Air Force Dining-in-Dining Out Planning Guide

Officers arriving at formal dinner
••• Eglin Air Force Base 

Formal military dinners are a tradition in all branches of the United States Armed services. In the Air Force and Navy, it is the dining-in; in the Army, the Regimental Dinner; in the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, Mess Night.

As with most ancient traditions, the origin of the dining-in is not clear. Formal dinners are rooted in antiquity. From pre-Christian Roman legions to second century Viking warlords, to King Arthur’s knights in the sixth century, feasts to honor military victories and individual and unit achievements have been a custom.

Some trace the origins of the dining-in to the old English monasteries. The custom was then taken up by the early universities and eventually adopted by the military with the advent of the officers’ mess. With the adoption of the dining-in by the military, these dinners became more formalized. British soldiers brought the custom to colonial America, where it was borrowed by George Washington’s continental army.

The Air Force dining-in custom probably began in the 1930s with General H. “Hap” Arnold’s “wing-dings.” The close bonds enjoyed by Air Corps officers and their British colleagues of the Royal Air Force during World War II surely added to the American involvement in the dining-in custom.

The dining-in has served the Air Force well as an occasion for military members to meet socially at a formal military function. It enhances the esprit de corps of units, lightens the load of demanding day-to-day work, gives the commander an opportunity to meet socially with their subordinates and enables military members of all ranks to create bonds of friendship and better working relations through an atmosphere of good fellowship.

The dining-in and dining-out represent the most formal aspects of Air Force social life. The dining-in is the traditional form, and the term will be used throughout this document. However, most of the information applies equally to both dinings-in and dinings-out.

It is important for the success of a dining-in that members enjoy the evening, and that the ceremonies are done in a tasteful, dignified manner. A dining-in should have a theme around which the decorations and ceremony are built.

The purpose of the dining-in is to bring together members of a unit in an atmosphere of camaraderie, good fellowship, and social rapport. The basic idea is to enjoy yourself and the company. The dining-in is also an excellent means of providing hail and farewell to members of a unit. It is an excellent forum to recognize individual and unit achievements. The dining-in, therefore, is very effective in building high morale and esprit de corps.

Dining-in. The dining-in is a formal dinner for the members of a wing, unit, or organization. Although a dining-in is traditionally a unit function, attendance by other smaller units may be appropriate.

Dining-out. The dining-out is a relatively new custom that includes spouses and guests. It is similar in all other respects to a dining-in. The dining-out is becoming increasingly popular with officers and enlisted members alike.

Combat dining-in. The combat dining-in, the newest of the dining-in traditions, is becoming increasingly popular, especially in operational units. The format and sequence of events are built around the traditional dining-in, however, it’s far less formal atmosphere and combat dress requirements (flight-suit, BDUs) have made it very appealing to the masses. There is not a great deal written on the subject and the only limit seems to be that of the imagination of the planning committee.

Dress. Officers wear the mess dress uniform. Retired officers may wear the mess dress or civilian attire. For enlisted members, mess dress or the semi-formal dress uniform is worn. For retired enlisted personnel, the mess dress, semi-formal dress, or civilian attire is appropriate. Refer to AFI 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel for appropriate wear instructions. Male civilians should wear appropriate black tie dinner dress. The proper dress for civilians should be clearly stated in the invitation.

Key Players

President. This officer is the central figure of the dining-in. Normally the commander of the organization hosting the dining-in is the President. The President is charged with the overall responsibility of the dining-in. Specific duties of the president are as follows:

  • Oversee entire organization and operation of the dining-in.
  • Appoint any or all of the following project officers.
    • Vice President
    • Arrangements Officer
    • Mess Officer
    • Escort Officers
  • Secure an appropriate speaker, set the date, and determine location.
  • Arrange for a chaplain to give the invocation.
  • Greet all guests before dinner is served.
  • Opening and closing of the mess.

Many of the duties of the President are delegated to the arrangements officer who must work closely with the President to ensure the success of the dining-in.

Vice President. The Vice President serves as the President’s principal assistant. The Vice President is traditionally the most junior officer of the mess; however, the President may select another member to serve in this demanding position.

The success of the evening hinges largely on the imagination and humor of the Vice. Essentially a master or mistress of ceremonies and a toastmaster or toastmistress, Mister/Madam Vice keeps the program moving and stimulates table conversation through keen wit and impromptu speaking ability.

The Vice President also notes and makes special mention of the violations of the rules of the mess and breaches of protocol and etiquette.

