Jobs, ranks, positions and appointments in the USAAF

A person’s job is what they did on a day to day basis. ‘Pilot’ is a job, as is ‘armorer’ or ‘metal worker’. People could, of course, have more than one job at a time.

Ranks are all about position in the military hierarchy. They can imply a level of experience, or a level of qualification. Broadly speaking, the higher the rank, the higher the level of responsibility in the organization.


There were two major categories of ranks – officers and enlisted men.


Officers were the leaders. Although requirements changed, men wishing to join the Army Air Forces as officers were expected to have met certain educational standards, as well as the usual physical standards.

Here’s a list of officer ranks in the Army Air Forces for 1944, from most junior to most senior:

  • Flight Officer
  • Warrant Officer (j.g)
  • Warrant Officer (chief)
  • 2nd Lieutenant
  • 1st Lieutenant
  • Captain
  • Major
  • Lieutenant Colonel
  • Colonel
  • Brigadier General
  • Major General
  • Lieutenant General
  • General

The most junior officers could be quite young – not long out of college. They could be much younger and more inexperienced than some of the senior enlisted men. Even though they were of higher rank, sensible junior officers listened to the advice of senior enlisted men.

Enlisted men

Enlisted men formed the bulk of the Army Air Forces. The most junior enlisted rank was Private. Privates were therefore the lowest rank in the Army Air Forces. If they proved themselves good at their jobs, or showed that they could be leaders themselves, they were promoted. A very successful enlisted man could eventually become a senior Non Commissioned Officer, or NCO. These were the sergeants and Warrant Officers.

Occasionally, a senior NCO could be promoted to officer. Then he would become a 2nd Lieutenant, technically a higher rank but the most junior of all the officers. This would be like changing from being a factory foreman, with lots of people working for you, to being the newest (and therefore most junior) executive in the front office. Technically a promotion, but it might not feel like it!

Here is a list of enlisted men ranks in the Army Air Forces, most junior to most senior:

  • Private
  • Private first class
  • Corporal
  • Sergeant
  • Staff Sergeant
  • Technical Sergeant
  • Master Sergeant, First Sergeant

So what?

The more responsibility a man had, the more he was paid, and in some respects, the better conditions he lived in. For example, officers lived in better accommodation, with more privacy and better facilities than enlisted men. Of course, a significant proportion of officers flew in the USAAF. At a fighter base, for example, all of the pilots were officers. They often had better facilities, but were also exposed to greater danger when they flew missions.

To give you an idea of the range, an Army Air Force General was paid $8,000 per year in 1944, and a Private was paid $600.


Jobs in the AAF were broadly in two categories – ground crew and air crew. Air crew flew. They were the pilots, the navigators, the bombardiers, the gunners. They flew in bombers, fighters, and transport aircraft.

Supporting the work of the fliers were many, many more people on the ground. Many of these were enlisted men, led by officers in leadership or specialist roles. Most manual jobs – building, cooking, cleaning, hands-on engineering – were carried out by enlisted men. They repaired and maintained the aircraft, built and looked after the airfields, guarded the bases, drove the trucks, fed the men, developed the photographs, looked after the wounded, drew the maps, washed the laundry, fought the fires, pumped the fuel. They did all of the hundreds of jobs needed to keep the aircraft flying, and the men happy and healthy.

Some aircrew jobs were almost exclusively reserved for officers – namely pilot, navigator and bombardier, although there were some enlisted pilots in the early stages of the war.  Enlisted men were allowed to take some aircrew jobs. In bombers, these were mainly aerial engineer, radio operator and aerial gunner.

Show your working…

So, let’s take an example:

2nd Lieutenant John Q Smith, pilot.

2nd Lieutenant is his rank. It’s the most junior officer rank, so he’s likely quite a young man, maybe new to his unit. He’ll perhaps have not long finished training in the USA. ’Pilot’ is his job. In the words of the The Official World War Two Guide to the Army Air Forces, 1944, he:

‘handles controls of plane and commands aircraft; in addition, fighter pilot fires guns, navigates, communicates with radio, sometimes directs and releases bombs.’

Quite a job for a 21-year-old.

Now, fast forward a couple of years. John Q Smith has been a good pilot, and a good officer. His commanders have recognized qualities of leadership in him, and he has been promoted three times. He’s now:

Major John Q. Smith, pilot and squadron commander.

Now his rank is ‘Major’. This is quite a senior rank. With it comes extra responsibility. He now has extra work. His job is still ‘pilot’, but alongside that, he now leads a squadron – a whole team of aircrew and ground personnel. Find out more about squadrons and other units here.