They Wanted Wings

Jan. 1, 1991

A few years after the Air Force went into business for itself, a small civil war broke out in the Pentagon. At issue was a proposal to give navigators a star and wreath on top of their wings and call them “command navigators.”

Pilots said the idea was ridiculous: Nonpilots did not command aircraft–they only went along for the ride.

For a time, the rival camps refused to speak to each other, and this writer found himself in the unwelcome position of go-between. One spokesman for the navigators confided, “They can’t discuss it rationally. They just get emotional.” An hour later, a pilot said the same of the navigators.

In the end, the title chosen was “master navigator,” but the wings did have a star and wreath. For pilots, it was just another skirmish in a battle that had begun nearly half a century earlier.

In 1912, the Army created the rating of “Military Aviator.” Applicants had to reach an altitude of at least 2 ,500 feet, fly in a fifteen-mile-per-hour wind, carry a passenger, land within 150 feet of a mark, and make a twenty-mile, cross-country flight.

Charles deForest Chandler, Benjamin Foulois, and H. H. “Hap” Arnold were among the first to qualify, but all they got was a typewritten letter saying that their records would be duly noted. Brig. Gen. James Allen, the Chief Signal Officer, thought they should receive more recognition. He asked the Army to create a formal certificate signed by the Secretary of War and to develop some kind of badge.

The War Department agreed, but it took more than a year to come up with the badge. It included a gold bar embossed with the words “Military Aviator.” From it dangled an American eagle, holding Signal Corps flags in its talons. Frank Lahm, Chandler, Foulois, and Arnold were among the first of twenty-four flyers to receive it. Arnold wore his throughout his career, even after becoming a command pilot and five-star general.

The rating itself was short-lived, however. In 1914, new legislation changed the Aeronautical Division into the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, laid down tougher new requirements for pilots, and created two levels of aeronautical ratings.


For veteran flyers, it was a Catch-22. To qualify as military aviators, pilots now had to serve in the new status of junior military aviator for three years. Since the junior rating hadn’t existed during their early flying years, officers such as Foulois, Arnold, and Lahm reverted to junior aviator status for another three years. Compounding the problem was the new law’s limit on the number of aviators above the grade of lieutenant. In addition, the Army still barred officers from serving more than four years away from their original branches. Few officers could make a career of flying. To help fill the gaps, the law allowed up to twelve enlisted men to train as pilots, but few applied, and only two ever became rated, both after receiving commissions.

With the onset of World War I, the rules were eased and the Aviation Section was gradually expanded. By early 1917, however, the Army had only 131 air officers, including balloon pilots and nonflyers. Most of its fewer than 300 airplanes were obsolete. None was designed for combat. By then, sixteen aviation officers had been killed in flying accidents. Most of the survivors had little air time and no combat experience beyond that gained by Foulois and the few others who scouted for General Pershing’s 1916 punitive expedition in Mexico.

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Imperial Germany. Young Americans flocked to the Air Service, considered the Army’s most glamorous component. If it couldn’t give them adequate planes or training, at least it offered attractive costumes. The role model was dapper Eddie Rickenbacker, with his Sam Browne belt, riding breeches, and borrowed RAF flight cap. His chest-hugging tunic was spattered with medals. Above them shone his embroidered “wings.”

The first real wings were authorized on August 15, 1917. They were silver and included the initials “US” superimposed in gold on an American shield. At first, junior aviators were allowed only half-wings. That October, however, the scheme changed. Junior and Reserve aviators were permitted the full badge, the more senior military aviators were given a star above the shield, and the half-wings passed to observers. In December, the design changed again and the shield on the observers’ half-wings was replaced with an “O.”

All the early badges were embroidered individually. They varied in size and shape. The Army, never tolerant of disorder, decided to standardize. In the summer of 1918, it adopted oxidized silver wings (made of stamped metal rather than embroidered cloth) with a gold “US.” Military aviators and junior and Reserve aviators all wore the same badge: full wings with no star.