Traditionally, the Vice President sits alone at the back of the dining room facing the President. This position allows them to observe the proceedings in order to monitor the flow of the program. Convenience and the physical layout of the dining area may dictate seating in another location; however, the Vice President is never seated near or at the head table. it is essential that the Vice be totally familiar with the customs and traditions of the mess.

Duties of the Vice President:

  • Open the lounge at the appointed time.
  • Sound the dinner chimes at the appropriate time.
  • Prepare appropriate toasts as directed by the President. The composition of appropriate poems or witticisms in good taste relating to personalities and organizations present is encouraged.
  • Keeps the party moving, and is the last person to leave.

Arrangements Officer. The Arrangements Officer is directly responsible to the commander for the comprehensive planning of the dining-in and for attending to the numerous details required for a successful event. The person selected for this task should be a top planner and supervisor, as the Arrangements Officer is the architect of the dining-in.

The Arrangements Officer should not make any final decisions on major aspects of the dining-in without consulting the President.

Duties of the Arrangements Officer:

  • After the facility has been reserved, establish the correct table and seating arrangement and arrange the necessary name and organization cards.
  • Make sure that flags and any awards are in place before the opening of the lounge, unless posting of the colors is part of the planned ceremony.
  • Arrange for a suitable public address system.
  • A lighted lectern with a microphone should be provided for the convenience of the guest speaker and chaplain.
  • Place dinner chimes at the Vice’s location.
  • Arrange for a photographer if desired.
  • Publish a detailed agenda and prepare a recommended guest list. Distribution and content should be determined by the president.
  • Ensure hat/coat checker is available.
  • After the dining-in, prepare letters of appreciation for the President’s signature to the guest of honor and others who rendered service.

Mess Officer. The Mess Officer is an optional player, however, it may be very useful to appoint one. Once preliminary decisions are made concerning the facilities which will be used for the event, the Mess Officer may take over all responsibilities associated with the dining facility.

Protocol Officer. The Protocol Officer’s duties:

  • Ensure formal invitations to all guests are mailed out at least four weeks prior to the event.
  • Establish procedures for taking RSVPs.
  • Make necessary billeting and transportation arrangements.
  • Assist in determining the seating arrangement for the head table.
  • Brief the escort officers on specific protocol requirements relating to the guests.
  • Prior to the event, ensure biographical sketches of guests are distributed to the President, Vice, and other interested parties.
  • Ensure a parking plan has been established.
  • Assist escort officers as required.
  • Advise and assist with flag arrangements.

Escort Officers. One escort officer should be appointed for each official and personal guest. Duties of the Escort Officer:

  • Contact the guest in advance to discuss dress, location, meeting point, and composition of the audience.
  • If the guests are from out of town, meet them at their initial arrival point and arrange for transportation and accommodations during their stay.
  • Meet and escort the guest into the lounge.
  • Brief the guest on the customs, courtesies, rules, and procedures of the dining-in.
  • Make sure the guest is properly introduced to as many members of the mess as possible.
  • Ensure the guest is always in the company of several members of the mess, yet take care that no individual or group monopolizes the guest.
  • Upon the guest’s departure, escort the guest to the point of departure and bid farewell on behalf of all members of the mess.

Guest Speaker. The guest speaker’s presentation is the traditional highlight of the evening. By custom, the speaker should be distinguished either as a military officer or official of the government. The speaker should be contacted well in advance and advised of the nature of the evening. Arrangements should be made for them and other invited guests as protocol and custom dictate. Introduction of the guest speaker should avoid remarks too flattering or too lengthy. The speaker’s ability will be evident.

Planning Considerations

Start early. Two or three months should be considered a safe time to start. Set a firm date, location, and general action plan. It is a good idea to appoint a planning committee chaired by the Arrangements Officer.

The size of the committee generally depends on the magnitude of the function. A potential committee includes members responsible for the following:

  • Recorder
  • Finance
  • Invitations and reservations
  • Food and beverages
  • Decorations
  • Publicity

The people appointed as committee members must be motivated and action-oriented. The best approach for appointing committee members is to draft a letter for the President’s (Commander’s) signature. Where possible, select committee members who have expertise in the area of their responsibility.

The following is a general list of some of the more important committee tasks:

  • Setting date and location
  • Choosing a guest speaker
  • Preparing and sending invitations to senior officials and guests
  • Preparing place cards
  • Providing suitable appropriate music
  • Developing a menu, including wine selection
  • Providing seating arrangements
  • Planning for decorations
  • Developing a program
  • Ensuring suitable financial planning is done
  • Ensuring adequate bartenders are available
  • Adequate Photo support
  • Chaplain
  • Gift for speaker
  • Site inspection

Continued in Part II -- Conducting the Dining In

Above Information Courtesy of the United States Air Force Academy​