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The Backstory: A Memorial to Air

Please pardon the interruption from our normal “international travel” programming. I’ve been doing some research lately into the landmarks of Washington, DC, and in the process, I discovered that something I thought would be really dull is actually quite interesting. This just goes to show that having a good guide – or doing your research first – is essential to getting the most out of your travels. In the spirit of appreciating the value of your local tourist attractions (live like a tourist!), I thought I’d share what I learned.

If you’ve flown in or out of DC’s Reagan National Airport anytime in the last decade, you’ve probably caught a glimpse from the air of three massive, vertical silver arcs, pointing askew, near the Pentagon. These arcs are the U.S. Air Force Memorial. Despite how prominent the arcs are, I didn’t know anything about them (until now). I could never think of a way to describe what they looked like, because I didn’t think they looked like anything but modern art – a seemingly odd choice for a military memorial.

Military memorials tend to follow a familiar pattern. Memorials to the Navy and Coast Guard almost always involve some water element – a fountain, a pool – to represent that they do their job on the water. Since the Army operates on the land, Army memorials might include a representation of mountains or plains. But the Air Force operates in the air – and how in the world do you represent “air” in a three-dimensional structure?

It turns out, those vertical arcs are meant to represent flight – specifically, the jet streams of airplanes. And once I knew that, I wondered why I hadn’t “seen” it before. Since the memorial sits alone on a hill above DC, without any tall buildings around it, those arcs really look like they’re soaring through the air.

There is, of course, even more meaning in the design. Most notably, the choice of three arcs is symbolic of what’s not there: in the Missing Man formation, three planes fly in close formation with an empty space where a fourth plane should be, representing a fallen airman.

Appropriately enough, unless you visit the memorial, the best view of it is from the air. But it is worth taking a trip out to visit it, while you’re in the neighborhood at Arlington National Cemetery. Each arc is asymmetrical, so wherever you stand, you get a slightly different view. And if you stand in the center of the three arcs, you have a clear line of sight to the Washington Monument. The memorial also includes an 8-foot tall bronze sculpture of four airmen, representing the Honor Guard, by the same sculptor who designed Martin Luther King’s sculpture on the Tidal Basin.

The arcs are made of concrete and stainless steel, topping out at 270 feet fall. Together they weigh more than 7,000 tons, 5,000 tons of which are underground. Engineers had to design massive ball-bearing-type boxes that sit under the arcs to prevent them from swaying too much in the wind. I’m only the daughter of an engineer, so that’s as technical as I can get.

As with so many things that happen in Washington, the creation of this memorial involved Congressional hearings and legislation and litigation and wind tunnel tests. Just the planning for it took 14 years. Construction finally started in 2004 and the memorial was dedicated in October 2006.

The US Air Force Memorial honors all the men and women who have served – past, present, and future – in the US Air Force, including the Air Force before it was called the Air Force. (At various times it was called the Army Air Corps and the Army Air Service and the Aeronautical Division.) Until this memorial was built, there were no memorials for the Air Force in the Washington area. Millions of men and women have served in the Air Force and more than 54,000 airmen and airwomen have died in combat serving the United States, and this beautiful piece of “modern art” does a fine job honoring them.

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