Another set of wings with a bomb in the center was authorized for “bombing military aviators.” Observers still wore half-wings with an “0,” but, in late 1918, a gold “US” was added. Enlisted pilots were given their own embroidered wings with a four-bladed prop in the center, but it was worn on the sleeve.

After the Armistice

In the wake of the November 11, 1918, Armistice, the Air Service again standardized both ratings and badges. Herbert Adams designed a basic wing shape that is still used for all aviation insignia. In December 1919, the “US” was dropped from the military aviator’s shield. The design of the badge was not altered again, but the title was changed twice, first to “airplane pilot” and then simply to “pilot.”

In 1921, the “US” was dropped also from the wings of the nonpilots. Now called “airplane observers,” they were allowed full wings, and dual-rated officers were required to wear their pilot wings.

In 1926, the Aviation Section became the Army Air Corps; five years later, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Foulois became its Chief. By the time another war erupted in Europe in 1939, “Hap” Arnold was Chief of the Corps.

In 1941, the Air Corps was reorganized as the Army Air Forces. There were three levels of pilot ratings, with wings to match. The basic wings were unchanged, but senior pilots got a star on theirs. Command pilots had a star with a wreath around it. Airplane observers of the 1920s became “combat observers,” retaining their “O.” Wings with a “T” behind the “O” were adopted for “technical observers,” including aerial photographers.

Japan’s December 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor brought another flood of volunteers; again, the goal of many youngsters was to fly. This time there were more ways to earn wings. New ten-man bombers had space for navigators, bombardiers, engineers, radio operators, and gunners.

From radios and jukeboxes, a sultry voice breathed, “He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings,” sending high school boys into romantic fantasies. Imported from England, the song topped the American Hit Parade in 1942 and stayed among the top ten for thirteen weeks. It rankled Navy aviators, whose wings were gold, but Army Air Forces officials loved it. (They were less pleased with the American flyers’ homegrown ballad: “I Wanted Wings ‘Til I Got the Goddamn Things.”)

Like the aircraft industry, the wartime insignia business boomed. Nine months after Pearl Harbor, several new types of wings appeared. A bomb superimposed on a target identified the bombardier. Navigators got a ringed sphere, known in heraldry as an armillary. Also appearing were new pilot wings, with initials on the shield–“G” for glider pilots, “L” for light-plane liaison pilots, and “S” for service pilots brought in already qualified to fly.

WASP Wings

Women also flew. Nancy Love formed the Women’s Auxiliary Flying Squadron for professional pilots with at least 1,800 hours of flying time. Jacqueline Cochran recruited less experienced women into the Women’s Flying Training Detachment. In June 1943, the two merged into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. The WASPs flew until December 1944.

Women could earn two types of wings, both based on the standard aviation badge. The more common type had a diamond in the center. The other had a shield emblazoned with the number of the pilot’s graduating class as well as a scroll showing the number of her training detachment.

A catchall “aircrew member” badge (wings bearing the US coat of arms in a circle) was adopted in 1942. In April 1943, aerial gunners received wings with a bullet in the center, and flight engineers got a pair with a four-bladed propeller. The same year, gold wings were authorized for flight surgeons. They showed a caduceus–the winged staff entwined with two snakes–superimposed on an observer’s badge. Flight nurses got a smaller set with an “N” on the caduceus. In 1944, both badges were changed to silver.

By midwar, it was getting hard to tell one specialty from another. In recently liberated countries such as Italy, however, civilians seemed to have no trouble. They would scan the badges on a group of flyers, focus on the bombardier, and berate him for bombing the village. The market got broader and broader. Insignia makers turned out “sweetheart” badges for wives and girlfriends. Some flyers spread them around like calling cards, and some women assembled museum-class collections.

The government no longer issued embroidered wings, but still they appeared. Seamstresses from Europe to the Pacific produced them with metallic thread. Some were minor works of art–until the threads broke and the metal turned a sooty black.

If what they wanted wasn’t available, crew members often took to designing their own wings. Dual-rated observers added a bomb to their navigator’s wings. They weren’t strictly legal, but officialdom was inclined to look the other way, particularly in the combat zones.

