News>Airman sketches his way into Air Force history with UAS wings design
Staff Sgt. Austin May designed an occupational badge, or wings, to be worn by future unmanned aircraft system pilots. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz approved Sergeant May's design. The wings were presented to the graduates of the first Beta class during a ceremony at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., Sept. 25, 2009. Sergeant May is a public affairs craftsman from the 100th Air Refueling Wing, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. (U.S. Air Force photo)
These wings, recently approved by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, are worn by unmanned aircraft operators who have not attended undergraduate pilot training. The wings were presented to the graduates of first Beta class during a ceremony at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., Sept. 25, 2009. The wings were designed by Staff Sgt. Austin May, a public affairs craftsman from the 100th Air Refueling Wing, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. (Air Force graphic)
by Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle
Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
9/29/2009 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- A toddler's first artistic expressions often surface in the form of well-intended wall defacement or notepad squiggles -- but every now and then, a doodle becomes a hobby, and that hobby becomes a part of history.
Staff Sgt. Austin May, a public affairs craftsman from the 100th Air Refueling Wing, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, found himself in that position when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz approved the design of a new set of wings to be worn by future unmanned aircraft system pilots who have not attended undergraduate pilot training.
The first sets of wings were presented to the graduates of the first Beta class of such candidates during a ceremony at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., Sept. 25. A second Beta class is under way and is currently scheduled to graduate April 2010.
Sergeant May, a Katy, Texas, native, is no stranger to having his work highlighted across the Air Force. His popular "Air Force Blues" comic strip chronicling the life of an Alaska-based pilot has been published online since 2007. The cartoon was inspired from his own experience as an Airborne Warning and Control System surveillance operator at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.
It was "Air Force Blues" that got the attention of leaders in Headquarters Air Force Air, Space and Information Operations Directorate, or A3. A3 officials in the Pentagon reached out to encourage Sergeant May to submit a design for an occupational badge for the Air Force's proposed UAS pilot career field.
"When I was initially contacted about submitting a design for the wings, I thought it was awesome," Sergeant May said. "What a thrilling opportunity! The idea of just being a part of that, even if nothing I did was ever seen by anyone, was incredible."
It quickly became apparent that the A3 officials had recruited wisely.
"Sergeant May just jumped in -- he was on board before he even knew what he was getting into or what we were looking for," said Maj. Jeffrey Kwoka, UAS career field manager. "He just knew he was going to be designing a new set of wings for UAS and he was all over it.
Sergeant May's artistic knack would prove to give him a leg up as A3 officials sifted through some 60 designs before submitting the final three to Air Force senior leadership for approval. Sergeant May created at least a third of the initial contenders and all three of the final designs were his.
Developing a simple, recognizable design to represent such a technologically advanced program was no easy feat, said. Col. Trey Turner, A3 operational training division chief.
"We bounced ideas back and forth in terms of what the design should represent," Colonel Turner said. "In addition to being recognizable in embroidery, the design had to be airborne-oriented and had to incorporate our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities such as global reach, strike capability and data links."
From England, Sergeant May weathered the eight-month brainstorm, patiently sending design tweaks in sketches produced on his home computer, based on the suggestions of A3 leaders and pilots.
"I explained the use of certain elements, why I placed them in particular configurations and made adjustments as necessary," Sergeant May said. "Almost every variation included the same elements, such as the globe, light and lightning, because, in my opinion, those represent significant aspects of the UAS program."
Although A3 officials and pilots opted early on for an aviation-themed design, the wing style underwent great debate and several iterations.
"In one of our discussions, we decided to include the same wings worn by other flyers because, in the end, the planes these folks are flying are real nuts and bolts in the air," Sergeant May said. "The pilot may not be inside the plane, but it is a real airplane in real airspace, subject to the laws and principles of flight, and the wings represent that."
Major Kwoka said A3 officials wanted to be able designate UAS pilots with their own distinct set of wings, while tying the design to the Air Force's history of aviation.
