With Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) Rodney McKinley set to retire this summer, there is no shortage of speculation about his potential successor.

As Air Force Times reported last week, there are least five candidates to replace McKinley as the service’s top enlisted leader. All currently serve as command chiefs, the traditional gateway to the CMSAF post. Thirteen of the fifteen men who have held that job were in a command chief billet at the time of their selection.

This time, the pool of leading candidates includes a woman, Chief Master Sergeant Pam Derrow, who currently serves as command chief of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. Chief Derrow isn’t the first woman to be a potential nominee for CMSAF, but some believe she’s the leading contender in this selection process.

Retired CMSAF Gerald Murray, who held the job before McKinley believes its “only a matter of time” before a female chief is selected for the post. Gender should not be an issue, he told the Times, if “she has the right skills and experience.”

Along with Chief Derrow, the list of expected nominees is believed to include:

– Chief Master Sergeant Kenneth McQuiston, command chief for U.S. Transportation Command at Scott AFB, Illinois.

– Chief Master Sergeant Richard Small, who serves in the same capacity at Air Force Space Command, headquartered at Peterson AFB, Colorado.

– Chief Master Sergeant Stephen Sullens, command chief for Air Combat Command at Langley AFB, Virginia

– Chief Master Sergeant Anthony Bishop, the top enlisted leader for Pacific Air Forces, Hickam AFB, Hawaii.

While there is no standing list of qualifications for the CMSAF post, previous holders of that position had at least 26 years of active duty service, and experience in working with senior officers, including the Air Force Chief of Staff.

If that’s the case, the Chief McQuiston may have the inside track. His old boss at TRANSCOM was none other that General Norton Schwartz, who is now the Chief of Staff.

But some enlisted leaders view McQuiston as the worst possible choice. Former colleagues at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, where he previously served as command chief, describe McQuiston as a consummate politician who often by-passes the enlisted force–the men and women he is supposed to represent–in favor of “cozy working relationships with senior officers.”

“This guy brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘boot-licker,” wrote one Spangdahlem veteran. “E-9 McQuiston will be your worst nightmare, and the worst thing to happen to the AF enlisted force ever! He has been introducing him self as “16” for years [the numerical designation for the next CMSAF]. He was awarded not one but 2 step promotions under dubious circumstances and before he had enough TIG [Time in Grade].

CMSgt McQuiston is going to micromanage the entire enlisted force from his perch unless you act now…don’t take my word for it ask anyone who was at Spangdahlem from 2000-2004. They will tell you what he is like. Back then we feared the day when his name would be on the shortlist, we all knew it would be! We talked of how he went to Afghanistan just for show, he came back telling tales of rocket attacks and land mines that did not exist!

Officially, the Air Force won’t say who’s on the short list for CMSAF. The nomination process ended on March 20th; senior USAF leaders will whittle the list to four of five candidates, who will be interviewed by General Schwartz. The new CMSAF is expected to be announced in May, about a month before McKinley’s retirement ceremony.

Despite the prestige and visibility of the CMSAF post, many Air Force members view the position–and its occupant–with a mixture indifference and disdain. From their perspective, the service’s senior enlisted leader is little more than a mouthpiece for senior leadership, with less concern for issues affecting junior airmen.

One retired CMSgt, with years of experience as both a first sergeant and command chief, says those accusations are not without merit. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he cited the tenures of Gary Pfingston and David Campanale, who served as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in the 1990s. The retired chief described both men as “arrogant,” devoting much of their time to trivial matters (including a campaign to “bring back” name tapes for battle dress uniforms), or taking credit for disastrous initiatives, like the government travel card program.

Will the next Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force buck that discouraging trend? At a critical time in the service’s history, airmen can only hope so.

ADDENDUM: The nomination process for the new CMSAF closed as the service mourned the passing of the first man to hold that post, Paul Airey. Chief Airey passed away in Florida last week at the age of 86, after a battle with cancer and heart disease.

Airey’s selection as the first CMSAF came in response to Congressional pressure. In 1966, the Air Force belatedly established the position after South Carolina Congressman L. Mendell Rivers asked why the service didn’t have a senior enlisted post similar to the Sergeant Major of the Army, or the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. Reading the tea leaves, the USAF quickly established the CMSAF post, and selected Airey as the first man to hold that job.

Four decades after his retirement, Chief Airey remains the “gold standard” for the position. He worked tirelessly on programs like the Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS), the program that governs enlisted advancement in the USAF. Airey also did much to establish the formal roles and responsibilities associated with the CMSAF. At the time of his death, Chief Airey was described as an Air Force “legend.”

And rightly so.