The First Century of Aviation in Medals

by Peter van Alfen

On a bitterly cold December day in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright took to the air in a craft that he had hand-built with his brother Wilbur. Mankind’s first powered flight was not long-lived, only 12 seconds, but it did offer an answer to a question that had teased technical minds for millennia: how can we soar like the birds? With the Wright brothers’ emphatic response the first century of aviation—a word built upon the Latin word for “bird,” avis—officially began.

Victor David Brenner’s 1905 Aero Club of America medal depicting the Wright Brothers on the obverse and a Wright Flyer airborne on the reverse (ANS 0000.999.6798).

1909 Congressional medal, obverse by Charles Barber, reverse by George Morgan, celebrating the Wright Brothers’ aeronautical achievements. Note that Barber reversed the order of the Brenner’s profiles (ANS 0000.999.45925).

Today the technical progress in aircraft and flight over the last 100 years is taken for granted. We think nothing of boarding, along with hundreds of other passengers, monstrous Boeing 747s, that weigh over 400 tons at take-off, and flying non-stop to destinations on the other side of the world. Jet air-travel, with its movies, magazines, and piped-in music, is now so commonplace that we freely complain about the uncomfortable seats and bad food on journeys that last hours, rather than days or even months. But this ease of air travel was a long time coming; the first all-metal, multi-engine airliners, like the 10-seat Ford Trimotor, were not introduced until the late-1920s; the first pressurized airliners, the Boeing 307 Stratoliners, that could fly “overweather,” were introduced in the early 1940s; jet airliners would not see regular service until the mid-1950s, and only in the late 1960s did jets all but fully replace older piston-powered craft, like the enduring Lockheed Constellation, on national and international routes.

Oscar J.W. Hansen’s Art Deco piece celebrating the 10th anniversary of the National Air Races, “The Olympiad of the Air,” in 1930 (ANS 1940.100.2166, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Eidlitz).

Small coin-like medal commemorating Amelia Earhart as the first woman to cross the Atlantic by airplane (ANS 0000.999.45913).

Notable developments in aviation were often fueled by war, such as the race between the Axis and Allied powers in World War II to develop jet-powered planes, a race that the Germans won with the Messerschmitt 262, the first jet used in combat. But during the Golden Age of Aviation, the 1910s through the 1930s, it was the bravery of singular men and women pushing the envelope of possibility that encouraged great strides in airframe and power plant development. This was the age of aviation “firsts”: the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean non-stop west to east (Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis, 1927); the first to cross non-stop east to west against the winds (Baron Ehrenfried Günther Freiherr von Hünefeld, a.k.a. “The Crazy Baron,” Hermann Köhl, and James C. Fitzmaurice in the Bremen, 1928); the first woman to fly the Atlantic (Amelia Earhart, first as a passenger on the seaplane Friendship in 1928, then as a solo pilot in 1932); the first flight over the North Pole (Admiral Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett in a Fokker Trimotor named Josephine Ford, 1926); the first to fly over the South Pole (Admiral Richard E. Byrd and a crew of four, in a trimotor named for Floyd Bennett who died in 1928 of pneumonia while helping to salvage the Bremen along with Charles Lindbergh, 1929). This was also the age of barnstorming and air races, the “Olympiads of the Air.”

Medal commemorating the first east-west crossing of the Atlantic by “The Crazy Baron” and his co-pilots, portrayed on the reverse, in a modified Junkers W33, Bremen, pictured on the obverse (ANS 1929.999.424, gift of F.C.C. Boyd).

Medal by Julio Kilenyi commissioned by the Wright Aeronautical Corporation which built the Cyclone engines (one of which is pictured on the reverse) that powered Admiral Byrd’s Fokker Trimotor (pictured on the obverse) on his North Pole crossing (ANS 1930.163.3, gift of The Whitehead and Hoag Co.).

Although lumbering airships were invented before the Wright brothers’ first flight, they benefited tremendously from the subsequent technology developed for airplanes. For a while in the 1920s and 1930s these craft seemed to hold the key to speedy and comfortable long-distance air travel that the airplanes of the day could not provide; so important were these massive aircraft—some over 800 ft. long—that the spire atop the Empire State Building was designed to be a mooring post. For over a decade, air ships like Germany’s famed Graf Zeppelin, made hundreds of trans-Atlantic crossings carrying thousands of passengers in the type of comfort found only on board ocean-going vessels. Airships also had their non-commercial “firsts,” such as Lincoln Ellsworth’s polar crossings. The future of the airship, however, came to an abrupt end on May 6, 1937, when the Hindenburg burst into flames while mooring at Lakehurst, New Jersey, having just finished a trans-Atlantic crossing; 36 people perished.

Congressional medal, obverse by John Sinnock, reverse by Adam Pietz, awarded to Lincoln Ellsworth for his crossing of the North Pole in the airship Norge in May 1926 (ANS 1933.64.88).

During the Golden Age and even after, aviation milestones were celebrated with tickertape parades and medals commissioned from well-known artists, a commission often solicited by Congress. At times too the airlines and manufacturers would issue souvenir medals to draw attention to the latest technological advances. But in recent decades, fewer and fewer aviation medals have been issued, a sign not so much of a decline in medallic art, but an indication of just how routine, even ordinary aviation has become. This in itself is a remarkable achievement considering the inauspicious beginnings of the airplane a century ago at Kitty Hawk.

Medal by Annie Mouroux commemorating the record breaking Paris-New York flight of French aviators Maurice Bellonte and Dieudonné Costes in 1930. Showing a sense of humor, the men had painted a large question mark on the side of their Breguet Model XIX, clearly visible on the reverse of the medal. After 37 hours aloft, the pilot and his mechanic touched down in New York and were greeted first by Charles Lindbergh (ANS 1951.15.28, gift of Mrs. George N. Hamilton).

Medal of Congress by Laura G. Fraser celebrating Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic crossing (ANS 1985.81.39, gift of Daniel M. Friedenberg).

For a short time in the early 1940s, passengers on TWA’s Boeing 307s would receive this “club” medal. The 307 was the first airliner to have a pressurized passenger compartment allowing it to cruise at much higher altitudes than its contemporaries, which also meant it could sail “overweather” (ANS 1941.6.2, gift of F.J. Young).

KLM-Royal Dutch Airline souvenir medal from the 1950s depicting a Lockheed Constellation, one of the longest serving piston-powered airliners (ANS 1967.123.3, gift of Hillel Kaslove).

Commercial production of America’s first jet airliner, the Boeing 707, began in early 1958. Later that year Pan-American World Airways announced its first transoceanic jet service; in January, 1959, American Airlines used its new 707s to inaugurate a “new era,” as this medal proclaims, the first jet service across the U.S. (ANS 1959.247.1, gift of Harry M. Lessin).