Patches: Windows on History

(This and the following articles originally appeared in the September 1991 issue of Airman magazine.)

By Lt. Col. Michael Perini
“Organizational emblems connect Air Force personnel with the heritage and traditions of their units.”
Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, USAF Chief of Staff.

From the first time aviators met in aerial combat, they’ve emblazoned their uniforms and aircraft with striking symbols and daring characters.

Nadene Russell at the Institute of Heraldry works on a drawing for a new emblem. The master “copies” used in producing the new Southwest Asia medal are in the foreground.

Military flying units have created more than 9,000 emblems. Like knights of old, they displayed these colorful symbols of the warrior spirit with pride. The graphic images rallied warriors, telegraphing instantly to would-be enemies: “We are united. We fear no one.”

It is the same today. As bluesuiters went to the Persian Gulf to fight, their unit symbols or emblems were sewn on uniforms and painted on aircraft.

“These emblems are as much symbols to Air Force ‘teams of people’ as football helmet logos are to the NFL,” said Jay Godwin, the archivist in the Office of Heraldry at the Air Force Historical Research Center, Maxwell AFB, Ala. The center processes unit emblem requests and retains original emblem paintings. “It is one way to avoid confusing one organization with another,” Godwin said.

Among the ranks, these dazzling works of art appearing on crisp uniforms are known simply as “patches.” From the flightline to the dormitory; from the dining hall to a missile silo: Patches are everywhere. All brightly colored, but today they are more seen in the subdued version.

“Patches are more than color and thread,” said Gerald Luchino, director at the Army’s Institute of Heraldry (see related story below).

“These hand-size emblems often depict a unit’s lineage or roots,” he said. Although an organization that exists today may have begun its existence with a different name or number or both, it can be identified as the same organization through its patch.

The patch ties the active duty airman to the veteran, Luchino said. “A veteran sees it. He immediately identifies with the active-duty person. They both have something in common.”

The Institute of Heraldry has heraldric references dating back to the 16th century. Ms. Rebecca Wathendunn is an illustrator at the institute.

This is a main reason why the Air Force has procedures for obtaining an okay to use a design for the organizational emblem or symbol.

Units desiring an emblem should consult Air Force Regulation 900-3 — Department of the Air Force Seal, Organizational Emblems, use and displays of Flags, Guidons, Streamers, and Automobile and Aircraft Plates. “The regulation explains what can and can’t be used as a unit symbol and the procedures used to obtain an official emblem,” Godwin said.

“We know that there are some unofficial emblems out there now and these should be registered with us.”

With Air Force organizations changing structure, Godwin feels that it is very important that the unit’s lineage be maintained and a registered emblem is part of its lineage.

The process from original design to finished product is simple. “The unit historian should be the first stop,” Godwin said.

After the visit, the fun part of emblem design can begin.

Who can design? Well, just about everyone, as long as official guidance is followed. Some design efforts have been a work of skilled artists. Others are happy-go-lucky amateurs. Expert designers can be found at the Institute of Heraldry. “We will help Air Force work up a design based on the unit’s specific duties and history,” Luchino said.

Historically, flyers and maintainers in the field first started identifying themselves by use of distinctive symbols. Their efforts weren’t without controversy. Arguments occurred over the type and use of squadron insignia, colors used and mottoes.

With attention to detail, Don Borja, the institute’s chief sculptor, works on a new seal.

A case in point: Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker decided to make use of his famous “Hat in the Ring” emblem (pictured at top lower left) in his auto business. He rode to fame with that insignia and saw no reason he couldn’t use the 94th’s insignia as a trademark on the Rickenbacker automobile. Since the emblem was born in the war and had not been created by a set of rules, he used the emblem anyway.

In the aftermath of his action, the War Department issued the first set of regulations in 1923. The rules that would guide this insignia stepchild in its growth were clear: Be simple, have some historical angle, tell a picture story significant to the unit, and remain dignified and in good taste.

Some unlikely characters have appeared in designs: Bears. Mickey Mouse. Donald Duck. Skeletons. Scythes. Dachshunds. Camels.

Godwin offers an easy lesson for designers. “Be symbolic. Don’t try to depict every aspect of your squadron’s mission. Staying simple adds power to a design.”

Ron Gibby at the institute works on a drawing. Artists have a broad knowledge of the laws and principles of heraldry.

Units don’t always come up with completely original designs, Luchino said.

“We try to ensure that each insignia design is unique and that the rules of heraldry are considered,” Luchino said. “We have heraldic references dating back to the 16th century.”

Air Force heraldry, whether in the shape of a disc or a shield, should reflect the finest traditions and aspirations of the unit. “All emblem designers should be guided by this principle. When we are asked to design, we try to give back to the unit a product it can be proud of,” Luchino said.

Those responsible for design and review of Air Force emblems need to know a few principles of design and heraldry. “For example, the eagle should face forward or to its own right and use of contrasting colors gives visual emphasis,” Luchino said. “Colors and symbols stand for certain things and represent information about the organization.”

So, the next time you put on your uniform, take a close look at your patches. These colorful emblems identify you as a member of a unique organization;

Wear them properly and proudly.

Designers of Ancient Art

Heraldic specialists are available to assist you in designing organizational emblems. At Cameron Station, in Alexandria, Virginia, the Army’s Institute of Heraldry can help Air Force units with the design and technical manufacturing aspects.

Edward Preston uses a computer to prepare one of the institute’s designs.

The 38-member staff comprise the nation’s best experts on military heraldry. Their work is renowned. From the Presidential Seal to their most recent work of art, the Southwest Asia Service Medal, they can give your unit emblem a distinctive look.

“We research, design, develop, standardize, and quality control official symbolic items – seals, decorations, medals, insignia, badges, flags and other items awarded to or authorized for wear or display by government people and agencies,” said Gerald Luchino, the institute’s director.

On average, 200 Air Force customers annually seek assistance from the institute. “We have designed individual skill badges, squadron patches, command patches and flags for Air Force units,” Luchino said.

Designing insignias involves the unit and institute working together. Sometimes the customer already has a design and wants the institute to refine and develop it. “Others come to us with just the concept and we develop an original design for them,” Luchino said.

“We do not expect everyone to know all the rules of heraldry concerning design or the criteria that governs the manufacturer of insignia,” Luchino said.

“We can change that by becoming their professional design department,” he continued. “Just let us get involved early. Ideas, concept sketches and designs can be faxed back and forth.”

The institute’s goal is to “try to give back to the unit something that can be manufactured,” Luchino said. “Too many colors and single lines of thread just won’t work. Designs must stand up to wear and tear.”

For more information, contact the USAF Historical Research Center, DSN 493-5963. Fax number: DSN 493-7428, commercial 205-593-5963. The Research Center will coordinate design of the unit’s emblem with the Army’s Institute of Heraldry. A small fee is charged by the institute to cover research, manufacturing drawings and design costs ($285-$595, depending on service).

By TSgt. Fernando Serna, Airman

About That Coat

For a well-designed emblem follow these useful tips. Submit a simple, dignified design, free of clutter and gadgetry. Be sure to use the Air Force colors, ultramarine blue and Air Force yellow, and limit the total number of colors to six. Please refer to AFR 900-3 and your unit historian for additional guidance.