The Aerial Achievement Medal was the source of some controversy even before it was established by Secretary of the Air Force Edward Aldridge on February 5, 1988. It began in May, 1987, when top brass at the Air Force’s Tactical Air Command (TAC) began an initiative to establish a new “sustained aerial achievement decoration” to be awarded to aircrew members whose duties are not directly related to flight or navigation. The motivation for the new award was that TAC officials felt that the Air Force was debasing the prestige associated with Air Medals, by awarding too many of them “to crewmembers who are not an integral part of the flight crew.” It wasn’t that TAC felt these aircrew members did not deserve recognition, just not on the same level as those on the aircrew performing tasks essential to flight.
The proposal was not warmly received by other MAJCOM such as Strategic Air Command and the Military Airlift Command, which viewed the Air Medal “the most appropriate means to recognize all aircrew members” considering the “available recognition, legal ramification and costs.”
“Legal ramification” referred to the wording of the Executive Order issued by Franklin Roosevelt that originally established the Air Medal in 1942. It was to be awarded to “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.” Simply put, the Air Force could not resolve the problem of “over-awarding” Air Medals by not awarding it to aircrew members based on either their rank or role because the Executive Order explicitly stated it was to be awarded for “any person who, while serving in any capacity . . . distinguishes . . . himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
The solution, however, was to be found in the Executive Order itself.
In the second paragraph, the Order states that “The Air Medal and appurtenances thereto shall ...under such regulations as said Secretaries may prescribe, may be awarded...”, which is a convoluted way of saying the “Air Medal may be awarded under such regulations as said Secretaries may prescribe.” By 1987, of course, that codicil included the Secretary of the Air Force, and the ball was placed in his court after a memorandum to the Air Force Chief of Staff noted that he could stop awarding the Air Medal for sustained service and instead limit it to one-time acts of extraordinary achievement. Such a standard would not only match the criteria employed at the time by the Army and the Navy (and Marine Corps), but also would adhere to the wording of the Executive Order that created the Air Medal in the first place.
Thus the Aerial Achievement was born—to be awarded for sustained meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight, not to be awarded for a single event—and the Air Medal modified to be awarded for “heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight,” but not for “sustained operational activities and flights.”
In 2003 the Secretary of the Air Force approved awarding the Aerial Achievement Award to operators of Remotely Piloted Aircraft, including those controlling onboard systems such as weapons and radar.