September 2017 marks the 70th Anniversary of the United States Air Force, which was formally established as a separate military service by the National Security Act of 1947. Previously, various ground-based air reconnaissance, combat and support units had existed as part of the U.S. Army.
What better way to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Air Force than to visit the Air Force Memorial?
Given the relative young age of the Air Force (compared to Army, Navy and Marine Corps, which were all established in 1775), it is rather understandable that for most of its existence, the Air Force had no memorial of its own.
In 1991, leaders of two Air Force veterans’ organizations began an effort to build a memorial to those who served in the Air Force and its predecessor organizations.
The memorial sits in Arlington, Virginia along a high ridge adjoining Interstate 395, the main southern arterial into Washington, D.C. With views of the Potomac River, Pentagon, and other official buildings spread out below, this location fittingly evokes the aerial nature of the Air Force mission. Arriving and departing aircraft from nearby Reagan National Airport add to the effect.
Architect James Ingo Freed, (who also designed Washington’s Holocaust Museum) studied how to use the physical location to capture the essence of the Air Force and the dedication of the men and women who have served in its ranks. The resulting venue is sleek and streamlined, with minimal adornment and flourish, as if inspired by a modern aircraft.
The most prominent feature of the memorial is three vertical, arc shaped steel spires, meant to evoke the image of soaring flight. The spires are arranged in a triangular pattern with the highest reaching up to 270 feet.
The spires are also reminiscent of a contrail pattern formed by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Air Demonstration Squadron as they perform their “breaking bomb” maneuver. The lack of a fourth spire alludes to the “missing man” formation, used by Air Force flying units at funerals and other events to mark the loss of a comrade. Given their height and prominence, the spires have also added an additional landmark to the Washington, D.C. skyline.
Just to the west of the spires is a wide walkway connecting two highly polished granite inscription walls. The northern wall lists Air Force Medal of Honor winners. In front of it is a small glass contemplation wall to remember our airmen who are no longer present.
On the opposite southern wall are displayed the Air Force’s core values:
Service before self,
Excellence in all we do
In front of the southern wall is a sculpture of a four-member Air Force honor guard, keeping watch over the Memorial and adding a human element to the lofty arches and inspired words.
The colors of the Memorial’s features are muted, again like a modern aircraft, metallic spires, polished dark granite walls, gray statues, and the glass contemplation wall. The only other prominent color is green, from the manicured lawn and the trees ringing the parking lot.
While most aspects of the memorial are clearly visible, one is not: silence.
A certain stillness permeates the venue, bringing a sense of quiet to a busy corner of Arlington. Given this setting, along with the views, designs and significance of the memorial to members of the Air Force, it is a common location for promotions, concerts and other special ceremonies, so you may be sharing your visit with larger gatherings and even the Air Force Band.
(You can check event calendar for a listing of special events at the memorial.)
Some visitors, upon seeing the Memorial for the first time, remark about its unique designs and features and how they are relevant to the Air Force experience. President George W. Bush addressed this in his remarks at the memorial’s dedication on October 14, 2006.
He said: “A soldier can walk the battlefields where he once fought, a Marine can walk the beaches he once stormed; but an airman can never visit the patch of sky he raced across on a mission to defend freedom. And so, it’s fitting that…the men and women of the Air Force will have this memorial, a place here on the ground that recognizes their achievements and sacrifices in the skies above”.
The U.S. Air Force Memorial is located at 1 Air Force Memorial Drive, Arlington, VA, 22204. The memorial is free and open every day but December 25. Daily hours of operation from October 1 through March 31 are 8:00 AM – 8:00 PM and from April 1 through September 30 are 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM.
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The Air Force Memorial is easily reached by car, from the Pentagon or Pentagon City Metro stations or bus. From Visit the Air Force District of Washington Website for more information.
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The nearby Pentagon City neighborhood has a wide variety of dining options. Pentagon City is located about 1 mile from the Air Force Memorial. When exiting the Memorial, take a left onto Columbia Pike. At the first intersection, take a right on Joyce Street and cross underneath I-395 and you will enter Pentagon City. Take a left on Army-Navy Drive and you will see several parking garages on your right.