Reserve physician designs award-winning, historical postage stamp

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jake Chappelle
  • 446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Growing up, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Arunas Banionis shared two main passions. One was an admiration for aviation, and the other was stamp collecting.

When he was younger, the Lithuanian-American Banionis had dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot. But when he tried to join, he couldn't meet the vision requirements; however, stamp collecting remained a continual interest in his life--an interest that led him to winning first place in the Lithuania Post Postage Stamps Design Contest in May.

"It was kind of surreal seeing something that was on my computer screen as a postage stamp," Banionis, now an Air Force Reserve physician in the 446th Aerospace Medicine Squadron here, said. "It still hasn't really hit me. I collected stamps and it's been a hobby of mine since childhood, and I've always been interested in the Lithuanian transatlantic flight."

The Flight of (Steponas) Darius and (Stasys) Gir─Śnas, is the first transatlantic flight flown by Lithuanian-born pilots, he said. It's often compared to Charles Lindbergh's famous flight as being one of the most accurate in aviation history, which proved that a consistent air route could be formed between the U.S. and Europe. The flight has a rich history for stamp collectors, and was the first to carry regular airmail across the Atlantic Ocean, he added.

Banionis, who holds a private pilot's license, said this year marked the 80th anniversary of the flight, which was celebrated in Lithuania as well as in Lithuanian-U.S. communities. It was also the motivating theme that influenced his award-winning design.

"The story of Lithuania's first transatlantic pilots was something every Lithuanian-American child learned in school or from their parents," he said. "About 30 years ago, my dad gave me a book about the pilots. I always became interested in their flight, and later found out they both served in the U.S. armed forces in World War I. It was also interesting to know they became U.S. citizens when they came here at the turn of the century and became flyers."

Banionis, born and raised in Los Angeles, said he appreciated the irony of the pilots' earned U.S. citizenship.

"I was especially pleased as I'm a Lithuanian-American, and the subject is close to my heart as I am a pilot," said the 21-year Air Force veteran.

He said he didn't consider entering the contest until his friends from across the pond gave him a nudge.

"My stamp-collector friends in Lithuania said, 'you should enter the contest, because it'll be the 80th anniversary of the transatlantic flight,'" he said. "So, I started spending a lot of nights in front of my computer colorizing the photograph."

He wanted the design to also cater to a younger audience, said Banionis, who's a family medicine physician who resides in Poulsbo, Wash.

"I spent about a month colorizing an old photo of Darius and Girenas and incorporated a famous date cachet into the design," he said. "I thought colorization might make it appealing to the younger generation, as all available period photographs and newsreels were in black and white. It was kind of challenging because the stamp isn't that large. You have to squeeze a lot of information into it, so I had to make sure it was appealing to the eye."

"I told my wife I finished it up and said, 'let's see what happens.'"

If it weren't for one of his friends in Lithuania, Banionis said he would have missed the design submission deadline.

"I sent the package March 5 through international priority mail, but the deadline was March 25," he said. "I sent a duplicate package to a friend in Lithuania who got it within a week, via regular air mail. I tracked the original package. It was sitting in LA for seven days, and I was getting kind of nervous. March 20 it arrived in Lithuania, so I've got five days. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, as I got no further tracking information. My friend sent off the duplicate package and it got there within a day. I got a package back from Lithuania with an insert from the Lithuanian Post, saying 'sorry, we can't take the package. It arrived too late,' so I was a little bit bummed. But I was hoping the backup plan would be working. I logged on to the (Lithuanian Post) website, and it had the winners of the contest. I saw my design made first place. I almost fell out of my chair, so the backup plan worked."

Although the contest results brought him joy, the victory was bittersweet as his father wasn't able to share his achievement.

"I was really jazzed, but I'm kind of sad my father couldn't be around to see this," Banionis said. "As a little boy, he was at the airport (in Lithuania) waiting for the two pilots to land, and he would talk about how they never arrived. He would have really been jazzed about this if he was still alive. He was a stamp collector too."

But winning the contest earned Banionis a trip to Lithuania to help commemorate the flight's 80th anniversary and witness the first prints of his stamp design.

"The stamp went to print, either the first or second of July, and was issued July 20," he said. "I felt like a movie star with people asking me to sign these sheets of stamps. They were pleased that a Lithuanian-American was able to design a stamp."

Banionis' squadron commander recognizes how important his heritage helps make his unit better-rounded.

"(Banionis is) another example of the diversity and experience physicians bring to the Air Force Reserve," said Col. (Dr.) Paul Abson, 446th AMDS commander. "Dr. Banionis continues to serve, despite a busy practice, and acts as an ambassador from his home in the U.S. to his Lithuanian heritage, building connections that span the globe."

Even though Banionis never got the opportunity to fly an Air Force aircraft, he continues to fly, continues to collect and design stamps, continues to help people in his family practice and Air Force Reserve careers--and continues to live out his dreams.