The major added that A3 leaders and pilots even considered a more futuristic wing approach with the more traditional shield in the middle, before finally settling on an homage to the 1919 design, reminiscent of the original military aviator badges awarded to then-Lt. Henry "Hap" Arnold, who later became a five-star general in both the Army and the Air Force during World War II.
Though inspired by history, the design hearkens to the Air Force's futuristic capabilities, Sergeant May said.
"The globe represents the world in which Airmen live and operate ... the rays of light symbolize both a new dawn in air power and the UAS ability to operate in and see parts of the world opposite from their location," Sergeant May explained. He added the lightning bolt represents the electronic aspect of today's warfare and the system's strike capability.
"UAS is an emerging technology that holds almost unlimited potential and every day we see a little more of that," Sergeant May said.
That potential has translated into high-demand for these assets. To keep up, Air Force officials are currently refining aeronautical training programs for operation of these remotely-flown vehicles.
Whatever the future holds for UAS, Sergeant May stands ready to see the results of his efforts and even contribute other designs as the Air Force calls upon him. Until then, his future grandchildren may be treated to quite a story.
"I'll never forget the last line in Major Kwoka's e-mail," Sergeant May recalled upon hearing his design was selected. "You are now part of Air Force history! Imagine being an enlisted guy and hearing that!"
3/28/2011 2:56:40 AM ET The enormous wealth of talent for almost every endeavor if one of the factors on making the USAF unique. I have just completed a book Into the Blue USAF Uniforms 1947 to Present. I've been working on volume 2 which will have insignia developed after Lt. Col. Aldebol's 1997 book, and you can bet SSgt May will be in it. Thanks sergeant from an old 1960's SSgt.
Lance P. Young, California
1/17/2010 11:32:40 PM ET First, I would like to congradulate SSgt. May on being able to add to the history of the Air Force with his design. However, I would like to point out the fact that this just adds to the fact that there are several different sets of wings awarded to officers based on their duties: pilot, navigator, UAS, etc. However, enlisted do not have this distinction even though their duties differ just the same. I say bring back the old engineer, gunner and other wings for enlisted aircrew.
Tyler, Dover AFB DE
10/7/2009 1:30:23 PM ET Nice design SSgt Too bad nor he nor any other enlisted member will get to wear them. Air Force could easily solve this UAS pilot shortage by tapping the enlisted ranks.
Andrew Wiedman SSgt, Ft. Belvoir Va
10/3/2009 6:07:41 AM ET Way to go Austin. I think you did an awesome job with those graphics. You have a talent that is beneficial to your job as a public affairs personnel and the Air Force. Now I have a brother from another mother who has made Air Force history. Like I told you this is just the beginning of your great success in the Air Force and public affairs. You are a well rounded Airman full of unexplored talents whether in artistic works writing and even taking good photos. I believe you did the right thing when you joined the AF and our team the PA team. Way to go my Brother
OAO, TC Manas
10/1/2009 10:05:18 AM ET The ironic part of the story is the fact that SSgt May is in the 100th Air Refueling Wing and when the wing was the 100th Strategic Reconnaisance Wing it operated the recconnaisance RPVs in east Asia.
Dave Matthews, Wright-Patterson
9/30/2009 5:35:04 PM ET Wow, great for the UAS operators to have thier own set of wings. It's funny how the Air Force is willing to link almost any change nowdays or new badge uniform trinket to heritage. If that's the case, why can't aerial gunners and flight engineers have their original WWII-era wings back instead of the one-size-fits-all Enlisted Aircrew Badge?
9/30/2009 5:32:56 PM ET Way to go, Austin. You were definitely the right man for the project. I now know a man who is part of Military History.
Kyle DeHart, Wimberley Tx
9/30/2009 2:25:00 PM ET I can't find an image of what the new device looks like on af.mil - Is one available Kudos on the acheivement
Jason, San Antonio TX
9/30/2009 10:35:55 AM ET Great feature story - strong lead well written throughout and an interesting subject.
Philip Lorenz III, Arnold Air Force Base
9/30/2009 7:16:12 AM ET FIRSTCongrats on the honor I've read your strip every day for the past 18 months or so. It's great to see that a hobby can lead to such great things. Keep up the great work