Air Medal

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Air Medal
Air Medal front.jpg
Awarded by the United States Armed Forces
Type Military medal
Awarded for Meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight
Status Currently awarded
Established Executive Order 9158, May 11, 1942 (as amended by E.O. 9242-A, September 11, 1942)
Next (higher) Meritorious Service Medals:
Joint Service, Branch Service
Next (lower) Air Force: Aerial Achievement Medal
Army, Navy & Marine Corps: Commendation Medals
Air Medal Ribbon

Air Medal back.jpg
Air Medal ribbon (above) - Reverse side of medal (below)

The Air Medal is a military decoration of the United States Military. The medal was created in 1942 and is awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.[1]


The Air Medal was established by Executive Order 9158, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, on 11 May 1942. The Air Medal was awarded retroactive to 8 September 1939. The medal is awarded to anyone who, while serving in any capacity in or with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself or herself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.[1][2][3]

The original award criteria set by an Army Policy Letter (dated 25 September 1942) was for one award of the Air Medal...:[4]

  • per each naval vessel or three enemy aircraft in flight confirmed destroyed. (An entire aircrew would be credited for the destruction of a ship but only the pilot or gunner responsible would be credited for destroying an enemy aircraft).
  • per twenty-five (25) operational flights during which exposure to enemy fire is probable and expected.
  • per one-hundred (100) operational flights during which exposure to enemy fire is not expected.

These criteria were later altered by the commanding generals of each numbered Air Force to fit the conditions of their theater of operations and to maintain morale. The Distinguished Flying Cross would usually be awarded for roughly twice to five times the requirements of the Air Medal. This led to automatic "score card" awards of the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross for completing a set number of operational missions rather than distinguished service, meritorious action, or bravery as had been intended.

On 5 August 1943 "score card" awards for completing a set number of operational flights were officially abolished by a Headquarters Army Air Forces Awards Board memorandum. This was due to the embarrassment when airmen who had received the Air Medal for "score carding" five missions or more being later removed from flying duties for "lack of moral fibre".[4] Commanders could still issue the awards on those grounds, but the recipient must perform exceptional or meritorious service as well.

Army Air Forces (1942-1947)[edit]

During World War II the medal's award criteria varied widely depending on the theater of operations, the aircraft flown, and the missions accomplished.

In Europe the airspace was considered completely controlled by the enemy and heavy air defenses were encountered - so the criteria was altered from than that of the original medal. Bomber, photographic reconnaissance, or observation crewmembers and air transport pilots received it for five sorties, fighter pilots received it for ten sorties, and individual pilots or aircrewmen received one award per enemy aircraft shot down.

Elsewhere in the Pacific and CBI the pilots and crews flew mostly over uncontrolled or contested airspace for long hours and lighter air defenses were encountered, so much higher criteria were used.[4]

Air Force (1947 to Present)[edit]

The Air Medal may be awarded to recognize either single acts of merit or gallantry in combat or for meritorious service in a combat zone. Award of the Air Medal is primarily intended to recognize those personnel who are on current crew member or non-crew member flying status which requires them to participate in aerial flight on a regular and frequent basis in the performance of their primary duties. However, it may also be awarded to certain other individuals whose combat duties require regular and frequent flying in other than a passenger status, or individuals who perform a particularly noteworthy act while performing the function of a crew member but who are not on flying status. These individuals must make a discernible contribution to the operational land combat mission or to the mission of the aircraft in flight.[5]

Examples of personnel whose combat duties require them to fly include those in the attack elements of units involved in air-land assaults against an armed enemy and those directly involved in airborne command and control of combat operations. Examples would be transport performing supporting "Dustoff" Medevac or resupply operations, or aircraft involved in reconnaissance over hostile airspace. Awards will not be made to individuals who use air transportation solely for the purpose of moving from point to point in a combat zone.

The Air Force uses the aircraft sortie designation as a tool, but uses Oak Leaf Clusters rather than Strike / Flight Numerals to indicate additional awards. A member's individual flight management records will list the sorties that are eligible for the award. These sorties are designated Combat, Combat Support, or Operational (Active Air Defense or Hostile Reconnaissance). Only the first sortie of the day counts. Armed aircraft crews require ten sorties for each award, while all others require twenty sorties.

