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Naval Observer Wings Are Back

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Many Marines in the past earned the Naval Aviation Observer Badge, a set of wings worn on the uniform breast by aircrew members who are neither pilots nor navigators. Now, as it announced on Feb. 8, the Marine Corps is resurrecting NAO wings after a 15-year lapse. Hundreds of current, active-duty Marines will now be eligible to pin on the wings that were once worn by their forebears.

“This is a good way to recognize that aviation is not only about pilots,” said former Marine Gunnery Sgt. Nathan Serenko, who flew in the back seat of the OV-10D Bronco observation aircraft in the 1980s. “If you’re a flier, even if you’re not at the controls, you should have a distinctive emblem you can wear.”

The term Naval Aviation Observer has a proud history that dates to 1921. NAO wings have undergone several design changes. While exact numbers are not maintained, because of the nature of Marine operations – in which many without aviation ratings fly aboard aircraft – more leathernecks wear NAO wings than do sailors or Coast Guardsmen.

The first version of NAO wings was introduced in 1921. On June 17 of the following year, Rear Adm. William A. Moffett became the first person designated a Naval Aviation Observer and awarded the wings. The initial design was actually a half wing (one side only) with the letter “O” (for observer) included. In 1927, a change gave NAOs the same, full-sized wings as naval aviators, but silver in color rather than gold.

A design very close to the current version was introduced in 1929. A minor change in 1953 introduced a series of dots, or circles into the upper part of the design where the wings break.

Today, however, some former NAOs wonder if their contribution to Marine aviation has been overlooked.

Naval aviation observer badge.

The new Naval Aviation Observer wings.

“We had NAOs who were enlisted men, warrant officers, and – very belatedly – commissioned officers,” said retired Marine Col. H. Wayne “Flash” Whitten, who flew the EF-10B Skyknight electronic warfare aircraft in the early Vietnam era.

“NAOs flew as crewmembers in almost everything that had more than one seat,” said Whitten.

For Marines like Whitten, who were rated as fliers, everything changed when the category of Naval Flight Officer was introduced during the Vietnam era.

“In 1968, most NAOs were redesignated NFOs, and the new community adopted a new wing design,” wrote retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Richard R. Burgess in “The Naval Aviation Guide, Fifth Edition” (Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 1996). “NAO wings continued to be worn by certain Navy intelligence officers and meteorologists who qualified as aerial observers, as well as Marine Corps officers who graduated from the Marine Corps Naval Aviation Observer School at New River, N.C., and served as aerial spotters.”

A Navy historical document indicates that NAO wings ceased to be authorized on Dec. 31, 1968, but were reinstated on May 21, 1969. Apart from the Navy’s need for a badge for meteorologists, the Marine Corps was then using leathernecks who were neither pilots nor navigators aboard several aircraft types.

Typical of the many Marine Corps NAO wearers was the non-flier assigned to aerial duties as the back-seat observer in the OV-10 Bronco close air support aircraft in the Vietnam War and in Operations Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91. Among Marines who wear NAO wings today are those who serve on the E-6 Mercury communications relay and strategic airborne command post aircraft.

“Many of these Marines have contributed substantially to the Corps’ effort in Afghanistan and Iraq,” spokesman Capt. Brian Block told the trade journal Marine Corps Times. The wings do not require combat experience, however, and the uniform device doesn’t bring any extra pay or perks.

The Naval Aviation Observer Badge should not be confused with the Naval Aviation Observer (Navigation) Badge, a short-lived set of wings issued only between 1945 and 1947. The badge recognized naval personnel, including Marines, who were trained as navigators on board naval aircraft. “We decided to award this device as the right thing to do,” Block said.
Today, Marines eligible for the observer wings fly in a variety of aircraft, including the KC-130 Hercules, MV-22 Osprey, F/A-18 Hornet and many of the Corps’ helicopters.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

  • Lawrence Davis

    I was an AO flying out Marble mountain 1968 to 1969. My call sign was cowpoke4 and I would like to communicate with any AO’s from that era. Thank you Cowpoke 4