A 1st Lieutenant commanding a squadron of Captains and Majors? A Lieutenant Colonel reporting to (and saluting) a Captain? While situations like this generally do not happen in the U.S. Air Force, this is actually pretty common in Civil Air Patrol. The reason why is embedded in our organizational structure and the reality that CAP is composed of professional volunteers.
As the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, the Airmen of Civil Air Patrol are privileged and proud to use the Air Force system of grades for officers and NCOs. In order to distinguish CAP members from USAF personnel, CAP officers wear their grade on grey epaulet sleeves.
CAP NCO's wear sleeve grades, with CAP distinctive markings to differentiate CAP members from Air Force NCOs.
In this post we will focus more on CAP officer grades, as the NCO program is currently reserved for prior (or current) service military NCOs only and the majority of CAP members are Officers.
In Civil Air Patrol the grade that a member wears on his/her uniform has more to do with their progression in the CAP Professional Development (PD) program, and their time of service in CAP, than it is a symbol of authority and command, as it is in the Air Force.
The CAP Professional Development (PD) program encompasses five "Levels" and promotions are tied into a member's progression through the PD program. For example-to become a 2nd Lieutenant a member must complete Level One of the CAP Professional Development program and serve for at least six months as a "senior member without grade."
To achieve a promotion to Captain a member must be a 1st Lieutenant (or Senior Flight Officer) for at least 30 months and complete Level Two of the Professional Development program. To become a Major a member needs to complete Level Three, and to become a Lieutenant Colonel a member must complete Level Four. Level Five is the highest progression in the PD program and completion of this level is required for members desiring certain command positions.
There is no minimum grade requirement that a member has to be to assume most positions of command-which is why a 1st Lieutenant can command a squadron with Majors and Lieutenant Colonels that are members. Of course, this doesn't mean that anyone can be a squadron commander-the commander must be approved and appointed by the commander of the next higher level!
So who do I salute?
As you can imagine, this can be confusing at first for someone with military experience who is used to the commanding officer being the most senior member in the room! So, how does this all work in CAP?
Generally, the junior officer salutes the higher ranking officer. Therefore, if a Captain, who is a squadron commander approaches a Major outdoors, the Captain will initiate the salute as a courtesy to the Major, even though the Captain has command authority over the Major.
The exception to this is if the Major is formally reporting to the Captain, i.e. during a promotion/awards ceremony. In this instance the Major would initiate the salute to the Captain both when reporting and when dismissed.
Who is in charge?
As we have mentioned before, authority in CAP is tied into the position that one holds and not the insignia on the shoulders or sleeves. This is why a Lieutenant Colonel will defer to the Captain who is a squadron commander during a meeting, or while serving on an aircrew or during a mission.
It is this culture of mutual respect and courtesy that enables CAP members to successfully interact with each other, in instances that may be a little different from our parent service, so that we can focus on the missions that we have been tasked to do.
For more information
I know that this is really touching the "tip of the iceburg" on the subject of Customs and Courtesies and developing a culture of mutual respect-so if you're interested in this subject we recommend this publication from Civil Air Patrol.