The Army and the Air Force also awards the Air Medal with the "V" Device for acts of heroism in combat. The Secretary of the Air Force approved the "V" device for Air Medals awarded for heroism effective 21 Oct 2004. This applies to all Air Force members (Active Duty, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard), retirees, and veterans. It is not authorized for wear on the medal for an earlier date.

The Army may award the Air Medal for peacetime service, but approval authority is by general-grade officers at the group or brigade level or higher. The Air Force does not award the Air Medal for peace-time sustained operational activities and flights. Non-combat meritorious service is instead awarded the Aerial Achievement Medal, instituted in 1988.


US Air Force[edit]

The Air Force does not utilize numerals on the Air Medal. Subsequent awards are annotated with the traditional oak leaf clusters (or OLCs). Enlisted members are also awarded three points toward promotion per award.

Each ribbon carries a maximum of 4 OLCs; the ribbon signifies the first award, a bronze OLC equals one additional award, and a silver OLC represents 5 additional awards. If there were more than four OLC devices awarded (like the 10th, 14th, 15th, 18th, 19th, and 20th awards), extra Air Medal ribbons were issued to wear the extra OLCs (although only one Air Medal was awarded). Multiple Air Medals were usually earned by aircrew with extensive flight time and long meritorious service records, like during World War II or Korea.

The award of the medal is sometimes denoted on a member's gravestone with the abbreviation "AM" followed by an ampersand and the number of oak leaf clusters or "OLC". For example, "AM&5 OLC" means Air Medal and 5 oak leaf clusters.[6]

US Army[edit]

Subsequent awards of the Air Medal are denoted in the U.S. Army by award numerals displayed on the medal and ribbon. The Army originally used Oak Leaf Clusters to signify additional awards. However this was changed to numerals in September, 1968 during the Vietnam War, when the number of Air Medals awarded became too large to be annotated on a single ribbon. Since February 29, 1964, the medal can be awarded with a Combat "V" for Valor for an act of meritorious action or bravery against an armed enemy that doesn't meet the criteria for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Currently (as per AR 600-8-22 [11 December 2006])[7] the medal can be awarded for every six months of meritorious service. The recipient must perform flight-related duties while serving in a combat zone. The number of flight hours logged are no longer a criterion. The soldier must be assigned as air crew with flight status (i.e., as a pilot, navigator, or gunner). Soldiers without flight status can be eligible if they help with an aerial attack during general transport (e.g., as a door gunner), serve as a combat controller (e.g., as a Pathfinder or Forward Air Controller) or the combat commander of an air / land operation at the Group / Brigade level or lower. Soldiers who are just being transported by air as passengers are not eligible for the meritorious service award but may be eligible for the gallantry award.

Air Medal [Army] (1968-2006)[edit]

During the Vietnam War the US Army awarded the Air Medal to Warrant Officer or Commissioned pilots and enlisted aircrew for actual flight time. This became a bureaucratic nightmare to correctly log because of the short flight times of typical helicopter flights. Later, an equivalent "flight hours" conversion was created and an award standard was set by individual commands, later standardized in theater to one award per every 24 "flight hours" logged.[8] Regardless of the flight's actual length, a simplified set time was awarded depending on the type of mission.[8] Administrative or VIP flights counted for 1/4 hour, regular duties (like Visual Reconnaissance or Resupply) counted for 1/2 hour, and hazardous duties (e.g., Combat Assaults or Extractions) counted for 1 hour. Pilots and Aircrew could log over 1,000 "flight hours" a year and earn a 40 or higher numeral on their Air Medal ribbon. This policy was changed on December 11, 2006, when it was per 6 months of meritorious service rather than the set number of flight hours.

US Navy / US Marine Corps[edit]

Air Medal Device Arrangements.png

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have two types of Air Medal awards: "Individual" for singular meritorious acts and "Strike/Flight" for participation in sustained aerial flight operations.

As of September 27, 2006, gold numerals are used to denote the number of "Individual" Air Medals. (This is a return to the standard used before November 22, 1989.) Since April 5, 1974, the Combat "V" for Valor may be authorized for awards for meritorious action or gallantry in conflict with an armed enemy.

