Their walk was slower, their bodies changed by age. Many wore glasses and some adjusted hearing aids as speakers came to the podium. But for a time Tuesday, they were young again and in their prime — proud servants of their country.
Both male and female U.S. military aviation veterans came to the new, National Air and Space Museum Annex in Chantilly to attend a special ceremony in their honor. Some wore their old flight jackets and caps, covered with military patches. And their memories were sharp and clear as they swapped war stories with each other and recounted World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War.
"THIS COLLECTION of aircraft is for you," said the annex' director, Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, himself a retired Marine Corps pilot. "And this event is for all those who helped build the center or who contributed to the legacy of flight."
It's named the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, after its largest benefactor, and officially opens to the public next Monday. But it welcomed in the veterans Tuesday, Dec. 9, in a show of gratitude and respect.
Appropriately, the Air Force Band, the Airmen of Note, serenaded them with Glenn Miller tunes and a repertoire including "Come Fly with Me" and "Fly Me to the Moon." Then Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke.
"American veterans, throughout our history, purchased the freedom we enjoy today," he said. "Without their sacrifices, the world would be a much poorer place."
Myers said U.S. aviation pioneers "demonstrated the importance of military superiority — the freedom from attacks and the freedom to attack. In World War II, strategic bombing struck at the heart of the Axis' war-making capabilities, and the Enola Gay dropped the most powerful weapon [on Hiroshima in 1945] the world has ever seen."
He then discussed the history of American aviation, pilots and aircraft, from the Wright brothers to modern day. And since 9/11, he said, "American pilots have helped direct anti-terrorism activities around the world. Today, the American military's tradition of innovation, guts and vision endures."
The standing-room-only audience of some 4,000 people laughed after Myers, envious of the aircraft current pilots get to fly, said, "I wish I could trade places with some young captain or major out there — but I doubt they'd want my job."
He said American aviators "risked it all to keep America free," and "brave men and women" are still doing so. Said Myers: "I can't express my gratitude to all those here today who have defended our freedom in the past."
Next came Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who said, "I can't remember when I've stood before an audience with a greater sense of humility. Gathered here today to see this magnificent collection are those who've proven themselves in aviation and proven their dedication to the U.S. and the principles of freedom."
ALTHOUGH SOME people had protested the museum's inclusion of the Enola Gay, Warner told how glad he was to see it there. And Tuesday's audience applauded loudly after he said, "Had it not been for the Enola Gay, I believe, for my generation preparing for the invasion of Japan, there would have been greater casualties — both military and civilian. And here today are crewmen of that aircraft."
Praising the Smithsonian for preserving America's heritage in so many different ways, Warner said this new facility in Chantilly will provide the young generation with knowledge of American aviation history and ingenuity. Here, he said, they'll learn "how — with these mighty planes of war — we've stood for one principle, and one principle alone: the freedom of others."
He said he always believed this annex should be in the proximity of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the nation's capital. Said Warner: "On behalf of all Virginians, it's with heartfelt pride that our great state will be home to this wonderful facility."
He also acknowledged the contributions of the former Air and Space Museum director, Adm. Donald Engen, "who lost his life doing what he loved." Engen died in a plane crash in the summer of 1999 while out trying to raise money for the annex' construction, and the center's observation tower is named after him.
Among those present Tuesday was Jan Churchill from New Castle, Del. Now in her 70s, she was a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft commander from 1988-99. "I flew a lot of admirals on important missions," she said. "It was fun being the admirals' pilot."
SHE'S WRITTEN several books on military aviation history and called the new museum annex "fantastic." She also appreciated Warner's words. "I was glad to hear the comments about the Enola Gay," she said. "It's part of history and saved many American lives. The Japanese would never have surrendered."
Churchill, who still flies military planes in air shows, wrote about Vietnam and watched the Enola Gay's restoration in Maryland. So, she said, "I'm anxious to see it and other planes from those eras."
Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sandy Sanford came from King George, Va., with a group of 80 combat aviators who flew missions in Southeast Asia from 1965 through 1973. He said the museum is great: "When you're an aviation junkie, you like all of this stuff."
Another visitor, Paul Galanti of Richmond, was a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, but was shot down in an A-4, 100 miles south of Hanoi. He then became a prisoner of war for "six years and eight months — 2,432 days." To pass the time, he relived his entire life in his mind. "I've loved air and space forever," he said. "I think [the museum's] just wonderful; they've done a gorgeous job."
Fairfax's Darrel Whitcomb flew both Air Force and commercial aircraft for 35 years and is a retired Delta Airlines captain. Calling the annex "awesome" and "incredible," he said it captures the larger theme of how aeronautics have become a natural, indelible and important part of everyday, American life.
"It's exciting to see the airplanes," he said. "But today, especially, the really neat thing is being here with my fellow aviators and being able to experience what is literally the face of America."