RAF officer ranks

The officer ranks of the Royal Air Force, as they are today, were introduced in 1919. Prior to that Army ranks were used.

Ranks (highest to lowest)


Lieutenant General David Henderson originally proposed that Royal Air Force officers use a combination of British Army and Royal Navy ranks. However, the War Office argued that the RAF should have its own ranks and the Admiralty opposed any use of their rank titles.

Badges of rank

On 1 April 1918, Air Force Memorandum 2 specified rank insignia for the newly established independent force. Rank was to be worn on the jacket cuff and was derived from the Royal Navy's rings, each equivalent rank having the same number of rings. However, second lieutenants displayed a crowned eagle only and the Navy's loop was not used for any rank. Depending on the uniform, either gold or pale blue on grey braid was worn.
In August 1918, Air Ministry Weekly Order 617 added a single band of braid below the second lieutenant's eagle and all other officer ranks also received a crowned eagle above their braid on the left arm only.
cuff insignia for a flight lieutenant
In 1919 the colour of the rank braid was changed to black with a central pale blue stripe. However, on RAF mess dress rank continued to be displayed in gold.

Sleeve ranks

The ranks worn on the sleeve are common to all RAF uniform variants incorporating the Jacket. The centre of the rank should be from the cuff and each row of braiding should have a space of from other rows. The thinnest braid, as found on the pilot officer's rank, is ; the flying officer's braid common to all the ranks except air commodore and pilot officer, is, and the thickest braid, as found on all air officer ranks, is.

Shoulder boards

Shoulder boards are worn by officers of general rank equivalent. Officers entitled to wear aiguillettes or the Royal Cypher, AVMs and above, the Director of Nursing Services, and those officers assigned to certain one-star posts, wear plain blue shoulder boards when in No 1 Service Dress. AVMs and above and those officers assigned to the one-star posts of commandant RAFC Cranwell, Air Officer Wales and Air Officer Scotland wear distinctive unranked ceremonial shoulder boards when in No 1A dress. If these officers wear a greatcoat, gold ranked shoulder straps in Crombie material are used. Officers of the rank of marshal of the Royal Air Force have a distinctive set of shoulder boards with greater decoration.

Rank titles

It was originally proposed that the RAF ranks were to be derived from existing Royal Navy and Army ranks. Both services were consulted and both reacted unfavourably—the Navy unhappy about the use of its higher ranks and the Army complaining it provided the "junior ranks". This resulted in a compromise whereby the officer ranks were proposed to be: ensign, lieutenant, flight leader, squadron leader, reeve, banneret, fourth ardian, third ardian, second ardian, ardian and air marshal. A further proposal was: ensign, lieutenant, flight-leader, squadron-leader, wing-leader, leader, flight ardian, squadron ardian, wing ardian, ardian, air marshal.
These contrived ranks were rejected and on 1 August 1919, Air Ministry Weekly Order 973 introduced new rank titles for RAF officers. They were based on Royal Navy ranks and their titles were influenced by the usage in the Royal Naval Air Service during World War I. For example, the RAF rank of flight lieutenant was based on the RNAS rank of the same name. The rank of squadron leader derived its name from the RNAS rank of squadron commander. Initially the highest rank was titled marshal of the air. However, only a few days after it was promulgated, this rank title was changed to marshal of the Royal Air Force at the request of King George V, his belief being that the former sounded too much like it encroached on the attributes of God.

Composite braid

RAF officers typically wear composite braid rank slides with their working and operational uniforms. Composite braid consists of a single piece of fabric, where the "background" between the rank rings is made from blue-grey or olive green material. Composite braid rank slides are often referred to as "bar-code" in RAF slang.

Command flags

Distinction between ranks and appointments

Many RAF ranks do not imply the appointment or duties of an officer. For example, a pilot officer may well not be trained to pilot an aircraft. In fact, pilots skip the rank of pilot officer and go from officer cadet to flying officer on graduation from officer training school at RAF Cranwell. A squadron leader does not necessarily command a squadron, nor a wing commander necessarily command a wing, nor a group captain command a group.

RAF Air Cadets (Air Training Corps and Combined Cadet Force)

The majority of officers in the Air Cadet Organisation and RAF section of the Combined Cadet Force CCF) are volunteers commissioned into RAF Air Cadets and then appointed to service with the Air Training Corps or Combined Cadet Force. They are no longer Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve commissioned officers. They are identified by the gold badge stating: "RAFAC" on the lapels of the No. 1 uniform, and in others forms of dress "RAF AIR CADETS" embroidered underneath the rank insignia, in a manner similar to RAF Regiment rank slides. Volunteer officers who are members of an Air Experience Flight and who are pilots of aircraft providing air experience flying to Air Cadets and University Air Squadrons continue to hold a VR commission.
RAF Air Cadets Officers use the rank system identical to the regular RAF, but the highest substantive rank is Flying Officer. Higher ranks within the Air Cadet organisation are acting appointments, up to Wing Commander. Other senior ranked appointments are generally full-time staff positions held by regular and reserve RAF officers. In certain circumstances, Honorary Appointments within the RAF Air Cadets may be made, however the rank may vary.

Other air forces

The following air forces use a similar or identical officer rank structure and rank insignia to the RAF:
The following air forces use a similar or identical officer rank structure to the RAF, but use army-style rank insignia:
The following air forces use rank insignia for their officers which are similar or identical to that of the RAF, but employ army rank titles:
The following air forces formerly used a similar or identical officer rank structure to the RAF:
The following air forces formerly used similar rank insignia to the RAF:

General references