The original Observer Badge was a half-wing design of the Aviator Badge used by military pilots of the United States Army Air Service and later the United States Army Air Corps. The badge was mainly awarded to gunners, spotters, and navigators on the first armed military aircraft. With the advent of bombing, the Observer Badge was also initially authorized to aircraft bombardiers. A new badge was soon created for these duties, however, and was known as the Bombing Aviator Badge.
Those rated as Balloon Observers were also eligible for the badge, and the badge was typically referred to both as the Airplane Observer Badge and Balloon Observer Badge. There was no difference between the two titles, as far as the Observer Badge appeared, and towards the end of the First World War the badge was commonly referred to as the "Airplane and Balloon Observer Badge", although the ratings for which the badge was issued remained distinct.
Between 1919 and 1935, the Observer Badge remained the same design as it had been during the First World War, issued for both ratings. However, as developments progressed in military aviation, the concept of an Airplane Observer changed to necessitate the redesign of the Observer Badge and a change in the eligibility criteria. On 20 February 1940 the rating was changed to that of Combat Observer, followed by redesignation as Aircraft Observer on 4 September 1942.
By the time of the United States entry into the Second World War, there were three Observer Badges authorized by the Army Air Forces. The first was the Combat Observer Badge, which appeared as an Aviator Badge centered by a large O. For those qualified as Balloon Observers, a separate badge was created which was the Observer Badge augmented by a balloon insignia.
The third and final version of the Observer Badge was known as the Technical Observer Badge and appeared as an Aviator Badge centered on a combined T and O design. The Technical Observer Badge was awarded primarily to flight engineering personnel who were assigned as assistants to the flight engineer.
The Naval Aviation Observer Badge was first created in 1922 and authorized to navigators and other support personnel on multi-person naval aircraft. The original badge was based on the design of the Naval Aviator badge, but with a single left-side wing and a circular "O" surmounting the foul anchor rather than a shield. In 1927 this insignia was superseded by a new device, identical to the Naval Aviator's wings but in silver rather than gold. This in turn was replaced in 1929 by a gold insignia with a center device of a silver anchor within a silver circle.
In 1966, a new insignia was designed, and by 1968 the Naval Aviation Observer Badge was phased out in favor of the Naval Flight Officer Badge. The Naval Aviation Observer insignia was then modified and granted to non-pilot/non-NFO aviation mission specialists such as in-flight Meteorologists. In this form, the Naval Observer Badge is still in existence but is rarely referred to be its original name and is more commonly known as the Flight Meteorologist Badge. In the Marine Corps, the decoration is issued to in-flight aircraft support personnel under its original name as the Naval Aviation Observer Badge.
The Coast Guard authorized the Aviation Mission Specialist designation on August 26th 2003 in COMDTNOTE 1200 (ALCOAST 401/03). Aerial Ice Observers (from the International Ice Patrol) as well as Sensor System Operators, Tactical Systems Operators, Aviation Gunners and Aviation Medical Technicians are eligible for designation. Coast Guard Aviation Mission Specialist personnel wear the same uniform insignia as Naval Aviation Observers. Permanent designation is attained at 200 hours for rotary wing and 400 hours for fixed wing specialists.
With the creation of the United States Air Force in 1947, aviation observers were phased out and replaced by more highly trained specialists known as Aircrew members. The Aircrew Badge had been created prior to the Second World War; however, since that time it had been issued only to enlisted personnel. With the creation of the USAF Officer Aircrew Badge (an unrated award), however, the Navigator-Observer Badge is now issued to otherwise unrated officers who complete NASA Mission Specialist training, with the aeronautical rating of Observer. Upon completion of an operational mission they may then apply to the Air Force Chief of Staff for the Astronaut qualifier that permits them to wear the Astronaut Badge.
Grossnick, Roy A. (1997). United States Naval Aviation 1910-1995, Appendix 20 Washington DC, U.S. Department of the Navy Historical Center.