only engaged if the F-105s were flying to conduct bombing raids, and they were highly successful implementing this tactic.

After investigation, Olds discovered the wing was using predictable routes and communication patterns when flying F-105 missions, which allowed the North Vietnamese to routinely shoot them down using their MiG-21s. He needed to find a way to get the North Vietnamese to engage when the F-4s were flying, which would give the U.S. the advantage.

Olds directed his pilots to find a way to bring out the MiG-21s when the F-4s were flying to help the US reduce the capability of the North Vietnamese fleet. His pilots met that challenge head-on, resulting the development and execution of Operation Bolo. During this mission, the F-4s copied F-105 patterns in an attempt to draw out the MiG-21s.

The ruse worked, and the resulting battle ended with the most North Vietnamese MiG-21 losses of the war. This showed innovation can work when the leader trusted and empowered his people to think of and implement new and better ways to do business, even in a life and death situation.

Innovation is absolutely imperative to mission success.

As leaders, it is up to us to follow the lead of General Olds and to provide an environment where good ideas are encouraged and can thrive. Empowering your Airmen from the top to the bottom of your organization, regardless of rank or experience, to think of better ways to get the job done will ensure the best ideas are brought forward and implemented, and it encourages your personnel to put “skin the game” to drive the success of the whole organization.

The excitement of seeing your great idea implemented across the organization, and even beyond your organization, can be a huge motivator for that Airman and for his or her teammates.

As a leader, you should ask yourself: am I doing enough to encourage my Airmen to bring good ideas to me? Do I carefully consider ideas, no matter how crazy they may seem, and praise my Airmen for thinking of ways to improve the organization’s mission? Am I asking my Airmen the right questions to foster the critical thinking needed to innovate? Can I delegate decisions to a lower level to make the cycle of innovation faster?

In summary, when you think of Mustache March, regardless of whether you participate or not, think not just of Olds’ famous handlebar mustache, but consider the leader he was during a difficult time for the U.S. Air Force.

Consider Operation Bolo, and how he changed the mindset of a combat wing that was struggling against a determined enemy. Following his lead and developing a culture of innovation now could pay off the next time we need Airmen to think through a difficult life-or-death problem.

Boyne, Walter J. “The Robin Olds Factor,” Air Force Magazine, Volume 91, No. 6, Arlington, VA: Air Force Association, pages 44-48.