Neither the driving rain nor the fierce winds could dislodge the broad smile planted across the face of retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward F. Grillo Jr. last Friday as he looked up at the three towering spires of the just-completed Air Force Memorial.
"It’s just an unbelievable feeling of soaring into the heavens when you look at it," he told a group of more than 30 Arlingtonians during a tour of the site, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery and overlooking the Pentagon.
This Saturday the Air Force is set to officially unveil its stainless steel and concrete tribute to the airmen who have served in its ranks, and the 54,000 men and women who have died in combat. The monument will transform the Washington skyline and is expected to serve as a tourist magnet for Arlington.
"This is a monument of importance that any local government in the world would love to have," Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee said. "It will be a prominent gateway site for the county."
More than 30,000 people are expected to attend the dedication ceremony for the U.S. Air Force Memorial at 1:30 p.m. Throughout the entire day the Air Force is hosting an open house in the south parking lot of the Pentagon, complete with an air show, exhibits of planes and helicopters, and musical performances. The public can view the ceremony in the parking lot via a live broadcast.
On Sunday there will be a memorial service at 10:30 a.m. to honor fallen airmen, and will include a wreath-laying ceremony.
"This will be a great weekend for Arlington residents and a fun thing to come to," said Grillo, president of the Air Force Memorial Foundation.
THE AIR FORCE IS the only branch of the armed services that does not have a memorial in the Washington area. Air Force officials say the homage is long over-due, and that it is fitting the memorial will be completed this year, which is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Air Force.
A foundation to find land for the memorial was set up in 1992, and the original location was to be just north of Arlington National Cemetery near the Iwo Jima Memorial. After Marine officials raised objections to the placement, the Air Force and Congress worked together to secure property next to the Naval Annex.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in September 2004, and construction on the monument began at the beginning of the following year. James Ingo Freed, best known for planning the U.S. Holocaust Museum designed the memorial.
Three soaring spires, the tallest of which is 270 feet high, make up the main portion of the $50 million monument. They are meant to evoke the image of a "bomb burst" and the spirit of the Air Force, Grillo said.
"The challenge of the architect was how do you display the medium of air and space," Grillo added.
The monument at its highest point is more than 400 feet above sea level, and the spires tended to sway in times of high winds. To mitigate this effect, engineers placed 13 lead balls, each weighing two tons, which roll within the structure to steady it.
The memorial also includes a bronze Honor Guard statue, two granite inscription walls at either end, a glass "contemplation wall" and a surrounding park.
CONGRESS CREATED the Air Force Memorial Foundation in 1992 to undertake the building of the project. Since then more than 140,000 individuals have donated money to pay for the construction of the memorial. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have each given $5 million and Northrop Grumman and Raytheon have chipped in $2 million each, Grillo said.
The memorial can be seen from across Washington and adds another prominent monument to Arlington, which is already home to the National Cemetery, Iwo Jima and Netherlands Carillon Memorial.
The Sept. 11 memorial at the Pentagon is due to be completed in 2008, and combined with the Air Force monument will attract thousands of tourists a year to South Arlington, county officials said.
"This further identifies Arlington as a destination and as a place people traveling to the nation’s capital will visit," said County Board Chair Chris Zimmerman.
Officials also expect the monument will serve as an economic boon for the Columbia Pike corridor, as thousands of visitors patronize local hotels and restaurants.
"We are laying the groundwork for the long-term economic future of Columbia Pike, and this monument is an absolutely phenomenal gateway," County Manager Carlee said.
—additional reporting by Carl Siegmund