Air Medal in the Armed Forces of the United States

The Air Medal is awarded to a person serving with the Army that has set himself/herself apart from his/her comrades by meritorious achievement while involved in aerial flight. The award may be made upon the acknowledgment of single acts of merit or heroism, or for meritorious service. The award of the Air Medal is chiefly meant to acknowledge either a current crew member or non-crew member whose principal duties include regular flight. 

Physical Description of the Air Medal

Female Army soldier saluting with the American flag in the background

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The Air Medal is a bronze compass rose of 1 11/16 inches diameter. An eagle holding two bolts of lightning in its talons is charged in downward attacking flight. It is held to the suspension ring at the top by a fleur-de-lis. On the reverse side of the medal, there is a space available for the name of the recipient to be engraved. The points of the compass rose are modeled.

Air Medal Ribbon

The ribbon of the Air Medal is 1 3/8 inches wide and has five stripes. The first stripe is 1/8 inch of ultramarine blue, the second is 1/4 inch of golden orange, the middle is 5/8 inch ultramarine blue, the fourth 1/4 inch golden orange and the last is 1/8 inch ultramarine blue.

Criteria Required to Be Awarded the Air Medal

To be awarded the medal, the recipient must have made an evident contribution to the operational land combat mission or to the mission of the aircraft in flight.

Those in attack elements of units engaged in air-land assaults against an armed enemy and those directly engaged in airborne command and run of combat operations are among those who may be considered.

The measure of heroism, meritorious accomplishment, or commendable service, however, will determine who will be awarded the Air Medal. It will not be awarded to anyone who uses air transportation only for the means of traveling from place to place, even within a combat zone.

Background of the Air Medal Award

On March 9th, 1942, the Secretary of War wrote a letter to the Director, Bureau of Budget, suggesting an executive order creating the Air Medal for award to any person who, while serving in any capacity of the Army of the United States, set himself/herself apart by meritorious achievement while involved in an aerial flight.

It was noted that "[t]he Distinguished Flying Cross is available only for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight [...] It is desired not to cheapen the Distinguished Flying Cross by awarding it for achievement not bordering on the heroic. It is, however, important to reward personnel for meritorious service."

On May 11, 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the Air Medal by Executive Order 9158 and established the award for "any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard of the United States subsequent to September 8, 1939, distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight." This later was amended to include "in any capacity in or with the Army."

On December 31, 1942, artist Walker Hancock's blueprint for the medal's design was approved by the Secretary of War.

At the inception of the award of the Air Medal, oak leaf clusters were used to show previous awards of the medal. In September of 1968, the procedure was changed to demand the use of numbers to show previous awards, as it was soon evident that with as many awards as were awarded, that the oak leaf clusters would not fit on the ribbon.

During times of peace, the Air Medal may be awarded, but the approval authority for an award at this time is not given to field commanders.