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Earn an extra stripe: Senior Airman 'Below the Zone'

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt Joshua Hoskins
  • 33rd Fighter Wing

Enlisted Airmen are held to a regimented promotion cycle. To advance from airman first class to the next rank of senior airman, Traditionally you’d complete either 36 months time in service and 20 months time in grade or 36 months time in grade, whichever comes first. For a select few Airmen, an opportunity to promote early presents itself through below-the-zone promotions.

Senior airman below-the-zone is a one-time advancement consideration to earn the rank of senior airman from the rank of airman first class six months before the standard fixed promotion date. This opportunity is afforded to those Airmen who show exceptional performance, and carry out duties at a level above their current rank. 

Airmen are selected for nomination by their chain-of-command based on a culmination of scores for job performance in their primary duties, leadership and followership, whole airman concept, cross flow activities and finally an in-person interview. During the interview process, a board of senior leaders reviews a bulleted package of the Airman's major accomplishments and attributes. 

Master Sgt. Alexis Valdez, 33rd Fighter Wing first sergeant, says that if you’re already doing an outstanding job, leaders will want to put you up for it. They see the effort and see the hard work being put in.

“Your end goal should not be about qualifying for BTZ but about growing as a person,” said Valdez. “Interested Airmen should look at the advancement not as a goal, but as a by-product of hard work put in by the member each day.”

Many aspects are tracked to determine who is nominated for BTZ promotions and eligible Airmen should be aware of some of the more important ones. 

The top 5 things Airmen need to understand about BTZ, according to Valdez:

  1. Knowing when you’re up for BTZ
  2. Meeting and exceeding the expectations of your job is the top priority
  3. Getting involved with your community helps you
  4. Focus on job performance, leadership and follower-ship, and the whole airman concept
  5. Communicating with your supervisor is key 

“After I let people know that I was interested in applying for a BTZ promotion, my supervisors and peers started helping by putting me in positions where I could succeed.” said Airman 1st Class Jessica Wilkens, 33rd FW administrative specialist and BTZ recipient. “My best advice is to be a go-getter. Put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to ask for more responsibility if you can handle it.”

Once eligible, Airmen are identified by their chain-of-command and processed through the host wing’s military personnel flight. They will meet an in-person board where they will be evaluated on six categories including enlisted heritage, customs and courtesies, dress and appearance, questions regarding the member’s quarterly award package, and current events.  The board members are able to ask the individuals questions pertaining to these topics and grade each answer individually before conferring and selecting the promotees. 

Master Sgt. Andrew Dobbe, 33rd FW Staff Agencies superintendent and previous BTZ board member, advises Airmen interested in being considered for the program to read Air Force Handbook 36-1618, more commonly referred to as the “little brown book” in order to learn what your current role within your organization should entail and how to emulate the next rank to really stand out. 

“Being able to promote yourself and win awards is one thing, but how are you bringing others up with you,” asks Dobbe. “Personally, and most importantly, the most important thing about performing at the next level is raising others up as well.”

The 33rd FW had seven Airmen receive a senior airman BTZ promotion statement in latest selection round:


Airman 1st Class Caleb Evans (33rd AMXS)

Airman 1st Class Cheyenne McCutcheon (33rd AMXS)

Airman 1st Class Julia Tolentino (33rd AMXS)

Airman 1st Class Jessica Wilkins (33rd FW)

Airman 1st Class Aliciya Higdon (33rd MXS)

Airman 1st Class Cuauhtemoc Mayorquin (33rd MXS)

Airman 1st Class Brelee Bailey (33rd MXG)