Bronze Strike/Flight numerals denote the total number of Strike/Flight awards. Sorties are missions or sustained operations involving aircraft, like: delivering ordnance against the enemy, landing or evacuating personnel in an assault, or in which personnel are engaged in search and rescue operations. Strikes are combat sorties that encounter enemy opposition. Flights are combat sorties that do not encounter enemy opposition.

Officers of Captain (USN) or Colonel (USMC) rank and above are not eligible for award of the Air Medal on a Strike/Flight basis unless the sorties they fly are required in the performance of their regular duties.

Air Medal [Navy / Marine Corps] (1989-2006)[edit]

In the interval between November 22, 1989 and September 27, 2006, bronze 3/16-inch stars, gold 5/16-inch stars, and silver 3/16-inch stars denoted the number of "Individual" Air Medals. A bronze star was used to denote a first award. Gold stars were used for the second through the fifth awards, seventh through tenth awards, and so on. Silver stars were used in lieu of five gold stars, and denote the sixth and eleventh (and so on) awards. For "Individual" Air Medals, the Combat "V" may be authorized. Bronze Strike/Flight numerals denoted the number of Strike/Flight awards.

US Coast Guard[edit]

The United States Coast Guard also awards the "Individual" Air Medal but not the Strike/Flight Award. Gold and silver 5/16 inch stars are authorized for wear to denote additional Air Medal awards. The gold star denotes the second through fifth award of the Air Medal. The Coast Guard is not authorized any other military device[9] for the Air Medal.

Civil Air Patrol[edit]

During World War II, the Air Medal was also awarded to members of the Civil Air Patrol that had been participants in that organization's anti-submarine patrol program. This wasn't publicized because the United States didn't want it known that they were arming civilian aircraft.


The medal's design is prescribed by law.

Description: A Bronze compass rose 1 11/16 inches circumscribing diameter and charged with an eagle volant carrying two lightning flashes in its talons. A fleur-de-lis at the top point holds the suspension ring. The points of the compass rose on the reverse are modeled with the central portion plain for engraving the name of the recipient.

Ribbon: The ribbon is 1 3/8 inches wide and consists of the following stripes:

  1. 1/8 inch Ultramarine Blue 67118;
  2. 1/4 inch Golden Orange 67109;
  3. center 5/8 inch Ultramarine Blue;
  4. 1/4 inch Golden Orange; and
  5. 1/8 inch Ultramarine Blue.

Components: The following are authorized components of the Air Medal and the applicable specifications for each:

  • a. Decoration (regular size): MIL-D-3943/23. NSN for decoration set is 8455-00-269-5747. For replacement medal NSN 8455-00-246-3837.
  • b. Decoration (miniature size): MIL-D-3943/23. NSN 8455-00-996-5002.
  • c. Ribbon: MIL-R-11589/7. NSN 8455-00-252-9963.
  • d. Lapel Button: MIL-L-11484/17. NSN 8455-00-257-4308.

Designer: Walker Hancock. Hancock had competed for the medal design as a civilian, but prior to the award of the competition had been inducted into the army.[1]

Notable recipients[edit]

Lt. General Gordon M. Graham (ace with 28)


  1. ^ a b c "Factsheets:Air Medal". Airforce Personnel Center. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  2. ^ "Executive Orders Disposition Tables". National Archives. 9258. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  3. ^ "Executive Orders Disposition Tables". National Archives. 9242-a. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal Criteria in the Army Air Forces in World War II
  5. ^ 578.19 Air Medal
  6. ^
  7. ^ [AR 600-8-22 Military Awards [Revision 24 June 2013]; Section 3-17: Air Medal (pp. 42-43)]
  8. ^ a b Rottman, Gordon L. US Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam Osprey Publishing (2008), pp.44-45
  9. ^ DoD Award Manual, 2010, 1348.33, V3, P. 1 (2), lists service devices
  10. ^ Rees Shapiro, T. (2011-01-15). "Bill Bower, last surviving bomber pilot of WWII Doolittle Raid, dies at 93". Washington Post. Retrieved 2011-01-30. 
  11. ^ "Combat pilot in two wars led Blue Angels". Los Angeles Times. 2007-12-07. Archived from the original on 2008-01-11. Retrieved 2007-12-13. 

External links[edit]