Although the design of the current USAF Pilot badge is identical to the one used in the pre-Air Force days of the U.S. Army Air Force, the tradition of a winged badge being awarded to military aviators is over a century old.

Created to display the level of an aviator’s skills, military aviator ratings were first awarded in 1912; badges reflecting these honors were given in 1913. The recipient of the first Military Aviator badge was Captain Charles DeForest Chandler, who served as head of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps—the forerunner of today’s Air Force—from August 1, 1907 until June 30, 1910, then stepped back into that position from June 20, 2011 to September 9, 1913. Chandler was presented with the gold badge by General George Scriven, Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army, on October 6, 1913.

The creation of different skill levels, or aeronautical ratings, was introduced in 1914 and grew during World War I with the introduction of both airplanes and balloons above the battlefields in Europe. But it was during World War II, when the vital importance of air power was fully realized, that the U.S. Army Air Corps settled on the three-tiered rating system—Pilot, Senior Pilot, and Command Pilot—that is still used today by the successor to the Army Air Corps, the United States Air Force.

Aeronautical ratings are assigned to other members of an aircrew besides pilots, and all their badges are “winged.” But the Pilot badge has bragging rights as the first to employ this instantly recognizable design, mimicked by countless companies over the decades. And it doubtless is the source of the phrase “earn your wings,” meaning you’ve proven yourself to be reliable and competent.

The requirements for each level of the Pilot Badge are detailed in Air Force Instruction 11-402, Aviation and Parachutist Service, Aeronautical Ratings and Aviation Badges.

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