KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- Facial hair could be growing soon at an air base near you.
Amid the gloom of looming force reductions in the Air Force right now, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III is encouraging airmen to have some fun in March with upper-lip hair.
Welsh is challenging airmen to a servicewide mustache competition in celebration of "Mustache March," an Air Force tradition started by a renegade handlebar-sporting pilot in the Vietnam War.
Every March, clean-shaven airmen vie for the best peach fuzz, creepiest 'stache, Tom Selleck look-alike, among other possible categories. It's the Air Force's way of having fun and fostering camaraderie.
But Welsh's challenge, issued last month during his Feb. 20 address to the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium, has spawned the first Air Force-wide mustache "smackdown."
"Now, I don't know but I don't think we've had an all-in Mustache March," Welsh said. "So I'm putting the smackdown on you guys: Air Force-wide, Mustache March, MAJCOM competitions."
An overall winner will be chosen from the nominees submitted by each major command, Welsh said.
He didn't say what kind of mustache might win. But it's safe to say it won't be anything like the one worn by Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, the legendary triple-ace fighter pilot who inspired the tradition. Olds grew what he called a "bulletproof mustache" during Vietnam. It was meticulously waxed, in the shape of a handlebar, and extended beyond the edge of his lips in violation of grooming standards.
His rebellious streak lasted only so long: Olds, a colonel at the time, promptly shaved it after returning to the Pentagon, where a general stuck a finger under his nose and ordered, "Take if off."
"Mustache March" participants must comply with the conservative mustache standards of Air Force instruction 36-2903. This rules out anything long or bushy – and definitely no handlebars or horseshoes.
"Full, thick and natural is kind of the wording that's out there," said Maj. Tony Wickman, a spokesman for the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base. "My guess is it's going to be the best-looking mustache, and it's completely subjective."
Wickman said the wing at the end of the month will submit a winner to U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
Will there be a prize beyond some macho bragging rights? That may be something Welsh is still determining.
"We'll find our Air Force winner and I'll figure out a way to honor him," Welsh said, and then dead-panned, "I'm assuming it's a 'him.' "
Though they can't grow mustaches for the contest, female airmen still have a role to play, Welsh said.
"Their job is to ridicule us nonstop about the idiotic look that these mustaches will have on most of us as we try to look like Tom Selleck and really look like a three-haired mole, so, fight's on."