It was at the Air Force Association’s Tenth Annual National Convention in New Orleans in 1956 that its Outstanding Airmen Program came into being. The program evolved from an idea of Executive Director James H. Straubel, who was searching for something which would highlight an Air Force military manpower crisis.
What better way to highlight this subject, believed Straubel, than to have on hand an outstanding enlisted person representing each major Air Force command and operating agency. The Association, since its founding in 1946, had been pleading with Congress to provide adequate pay and allowances for members of the Armed Forces, most especially, enlisted members.
Major General Arno H. Luehman was the Air Force Director of Information. His Deputy was Colonel Maurice F. Casey, later to become an Air Force Lieutenant General. Both concurred and wires were dispatched to all major air commands and operating agencies for nominees to represent their respective command or agency.
The initial thought was that this would be a one-time AFA national convention event. But the Outstanding Airmen Program was so well received that AFA and USAF leaders believed the program should continue. It has remained a highly popular and successful AFA national convention event over the past 55 years. (The Association did not have a national convention in 1965 or 2001.)
Since 1958 AFA industrial Associate Companies have been involved. Through 1975, the Federal Systems Division of IBM was the sole sponsor. The corporation initiated the policy of having the spouses of the Outstanding Airmen accompany them to the convention. The IBM staff established the Annual Outstanding Airmen Dinner. Attendance until 1979 was by “invitation only.”
In 1976, IBM had to end its sole sponsorship because Department of Defense Policy precluded sponsorship of such a large program by a single defense industry. AFA took over financial responsibility for the program. Other Industrial Associate companies were invited to join IBM to purchase tables at the Outstanding Airmen banquet to help offset expenses. In 1985, 53 IA companies purchased tables. Many mergers have resulted in fewer AFA Industrial Associates and last year 35 Industry tables were purchased.
This year’s honorees bring the total number of Outstanding Airmen of the Year to 763. Four were selected twice. George Morar was selected as a Master Sergeant representing USAFE in 1957, and as a Senior Master Sergeant representing Military Air Transport Service in 1964; Harold F. Renneberg was selected as a Master Sergeant Representing Caribbean Air Command in 1961, and as a Senior Master Sergeant representing the Air Force Accounting and Finance Center in 1966; and Senior Master Sergeant Freddie J. Walton, represented Air Training Command in 1969 and the Aerospace Defense Command in 1970. John R. Schumann was selected as a Master Sergeant in 1966 and again as a Senior Master Sergeant in 1968 representing Air Force Systems Command.
In 1988, Master Sergeant Thomas C. Voegtle was the selection for the Air Force Space Command. In 1993, his wife, Master Sergeant Trenda L. Voegtle, represented Air Combat Command. Only one female was selected from 1956 through 1970. In 1970, a program change set the number of airmen to be selected each year at 12 -- the Golden Dozen. (The first year there were 19 Outstanding Airmen; the high was in 1969 with 24 Outstanding Airmen.) Twice the Outstanding Airmen and their spouses visited with the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan -- in 1984 and 1987.
Two Outstanding Airmen went on to be selected as Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force. CMSAF (Ret) James M. McCoy (1979-81) later served on countless AFA major committees and its Board, and was the Association’s thirty-first National President, then Chairman of the Board. CMSAF (Ret) Donald L. Harlow (1969-71) later served as Executive Director of the Air Force Sergeants Association. Since 1970, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force has served as Master of Ceremonies for the Outstanding Airmen Dinner.
Many of the Outstanding Airmen were highly decorated. Two received the nation’s second highest award for valor, the Air Force Cross: Sergeant Duane D. Hackney (1968) and Technical Sergeant Timothy A. Wilkinson (1994). MSgt Scott Fales (1993) and TSgt Bradley T. Reilly (2006) received the Silver Star.
In 1977, AFA adopted a policy whereby the Twelve Outstanding Airmen of any given year would become members of the Association’s Airmen Council (now called Enlisted Council), along with other airmen appointees, the following year. The Council was established in 1964 at the urging of the Outstanding Airmen.
For questions concerning the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year program contact Jill Westeyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-727-3337 ext. 4807 or (703) 247-5800, ext. 4807; Air Force point of contact is HQ AFPC/DPPRS.