ARLINGTON, Va. — President Bush dedicated a $30 million memorial Saturday to the millions of people who’ve served in the Air Force, in a ceremony punctuated by a thundering bomb burst formation of F-16 Fighting Falcon jets.
“From this day forward, 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,” Bush said to applause of attending dignitaries.
About 25,000 people turned out for the ceremony, packing the memorial site and a Pentagon parking lot that accommodated the elderly with walkers, as well as baby strollers.
Country music performer Lee Ann Womack entertained the crowd with songs that included “San Antonio Rose.”
A precision demonstration by the Air Force Thunderbirds thrilled onlookers, who watched the jets soar skyward in arcs, with a final plane spiraling straight up with white contrails.
Bush, a former Texas Air National Guard pilot, said the memorial would kick off the 60th birthday celebration for the youngest military branch and serve as a reminder of those who died in service.
“I proudly accept the Air Force memorial on behalf of the American people,” Bush said.
The memorial, which opens to the public Tuesday, holds special significance for San Antonio, considered the birthplace of military aviation at Fort Sam Houston in 1910, when biplanes were used to track Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in northern Mexico.
All Air Force enlisted personnel must pass through Lackland AFB for basic training, and the city boasts two other air bases for pilot training and research with Randolph AFB and Brooks City-Base, formerly Brooks AFB.
The Air Force has 17,000 active-duty personnel serving at San Antonio installations, and about 26,000 retirees live in the area, according to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph.
San Antonio also is home to Oliver “Ollie” Crawford, a World War II-era pilot who as chairman of the Air Force Memorial Foundation launched the effort in the early 1990s to build the memorial.
Crawford, attending with his wife, Nancy, said the structure would be “the most beautiful, meaningful military memorial in the world.”
The memorial rises 270 feet above its base and an engraved wall that contains the names of all those who died while serving in the Air Force and its predecessor organizations.