ARLINGTON, Va. – Framed by three towering spires and a brilliant blue sky, President Bush gave the Air Force a long-sought memorial Saturday, paying tribute to “a long blue line of heroes” that has defended the nation from World War I through the global war on terror.

Hundreds gathered at the memorial site on a cliff overlooking the Pentagon and thousands more watched on giant screens from a nearby parking lot as Bush and other dignitaries dedicated the Air Force Memorial as the latest entry in the constellation of monuments ringing the capital city.

Throughout much of the ceremony, eyes were riveted upward as aircraft past and present – including a replica of the Wright Brothers pioneer aircraft and World War II bombers – formed an aerial parade around the stainless steel spires, reaching up to 270 feet, that serve as the memorial’s centerpiece.

The most spectacular display came just after Bush’s keynote address when the F-16 Thunderbirds soared headlong into the sky, then peeled away from each other in their famous “bomb burst” maneuver just above the tips of the spires. Architect James Ingo Freed, who died last year before seeing his handiwork, designed the spires to emulate the bomb burst maneuver.

“To all who have climbed sunward and chased the shouting wind, America stops to say: Your service and sacrifice will be remembered forever, and honored in this place by the citizens of a free and grateful nation,” said Bush.

The dedication ended a sometimes contentious 15-year campaign to erect the monument. Established as a separate branch of the military in 1947, the Air Force is preparing to celebrate its 60th anniversary next year but, until Saturday, had been the only service without its own memorial.

Ross Perot Jr., a Dallas developer and the son of former independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, headed the effort and volunteered the services of his North Texas company, Hillwood Development Corp. The campaign suffered an early setback when the Marine Corps and local neighborhood groups blocked the first choice of a site near the Iwo Jima Memorial.

But thousands of Air Force veterans, from generals to one-stripers, continued to press for the memorial and regrouped after the Defense Department granted the present site on the ridge just above the Pentagon near Arlington National Cemetery. The site offers a spectacular panorama of Washington and has been judged by many as preferable to the original location.

The ceremony also served as a reunion for legions of current and former airmen and brought together surviving representatives of some of the service’s most daring exploits, including Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 raid on Tokyo and the Berlin airlift, which saved thousands when the Soviets blockaded the city after World War II.

Charles McGee, an 86-year-old member of the fabled African-American pilots known as the Tuskeegee Airmen, stood at the base of the spires after the dedication, politely signing autographs. Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley approached McGee as he wound through the crowd, then grasped his hand.

“You’re a big part of this,” the four-star general told McGee, extending a brisk salute before departing.

Looking back on his experiences during the days of a segregated service, McGee said the Tuskeegee Airmen “showed disbelievers that blacks could fly.” McGee flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, wracking up what is believed to be a record-setting 1,151 hours in combat.

James R. Graham, 82, a retired mastered sergeant and a native of Charlotte, N.C., showed up in a new Air Force uniform he bought for the occasion, his former rank smartly displayed on the sleeves.

Graham’s 26-year career with the Air Force stretched from World War II through the Cuban Missile Crisis before he retired in 1984. His voice choked with emotion as he tried to explain what those days mean to him. “It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “My life would be very different without it.”

Perot, a former Air Force reservist and record-setting helicopter pilot, envisions the memorial as a potential top-drawing tourist destination, where visitors can gather on warm summer nights to listen to concerts and gaze at the lights of Washington just across the Potomac River.

“This memorial has been a labor of love,” Perot said from speaker’s platform, as his billionaire father listened from the audience.

Thousands of spectators spilled into the Pentagon’s south parking lot to observe the dedication ceremony and participate in a daylong “open house” that featured entertainment and military displays. Throughout the day, veterans of past wars mingled with the service’s younger generation, now embroiled in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Tim Bishop, 24, a former resident of Crowley, Texas, joined the Air Force exactly one year before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has since served four combat tours – two in Afghanistan and two in Iraq – as a forward observer who directs fire onto enemy positions. Asked if he expects to return to the danger zone, he replied matter-of-factly, “Oh yeah.”

Many shared a unifying sentiment – that the monument was a long time coming.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” said Ernest Loden, 71, who lives in Auburn, Wash. Loden was in the service for only five years in the early 1950s – he was a radio maintenance technician for then-new B-52s – but says stills feels like the Air Force part of his life.

“It’s something down here, I guess,” he said, tapping his chest.

Air Force leaders hailed the dedication as a stirring tribute to U.S. airpower and the evolution of military aviation from its earliest beginnings just a few years after the Wright Brothers flight in 1903. The memorial honors not only the current service but predecessor organizations dating to 1907, when the aeronautical division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps was formed.

The fledgling outfit was renamed the Army Air Service in May of 1918 and continued to blossom under other names before coming of age with the aerial exploits of World War II. After the National Security Act made it the third branch of the military in 1947, the Air Force pressed further into the skies with the jet age and space flight.

Today’s Air Force is made up of 697,000 people – active duty, Air Guard and civilian personnel.

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