Some do-it-yourself projects drew official notice, however. One Fifteenth Air Force copilot had a working toggle switch soldered to his wings. Complaining that he had nothing else to do on the crew, he flicked the switch while he petitioned the group commander for a plane of his own. The Old Man ordered him to remove the badge but later gave him his own B-24.

Holding on to the Wings

When the Air Force became a separate service, USAF officials wanted the uniform to be a “plain blue suit” devoid of shoulder patches, corps insignia, marksmanship badges, and other MF accoutrements.

There were exceptions. Pilots would not give up their wings. (The Army had to design new ones for the aviators it retained.) The aircrew member badge also made the transition intact, though the Air Force eventually designed a separate one for officers, bearing a coat of arms set on an Air Force shield rather than in a circle.

The shield became the background for other aviation badges. Navigators and bombardiers shared a new set with a thunderbolt in the center. Some claimed that the new device looked like a bug, but headquarters held firm. Before long, the old bombardier rating became obsolete. By the time the senior and master ratings came in, the badge was pretty well accepted.

Changes to the flight surgeon badge were more subtle. Instead of the caduceus, it bore the Rod of Aesculapius, a stick with only one snake wrapped around it. The heraldic symbolism was the same, and the design was simpler than the full caduceus. The new flight nurse badge bore the same device superimposed on Florence Nightingale’s lamp.

In time, three levels of ratings were approved for all of what the Air Force now called “aerospace specialties.” Stars topped all of the single wings, and both master navigators and chief aircrew members got a wreath around their stars. Chief flight surgeons and nurses, however, were given a scroll behind the star, presumably to show that they didn’t operate the aircraft.

A skirmish erupted over the parachute badge. The Army version had upswept wings with a parachute in the center. The Air Force adopted a wingless shield with a chute on a blue enameled background. Some old jumpers said it looked like something out of a Cracker Jack box and clung to their old Army wings. The Air Force eventually ruled that the Army badge could be worn only until its owner earned the Air Force equivalent. The last major change in aviation insignia was made in the early 1960s and came during one of the periodic struggles over the future of military aviation.

Soon after World War II, the Air Force had begun to look beyond conventional aircraft to a new generation of rocket-powered vehicles. Encouraged by the success of the X-IS, it hoped to put a man into orbit in the X-20, a “dynamic soaring” space glider nicknamed Dyna-Soar. But the cold war was on, and the United States was accusing the Soviets of exploiting space for military purposes. To show its own purely peaceful intentions, Washington gave the US manned space program to the civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The services supported the space program with everything from launchpads and recovery ships to experienced test pilots. However, NASA played down the military contribution to the point of requiring the astronauts to wear civilian clothes.

One of Its Own

On July 21,1961, however, Air Force Capt. Virgil I. Grissom made America’s second suborbital flight, and the Air Force wasn’t about to let the nation forget he was one of its own. It skipped several steps in the heraldic process, added a shooting star to a pilot’s badge, and presented the first pilot-astronaut badge with appropriate ceremony. Captain Grissom appeared in uniform. Aged Benjamin Foulois, who got his wings a half-century earlier, was there to shake his hand.

The Grissom achievement was cold comfort for those who had hoped to see the Air Force itself chart the way to the stars. Still, there was some fine print in the regulation covering the new pilot-astronaut rating. It said that the badge could be given to any USAF pilot who had flown to an altitude of at least fifty miles. That included not only NASA astronauts but also other high-flying pilots.

In 1962, Maj. Robert M. White piloted the X-15 to an altitude of 314,750 feet, almost sixty miles above the Earth, and flew it home. Almost twenty years before the first shuttle flight took place, the Air Force’s second pilot-astronaut had flown into space and returned–not by parachute, but in a winged aircraft that made a controlled landing.

He got his new wings.

Between tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War, Bruce D. Callander earned a B.A. in journalism at the University of Michigan. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, becoming editor in 1972. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “Bombardier,” appeared in the December 1990 issue.