Three silvery spires soar up, arching and narrowing until they seem to disappear in the air. They almost look like contrails, but they’re stainless steel, not smoke. Yes, you actually can hear aircraft engines—usually from airliners approaching nearby Reagan National Airport.
This is the US Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., designed to evoke the spectacular grace of flight and to honor the commitment, heroism, and sacrifice of all the men and women who have served the cause of American airpower.
Dedicated Oct. 14, 2006, the memorial, set atop a hill overlooking both the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, is now a decade old. In just 10 years it has become the Air Force’s ceremonial stage, hosting promotions and retirements, historic commemorations, band concerts, and drill team performances. It is the scene of speeches, parades, and Honor Flight visits. Couples get engaged there. Spouses and children visit to remember departed loved ones. Airmen—currently serving, retired, and even those who served in USAF’s predecessor organizations—come for inspiration. They show off the memorial to their families or just lean back and take in the majesty of the spires.
The spires did not rise easily. Like many monuments in Washington, the Air Force Memorial endured controversies so heady that it changed shape and location a number of times. It faced court challenges and congressional objections.
But today it’s a place to celebrate the Air Force on a grand scale. That was the vision of the dedicated group that navigated it from dream to reality. Ten years on, it’s been embraced by the Air Force, other services, foreign airmen, and random visitors to the nation’s capital alike.
“It has become what we had hoped for and expected,” said retired Air Force Col. Pete Lindquist, who served as Air Force Memorial Foundation director of operations from 1996 to 2012.
In the beginning
The origins of the memorial began in the wake of US victory in the 1991 Gulf War. A small group of Air Force Association leaders, headed by O. R. “Ollie” Crawford, saw airpower’s dominance in that campaign as something worthy of commemoration.
Crawford helped form a foundation that included himself, John R. Alison, George M. Douglas, Martin H. Harris, Thomas J. McKee, and Jack C. Price as trustees. The group was incorporated and granted nonprofit, tax-exempt status in 1992. Retired Lt. Gen. Robert D. Springer accepted the job of executive director, and the Air Force Sergeants Association promised its full support.
In 1993, business executive Joseph Coors Jr. came aboard as foundation chairman. H. Ross Perot Jr. agreed to serve as chairman of the foundation’s site and design committee. Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation authorizing the building of an Air Force Memorial on federal land.
That signature started a clock ticking. The foundation had seven years to raise enough money and win the necessary permits to start construction.
The National Park Service led the site and design committees on a tour of 18 possible locations in the Washington, D.C., area. The committee liked a number of them, including a small plot adjacent to the National Mall, near the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. They settled, though, on an area of Northern Virginia known as Arlington Ridge.
The site was directly in line with the east-west axis of the mall, just across the Potomac River. It was on land off the northern end of Arlington Cemetery and between two existing attractions: the Netherlands Carillon—a thank-you from the Dutch for US aid during and after World War II—and the Marine Corps War Memorial, the iconic giant statue that depicts raising the flag during the battle for Iwo Jima. Coincidentally, it was only a short distance from the site of the first flight of a US military airplane, on adjacent Fort Myer.
Given the proximity to the Iwo Jima Memorial, the foundation informed senior Marine Corps leaders of its plan in February 1994. None raised objections to the Air Force building its own memorial in the vicinity.
More permission was needed, though. Erecting memorials in and around the nation’s capital is a complicated process, as a number of panels and commissions have the power to say yes or no.
Within a year the foundation quickly won site approval from the National Capital Memorial Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts. The National Capital Planning Commission balked, however. The foundation worked with the group and agreed to a number of design parameters that eased its objections.
All signals seemed to say “go” in 1996, as the foundation had all the site and design approvals it needed. Fund-raising started in earnest.
This first iteration of the Air Force Memorial was quite different from the one now standing. Due to the site height limits, architect James Ingo Freed had produced a design only 50 feet tall, with space below for an interpretive center and other functions (later eliminated for practicality and cost). Viewed from above, the design was a five-pointed star.
Not everyone in the Air Force loved it. Retired Gen. John A. Shaud, former AFA executive director and memorial foundation trustee, attended a fund-raiser for the memorial entitled “Soaring to Glory.” A model of the proposed design was on display.
As Shaud recalls in a written reflection on the memorial’s construction, Gen. Michael J. Dugan, former Air Force Chief of Staff, was also present at the fund-raiser and said, “I like the slogan … ‘Soaring to Glory,’ but looking at the model, that ain’t it.”
The more the guests looked at the design, Shaud wrote, the more “we tended to agree with Mike.” The Secretary of the Air Force remarked, “It looks like a moon lander.” Over time, a more pejorative nickname circulated: “the ashtray.” Although it was 50 feet tall, it appeared stubby and squat.
Then a storm arose that the foundation hadn’t foreseen. It started small. Residents of the leafy neighborhood near the Arlington Ridge site began raising objections. They used the space as something of a neighborhood park for dog walking, Frisbee flying, and other activities. Some worried that the presence of a third memorial on the site would bring more people and vehicles and interfere with these activities.
