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Dignitaries, Glitterati at Air/Space Dedication

Dignitaries and glitterati alike gathered for last week's dedication of the National Air and Space Museum Annex in Chantilly. Guests ranged from astronauts Neil Armstrong to Vice President Dick Cheney to actor/pilot John Travolta.

The event began with the presentation of colors and a performance of the National Anthem by "The President's Own" Marine Corps Band and ended with a replica of the Wright brothers' plane, the Kitty Hawk, flying over the audience.

"Finally, we're here," said Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, after whom the annex is named, in recognition of his $65 million contribution toward its construction. "This is the world's most stunning air-and-space exhibition, [paying homage to] the men and women who had the vision to conquer the unknown and break the mysterious barriers of flight."

The musum's director, Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, and Sheila Burke, under secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, welcomed those attending the Dec. 11 ceremony inside the annex's massive aviation hangar. "This is a very special morning for all of us," said Dailey, calling the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center "one of the most magnificent structures to appear on the Northern Virginia horizon."

"We will dedicate a spectacular, new attraction that will guarantee the Wright brothers' legacy will live on in the 21st century," he said. The planes and artifacts on display, said Dailey, "help tell the stories" of America's aviation heroes.

Burke then thanked him for his "inspired leadership and the role you have played in making this building a reality." She also expressed gratitude to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th) — "who's been with us every step of the way," Sens. George Allen and John Warner, plus Congressmen Tom Davis (R-11th) and Ralph Regula of Ohio, for their "stalwart support."

She said Udvar-Hazy's contribution "galvanized the funding fueling this [facility], and described how, as a 7-year-old in his native Hungary, "he looked at planes in the sky and dreamed of another life — a life of freedom. In 1966, while an undergraduate at UCLA, he started his own company."

He's now 56, a jet pilot and president and CEO of International Lease Financial Corp — the largest, commercial aircraft-leasing company in the world, with a portfolio of more than 400 jet aircraft valued at more than $18 billion. Burke said his "philanthropic spirit examplifies the best of our country," and noted that the annex "will inspire tomorrow's scientists, aviators and explorers."

Udvar-Hazy said the aircraft on display in the museum "represent 100 years of man's contributions to flight — and those dreams fulfilled have dramatically changed our lives and the world we live in. The goal is to educate, inspire and motivate the millions of children and adults who will visit here. And the sparkle in their eyes will be the measure of the museum's success."

He said that, overnight, the annex will become "a spectacular symbol for all those who seek to understand the contributions of aviation over the last 100 years. The development of aerospace technology — flying faster, further and higher — has represented the hallmark of aviation's steady achievement."

Saying that dreams truly can be turned into reality, Udvar-Hazy told the crowd, "Today, we proudly salute the aviation giants, pioneers and trendsetters of the 20th century. This museum is a gift to all of mankind in search of knowledge, adventure and the outer limits of man's talents. I hope that many future generations will be enriched and motivated by what has been created here. God bless America."

Then actor Travolta, a 707 and 747 pilot, introduced a collection of the Wright brothers' photos, "The Legacy of Flight," shown on screen to the audience. Said Travolta: "One hundred years ago, on a windswept beach in North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright accomplished what no one had done before — controlled, heavier-than-air, powered flight."

Afterward, he introduced several dignitaries from the world of air and space, including Amanda Wright Lane, a descendant of the Wright brothers; Gen. Paul W. Tibbits, pilot of the legendary Enola Gay; Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon; and Sen. John Glenn Jr., first American to orbit the world and return to earth.

Lawrence Small, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, acknowledged Udvar-Hazy's "incredible generosity" and thanked Vice Pres. Cheney and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William H. Rehnquist for their service on the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.

"Since we could first gaze at the heavens, our goal has been to fly to the heavens," said Small. "And our journey is not over. The risks continue and the desire to explore goes on — and this museum reflects that." He also noted how pleased he was that it would open to the public, Dec. 15 — two days before the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight.

"Today we see the results of many years of hard work," added Rehnquist, who once flew in the Army Air Corps. "[The annex'] 21st-century look makes it the perfect home for all the aircraft and artifacts gathered here. Our children and grandchildren will discover anew what it means to be an American. [Here], they will be able to dream what it would be like to be a pilot or an astronaut."

Cheney called it a "great privilege" to be part of the dedication of "America's new museum." He said the center is "a monument to the legacy of flight and to all that lies before us." Thanking Warner and Wolf for working so hard to obtain Congress' approval for the facility, he said, "I'm impressed with what I've seen here today."

Cheney said the multitude of aircraft on display "capture the stories of human experience and give testimony to the imagination, the resourcefulness and the daring of the men and women who flew them. A lot of people have given their dedication and their lives to advance flight."

"Our air and space programs have been critical to the widespread prosperity of our continental nation — and to the security of the American people," he said. Then Rehnquist again spoke, saying, "I hereby dedicate [this museum] to the memory of all the brave pioneers who brought us here today, to today's explorers and to the future ones."