It began with one single-engine aircraft and a handful of daring pioneers. But over generations, the U.S. Air Force has evolved into America's arm of aerial power, inspiring a nation with legends of fighter aces and technological innovators. To honor these men and women, Air Force officials and local representatives broke ground Wednesday at the site of a new memorial, on a hill overlooking the Pentagon.
Completion of the memorial — comprising three contrail-like spires reaching into the sky — is set for Sept. 18, 2006. Symbolizing the Air Force's three core values — integrity, excellence and service before self — the spires, the tallest reaching a height of 270 feet, are the product of a 13-year legislative effort.
At the ceremony, H. Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the Air Force Memorial Foundation, said the design "expresses the fundamental aspirations, spirit and accomplishments of the Air Force as a source of glory. Our goal 13 years ago was fairly straightforward. We wanted to salute the millions of men and women who have served our country in the United States Air Force."
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Gerald Murray said the memorial site is fitting because of its proximity to Fort Myer, where the first military aircraft was tested by the Wright brothers in 1909.
"It was a demonstration of the most meager capabilities, but from it, the Air Force has become what we know today as [having] moved higher, further and faster," he said. "This memorial will be a wonderful monument to those airmen of the past, present and into the future."
To date, the Air Force has been the only branch of military service without a monument near the nation's capital. Senior Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who spearheaded efforts to create the memorial, expressed pride in helping change that.
“At the request of the Air Force Association, I authored the original legislation to begin this memorial,” he said. “I’m sure they had no idea that we’d be standing here some 13 years later. It’s been a long process, but we never doubted we’d achieve this goal.”
A veteran of the Army Air Corps, Stevens looked to his squadron's motto to describe the journey of bringing the memorial into being.
“The motto of my squadron was, ‘We do the impossible immediately; miracles take slightly longer.’ This is one of those miracles, because we’ve succeeded and brought about a memorial to all of those who have served a nation as part of the various air forces.”
THE AIR FORCE was originally a branch of the Army, but in 1947, after World War II spurred the need for airborne fighters, the government granted it sole military control over America's skies. The USAF has more than 400,000 airmen currently enlisted and has suffered roughly 53,000 combat casualties since its creation.
Secretary of the Air Force James Roche said establishing a lasting symbol of the Air Force's 57-year history is vital to everyone in its service. "Symbols are important to us — anyone in the armed forces recognizes that," he said.
"The beauty of this structure will be like that of all good art: It will mean different things to different people. To young people who know nothing of air power, it will be a focal point to learn about air power," Roche said. “To others who are not so young, it will be a memorial to the many accomplishments and deeds of airmen. To those on active duty, it will be a sign of pride that they walk in the footsteps of great men and great women and that they have an obligation to build upon that. And to others, this edifice will be a symbol of the reaching of American air power, of American space power and of the men and women who make up the U.S. Air Force."
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who sits on the Air Force Memorial Foundation's board of trustees, expressed Arlington's pride in being home to the memorial. "The Air Force should have, deserves to have, a national memorial," he said. "Representing Arlington County, I can say we are very, very proud."
Moran added that an estimated 750,000 people are expected to visit the site each year once the memorial is complete.
"What a tremendous economic boost for this area," he said.
The ceremony also recognized the oldest living veteran of the Air Force, 94-year-old retired Gen. Bernard Schriever. After serving as a bomber pilot during World War II, Schriever founded the Air Force's ballistic missile and space programs.
The principal architect on the project is James Ingo Freed, who designed the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Fund-raising for the Air Force Memorial began in 1994, but the foundation estimates it still needs $3.2 million to complete the project.