Tokens & Medals

Flying High

Published June 4, 2024 | 5 min read

By David Schenkman

At a dinner hosted by the Philadelphia National Air Race Committee on August 13, 1926, the guest speaker, Major Lester D. Gardner, discussed plans for the races scheduled to be held at Model Farms Field in southwest Philadelphia on September 4-11. Gardner, a  committee representative, had just returned from a 4-month trip to Europe, where he had visited 28 countries and had been successful in securing commitments for foreign participation in the event. One of these was for the “autogiro,” an aircraft that was the forerunner to the helicopter. Gardner stated that “it has created more of a sensation in aviation than anything since the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903,” adding, “I saw it descend almost vertically and so slowly that it seemed to be barely moving.”

The first National Air Race, held in 1920 at Mitchel Air Force Base in Long Island, New York, was sponsored by New York World publisher Ralph Pulitzer. It consisted of several events, including a cross-country race from the West Coast to Cleveland, Ohio. Other attractions included parachute jumping, landing contests, and closed-course races. The races were never located in the same city two years in a row until 1931. From that time on, they were held in Cleveland most years.

Destination Philadelphia

The selection of Philadelphia as the location for the 1926 races was a logical choice. The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition, held in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence signing, ran from May 31 until November 30. It was assumed that many of the exposition visitors would attend the races while they were in the city. In addition, it was expected that 2,000 pilots would be in town for the annual convention of the National Aeronautic Association, which would be held at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia at the same time as the races.

The National Air Races took place in Philadelphia in September 1926.
Photo: The Philadelphia Inquirer

More than 600 airplanes were entered in the 20 races. Visitors were also treated to many other events, including air shows every day and evening. Members of the Army and Navy air forces participated in addition to civilian pilots. For the first time, “night air circuses” were presented over the brightly illuminated field. The post office department established a booth at the race and offered air-mail delivery service from Model Farms to points around the country.

Aerial Warfare

One of the most popular events took place on the fifth day, when nine members of the U.S. Air Corps First Pursuit Group gave the several thousand spectators an idea of what aerial warfare was like. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that during the mock battle, “the screaming staccato roar of the Curtiss P-1-A pursuit ships, hurtling over the twelve-mile course, rent the air in one continuous throb of noise. Long before the race was over, the ears of the spectators were athrob with the shattering reverberations, their very bodies tingled as if rocked by the violence of aerial guns.”

Winners of the various races received 38mm medals depicting Independence Hall at the top of the obverse, under which is a large scroll with a torch at each side. The Liberty Bell is at the bottom, with 1776 to the left and 1926 to the right. The words NATIONAL AIR RACES/1926 are at the top of the scroll, with SESQUI-CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION/PHILADELPHIA at the bottom. On the reverse, a nude male figure, described as a “graceful figure of strength,” is standing in the center holding an airplane in each hand, with an eagle and airplane propeller behind him. The words GLORIAE VOLANDI (“the glory of flying”) are in the field.

Long before the race was over, the ears of the spectators were athrob with the shattering reverberations.

Bronze Beauty

A. Kahn Incorporated, a jewelry firm located at 935 F Street in Washington, D.C., was awarded the contract for producing the 600 medals. A company representative commented that “so beautifully executed, so intricately designed are these medals that many months were required to produce them.” It is doubtful that Kahn actually struck the medals; most likely, the company merely took the order and had them manufactured by one of the large die-sinking firms in business at the time. This was a very common practice, even with some of the companies that advertised themselves as die-sinkers.

Bronze medals such as this one were likely given to airmen who didn’t win any races.
(Photo: David Schenkman)

Two of the medals are pictured on the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum website. On one, WINNER/BASIL L. ROWE/RELAY RACE is engraved on the scroll, and GF (gold filled) is at the bottom in small incuse letters. The second medal was also awarded to Rowe for his second-place finish in a free-for-all race. It is marked STERLING in incuse letters at the bottom.

Rowe, who was from Keyport, New Jersey, also won the 60-mile race held on opening day. In addition, he was one of a three-man team that won the novelty relay, described as “a spectacular flight around three laps of the course, or thirty-six miles.” He represented the Aeromarine Plane and Motor Company of Keyport, and the planes he piloted were powered by that company’s motors. His plane averaged 106.59 miles an hour in the 60-mile race. 

The medal illustrated herein is struck in bronze and is not engraved. On the obverse, the words VISITING AVIATOR have been added to the die, below the 1926 date. I assume these were given to participants who didn’t win a race. This might have been one that wasn’t awarded, but it is also possible that the medals were presented unengraved, leaving that to the discretion of the recipients. These weren’t the only awards; winners also received trophies, and $30,000 was offered in cash awards. 

Accomplished Pilot

One of the award-winning pilots, Doug Davis, was the subject of an article in the September 19, 1926, issue of The Atlanta Constitution. Davis was the first person from Atlanta to enter the competition, and he placed in four of the races. One of them was the precision-landing contest, which he won by landing his plane six feet from a designated marker. For his accomplishment, he received the Valley Forge Trophy. The trophy has a large rectangular plaque depicting two airplanes, with NATIONAL AIR RACES 1926/SESQUI-CENTENNIAL PHILADELPHIA above, and the name of the award below. His other awards were cash prizes and “a handsome medal.”

Various mishaps occurred during the eight-day event, but none were serious. On the fourth day, a Martin bomber crashed nose-first while landing. The Marine pilot walked away with a broken rib and bruises. Considering that the planes flew a total of nearly 350,000 miles with no major incidents, it was a very successful event.

I welcome readers’ comments. Write to me at P.O. Box 2866, La Plata, MD 20646. If a written reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

A version of this article appears in the July 2024 issue of The Numismatist (