The opponents knew they needed allies. The objection of a neighborhood association by itself wouldn’t derail the project.
“They partnered with some retired marine folks and organizations and it certainly escalated from there,” said Lindquist. “We were portrayed as impacting the hallowed ground of the Marine Corps.”
The opposition organized into a group called the Friends of Iwo Jima and began lobbying Congress. On July 30, 1997, Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), a Marine Corps veteran, introduced legislation prohibiting any new memorials near the Iwo Jima statue. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate in October.
Opponents pursued court action via a civil suit as well. They got some support from active marines despite the fact that the corps had been consulted throughout the process, and the memorial had already received the explicit approval of the Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr.
The foundation had followed the legal planning process by the book and successfully defended itself in the courts a number of times. In June 1998, a US District Court judge dismissed the Friends of Iwo Jima suit against the foundation via summary judgment. An appeals court upheld this action in May 1999. Meanwhile, the House and Senate bills that would have blocked the memorial went nowhere.
Foundation officials forged ahead with fund-raising and other activities. At a dedication ceremony for the Arlington Ridge site held Sept. 18, 1997, some participants noticed that the Iwo Jima Memorial was more than 500 feet away, up a hill, and screened by a copse of trees. No part of it—not even the tip of the flagpole—was visible from the site.
In the court of public opinion, though, the Air Force Memorial wasn’t faring well. The dispute over its siting was reverberating in the Pentagon and beyond.
“There were some very concerned individuals at high levels in both services—the Marine Corps and Air Force—because what was happening was, this little tiff over memorials was really causing some consternation between active duty forces,” recalled Lindquist.
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and Deputy Defense Secretary Rudy deLeon were instrumental in brokering a compromise. Congressman Solomon organized a meeting on the Hill attended by several senators and congressmen and the Friends of Iwo Jima. The Air Force was represented by Secretary F. Whitten Peters and Shaud, who represented AFA as its executive director.
“The Friends of Iwo Jima, mainly retired Marine generals, were each prepared to make a speech,” and they did, Shaud recalls. “Peters nudged me and asked, ‘When do you think we ought to say something?’ I replied, ‘Sir, look at the body language of the senators and congressmen. Let them go on … and on.’?”
Finally, Warner asked if the Air Force had anything to say.
Peters initially deferred to Shaud, who answered, “The Air Force is following the Wing Walkers Creed, which is, ‘Don’t let go of something ’til you have hold of something else.’?”
Later, while walking down the Capitol steps, Peters asked Shaud how he felt they did. “Sir, I think just fine,’?” Shaud recollects. “And that turned out to be true.”
Warner brokered a swap: If the trustees gave up the Arlington Ridge site, they could have a parcel of land by the Navy Annex, adjacent to the southern border of Arlington Cemetery.
The proposed new location was in many ways a superior site—on a hill that overlooked the Pentagon on one side, Arlington cemetery on another, and then across the Potomac to the Washington Monument and all of D.C. beyond. The site selection committee had, in fact, visited the Navy Annex as part of its original tour and liked it. At the time, though, defense officials said the annex buildings wouldn’t be removed for another 20 years.
The fight over the Arlington Ridge site had already eaten up some of that time. Then the Pentagon decided it didn’t have to wait and demolish the entire Navy Annex—a series of eight buildings—all at once. Instead, the new plan called for razing just one of them. Added to space from a parking lot, this would provide a promontory for a highly visible memorial. Better yet, it could now soar upward, freed of the height limits of Arlington Ridge.
In October 2001, the foundation board decided to accept the deal. Members knew if they insisted on the first site, more litigation would follow, costing them dollars and time. The whole process of building the memorial would drag out, and they might run out the clock, with the risk that Congress might not extend the authorizing legislation.
That December, President George W. Bush signed a defense authorization bill that, among other things, allowed the transfer of up to three acres of the Navy Annex property for the Air Force memorial.
Everyone said “it turned out to be in our favor,” observed retired Maj. Gen. Edward F. Grillo Jr., who served as foundation president. “It ended up being a far better site, and in my opinion, a far better design.”
A new site, having fewer restrictions, offered new opportunities. The foundation in early 2002 asked five architectural firms to submit new ideas. Among those taking part was the winner of the first design contest, James Ingo Freed of the firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. His firm had designed the Grand Louvre museum project in Paris and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Shaud thinks music may also have helped inspire the look of the memorial. One day during this period, he got a call in his AFA office informing him that the competing architects were meeting downstairs. They wanted him to talk about the differences between the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
In the elevator on the way down he mused about what to say. The different elements in which each service moved were obvious—land, sea, and air. How to illustrate that? He decided that architects—probably all of them fine arts majors of some sort—might respond to songs.
Shaud told them the land-based Army could be symbolized by inexorable marches such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The Navy sings a more majestic hymn to the expanse and loneliness of the ocean, while the Air Force is all about the grace of flight. The Air Force hymn, “Lord, Guard and Guide the Men Who Fly,” is in three-four time, the meter of a flowing waltz, Shaud told the architects.
