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History and Heritage

What is a Chief?

125 Years of Leading and Mentoring

April 1, 1893 is the birthdate of the rank of chief petty officer, as established by General Order 409. This date marks the start of entrusting senior first class petty officers to become something more, to serve as subject matter experts and trainers.


Becoming a chief petty officer is more than just moving up another rank. It is joining a group of brothers and sisters who are tasked with training and mentoring both junior Sailors and junior officers. Indeed, junior petty officers looking to their chiefs are looking for guidance, whether it is on how to be a chief or just simple life advice.

What makes a chief? Is it the anchors? His experience? Her khakis? All Hands Magazine recently sat down with a group of chief petty officers at Naval Air Systems Command and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, to discuss what a chief is and the importance of deckplate leadership.

Senior Chief Aviation Electronics Technician Steven Roberts Junior

"A chief petty officer is the most senior enlisted leader, or leaders, that you see on the deckplate with the Sailors ... working with them side-by-side, training and mentoring at the same time. Chiefs are also the mentors for junior officers and, in addition, they also provide sound counsel and are great inspiration of knowledge to senior officers and the triad." (The three highest ranking officials at a command, usually the commanding officer, the executive officer and the command master chief.)

Chief Aviation Electronics Technician Beau Browning

"A chief is almost like a guiding principle. We are the seniority, we are the longevity. We have all of these years of experience to provide guidance, not just to our junior Sailors below, but we are the guiding point, almost like a walking textbook reference ... for today's division officers or tomorrow's commanding officers, and it is on us to help develop them into that position."

Command Master Chief Tim McKinley

"Chief in and of itself is our rate. You have to know how to be a chief. By the time that you are a chief, and, certainly, we expect it as a first class as well, 'Ask the Chief' isn't just a t-shirt. If a Sailor comes to you and asks a question ... they are going to ask you a question about the Navy, and you can't rely on, 'Hey I am the best AT chief on the planet.' If you don't know how to be just a chief as well, and be brilliant on the basics, that can be problematic. It's not just being a subject matter expert in your technical field, it's being a subject matter expert on the Navy as a chief."

Senior Chief Aviation Electronics Technician Mark Reed

"When they see that you are right there with them, they are a whole lot more motivated to go through it with you. Being on the deckplates and being out there, not being stuck behind a computer monitor, but being out there with them and making sure that they have what they need and they don't have questions on how to get something done, that is what helps them out with that."

Command Master Chief Kathryne Coleman

"Gone are the days of sitting behind the desk. People want to see things; you may not have to go out 24/7 and make sure your presence is known. It is kind of like when you go home to see your family. Your family is always going to be there for you, but when you go home, there's these special moments. There is that time that you get to reconnect and have that individual or sometimes a group setting. When you're out walking the deckplates and your Sailors see you or you're like, 'Hey, what are you doing?' you're kind of recognizing them. They know that, 'Hey, my chief is involved. They know what I am doing, they know the hard work that I am putting in on a daily basis.'"

These five are just a fraction of the thousands of chiefs throughout the Navy who help guide and mentor Sailors and junior officers every day. It can be said that behind every great Sailor is a great chief petty officer.

Editor's note: For 125 years, chiefs have been the backbone of the Navy, and for the next 125 years, it will stay the same. If you want to know more, find a chief and ask him or her the hard questions.