The Trophy That Honors U.S. Air Force Flights

An ornate trophy recognizes valor displayed by the men and women of the U.S. Air Force

Overhead detail view of a trophy showing a silver angel extending her arms holding a vintage airplane.
Gold lined silver cup 4 angels arms extended holding Wright military flyers. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum/Benjamin G. Sullivan

Clarence Hungerford MacKay, born in 1874, invested in the early communication industry. While president of the Postal Telegraph & Cable Corporation, Mackay oversaw cable lines between the United States and Europe. Mackay was also interested in the nascent American aviation industry, and in 1912, he commissioned Tiffany & Company in New York to create what is now known as the Mackay Trophy.

The National Aeronautic Association (NAA) and the U.S. Air Force administer the coveted trophy and award it to a U.S. Air Force individual, crew, or organization for the “most meritorious flight of the year”—chosen by Air Force officials. The NAA transferred the trophy to the Smithsonian in 1985, and it leaves the National Air and Space Museum once a year for display at the NAA’s annual award dinner.

Mackay paid Tiffany $30,000 to create a sterling silver masterpiece that features the goddess Nike presiding at the top in four locations, marking the points of a compass. The gold-lined trophy basin and silver pedestal are mounted on a tiered mahogany base. Over the years, additional tiers have been added to accommodate the names and dates of winners on the engraved sterling shields, giving the current trophy a height of more than five feet.

The National Air and Space Museum has more than 400 aviation- and space-theme trophies in its collection. The Mackay Trophy (above) will be showcased in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight gallery. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum/Eric Long

In 1913, Lieutenant Henry “Hap” H. Arnold was the trophy’s first recipient (for winning a reconnaissance competition in Virginia). Since then, it has been awarded annually except for brief pauses during wartime. More recently, Shadow 77 & 78 crews were honored for their remarkable close air support mission to protect the 2,000 Americans evacuating the U.S. embassy in Kabul during the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

The NAA’s annual award ceremonies are attended by the aviation industry’s elite, the trophy recipients, and their families. They can all expect to hear gripping accounts of the honored flights, which often entail rescue operations and reconnaissance missions over hostile territory. The Mackay Trophy is a testament to the skills of Air Force pilots and aviators, who exhibit unwavering courage and commitment while serving their country.

Carolyn Russo is the curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s art and trophy collection.

This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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