Heraldry 101; or what's in a symbol?

  • Published
  • By James Burrett
  • 49th Wing Historian
Ever wonder just what the 49th Wing emblem represents or why it looks the way it does?

The answer to that question goes all the way back to the mid-12th century - a time when the only way to identify an opponent on the battlefield was by the heraldic symbol, or "blazon," painted on his shield. The same was true for enemy forces that identified their affiliation through the heraldic symbol sewn onto their flag or battle standard. These unique symbols also served the nobility as hereditary familial identification devices that identified a nobleman's family lineage and his degree of relation to that family line.

In its simplest terms, the 49th Wing shield identifies the unit's lineage and its place within the greater Air Force family. All of the elements on the wing shield represent an object or an idea, and these elements are described today using the same language that medieval heralds used nearly a millennia ago!

The following is the heraldic description of the 49th Wing emblem:
Per bend sinister Azure and Or between a lightning flash bendwise sinister issuant from sinister chief, a knights helmet winged as a crest in base and in dexter chief five mullets as the constellation "Southern Cross" Argent, all within a diminished bordure of the second.

Here is the layman's translation of that description:
Per bend sinister (a line running from top left to bottom right) Azure (blue) and Or (gold) between a lightning flash bendwise sinister issuant from sinister chief(the element starts from top left and runs to bottom right), a knights helmet winged as a crest in base (the knights helmet displayed in the bottom 2/3 of the shield) and in dexter chief (upper right third of the shield) five mullets (five pointed star) as the constellation "Southern Cross" (the stars are arranged to represent the constellation of the Southern Cross) Argent (all of the previous elements are colored silver), all within a diminished bordure of the second (all elements of the shield are enclosed by a thin border of gold).

The language used by heralds is a strange looking mixture of English and French, which often requires a specialized heraldic dictionary to decipher the meaning of a written description. Imagine doing this for a living today. Believe it or not, there are government employees at Fort Belvoir, Va., whose sole job is to illustrate and describe in heraldic terms the emblems used by the Air Force to identify its wings and squadrons.

So the next time you look at a wing shield you'll know there is a lot more to the picture than just a pretty patch.