“The architectural symbol is the dynamic curve—not the column of soldiers on the march or the profound emotion of being at sea,” Shaud wrote in his reflection on the memorial.
Dynamic curves carried the day. When the designs were unveiled, Freed’s new entry was stunning—and far different from his original star. It presented three soaring spires, their joints concealed and smooth as possible, reaching into the Virginia sky.
“The bottom line is that Jim Freed came in and hit a home run with the committee,” said Lindquist.
The three spires are different heights and curve asymmetrically. They are reminiscent of the Thunderbirds executing their bomb burst formation or perhaps the path of a rocket to space.
“The Air Force Memorial is rooted in the necessary symbolic transition of making the medium of the Air Force visible. … At the same time, it enshrines the past in permanent remembrance of the pioneers of flight who came before and pays homage to those of the future,” wrote Freed in 2004.
The spires emerge from a prow-like enclosure at the edge of the memorial’s site. Offset below is the Honor Guard, a larger-than-life and meticulously detailed statue of Honor Guard airmen meant to complement the tall steel arcs. They stand at one end of a parade ground marked by paths that resemble runways. At the other is a glass contemplation wall, etched with the images of F-16s in a missing man formation.
The Honor Guard statue is said to have been added at the insistence of Perot, who wanted to know “where’s the photo op?” He wanted to be sure there was an element of the memorial where visitors could pose for a picture, without the photographer having to be hundreds of feet away to capture the soaring spires.
The area is enclosed on two ends by black granite walls that contain quotes from noted Air Force and Air Corps leaders about service values, excerpts from letters of airmen serving their country far from home, and the names of Air Force and Air Corps recipients of the Medal of Honor.
Shaud remembers discussing how to identify the Medal of Honor recipients. Should they be listed by unit or by hometown
“We decided to identify them by their hometown. Where do we get people like that? From the villages of America,” he said.
With the new design in hand the foundation had to go back and restart the process of winning approval from various D.C. boards. That went smoothly and on Sept. 15, 2004, there was a formal groundbreaking and dedication ceremony at the Navy Annex site.
Demolition of the northernmost wing of the Navy Annex began a month later, and excavations for the spires and other features began in January 2005.
As a construction project, the Air Force Memorial was challenging. The steel spires were supposed to appear as seamless as possible. It took more than a year to construct the spires and lay their foundation. The concrete took five months to set.
“One of the real challenges we had was trying to figure out how long it would take to build something so unique,” Grillo said.
At one point a scale model of the spires was tested in a wind tunnel. This revealed that the structure might be subject to a phenomenon known as “galloping”—dangerous rhythmic swaying induced by wind of a specific speed.
The memorial needed some sort of movement-damping system to ensure against the fate of the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge, nicknamed “Galloping Gertie,” which collapsed in 1940 due to wind-induced twisting. Engineers settled on a simple solution of three-quarter ton metal balls contained in steel boxes lined with rubber. The balls would be free to roll about if a spire swayed in the wind, mitigating the wind’s effect.
There were also concerns from nearby Reagan National Airport that the spires would be a hazard to navigation. Eventually, the FAA was satisfied that they posed no risk, but like all towers, the memorial was topped with a blinking red light to warn off errant aircraft.
Finally, the end of the long march neared. Dedication was set for Oct. 14, 2006. Logistics planning began far in advance—after all, President Bush and many other VIPs were involved.
Hitting the mark
Then came the inevitable last-minute hitch. Contractors pouring concrete in the spires’ inner structures saw that the amount they were putting in didn’t seem to match the amount collecting in expected places. They discovered that wet concrete had been leaking into some of the damping boxes—entombing the supposedly free-moving balls in an immovable jacket.
Workers went on a 24/7 schedule to get the monument ready in time. “There were actually people in there hand-chipping the stuff around those balls. … But there was no way in the world we were going to delay the dedication,” said Grillo.
Mere hours beforehand—even while attendees began to arrive—workers were still planting trees and laying sod on the memorial’s hill. The weather on dedication day was beautiful. Bush spoke from a podium at the base of the spires.
“Under these magnificent spires, we pay tribute to the men and women of the Air Force who stand ready to give all to their country,” he said.
A historic parade of US aircraft, from a Wright brothers biplane to an F-117 stealth fighter, flew overhead as a series of luminaries spoke of the history of US military aviation, from the Air Service to the Air Corps to the Air Force. It all concluded with a spectacular show from the Thunderbirds. At one point, they approached the hill from the Pentagon side, low and out of sight of the crowd. Then they swung upward behind the spires in the bomb burst maneuver, mirroring the spires’ shape. Some attendees said the sight caused the hair to stand up on the back of their necks.
“It was an awesome dedication,” said Grillo. To this day, AFA facilitates the memorial’s day-to-day operations on behalf of the Air Force, and more than 2.2 million visitors have passed through the memorial since its dedication.
One aspect of the memorial is not visible to visitors. Foundation members decided to engrave, on the highest of the spires, a phrase from an Air Force-beloved poem, “High Flight,” written in early World War II by John Gillespie Magee Jr.
The inscription on the 270-foot spire reads, “Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”