The United States Air Force Memorial

Southern Expansion will incorporate the United States Air Force Memorial within the boundaries of Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), ensuring seamless public access to this iconic and meaningful site. Construction at the memorial is expected to begin in July 2025 and complete in October 2026.

Opened in 2006, the Air Force Memorial honors active-duty service members in the United States Air Force (USAF), as well as airmen killed in combat in service to the USAF and its predecessor organizations (prior to the USAF’s establishment in 1947). This commemorative site—located on a high promontory overlooking Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon, the Potomac River and the Washington, D.C. skyline—prompts the public to physically and emotionally engage with the history of U.S. aviation, the Air Force, and its members’ service and sacrifices. The Air Force Memorial currently receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Its integration into ANC, which receives more than three million annual visitors, will enable many more people to experience this visually striking tribute to the United States’ legacy in aviation.


Efforts to create an Air Force memorial began during the 1990s, spearheaded by a group of Air Force Association (AFA) and Air Force Sergeants’ Association (AFSA) leaders. In 1992, Oliver “Ollie” Crawford—a World War II U.S. Army Air Corps veteran and charter member of the AFA—incorporated the Air Force Memorial Foundation. The following year, Public Law (PL) 103-163, signed into law on December 2, 1993, authorized the Air Force Memorial Foundation “to establish a memorial on Federal land in the District of Columbia or its environs to honor the men and women who have served in the United States Air Force and its predecessors.” PL 103-163 stipulated that the Air Force Memorial Foundation was to be solely responsible for funding the memorial’s construction; no federal funds would be used.

With the assistance of the National Park Service (NPS), the Foundation surveyed 18 possible sites for the memorial, both in Washington, D.C. and Arlington. Ultimately, the FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act approved situating the memorial on three acres of the former Navy Annex. The groundbreaking ceremony, held on September 15, 2004, was attended by dozens of renowned military aviators, and it included a flyover featuring both modern and vintage aircraft. Construction on the memorial’s signature spires began in January 2005 and took more than a year to complete.

The Air Force Memorial’s official dedication was held on October 14, 2006. President George W. Bush spoke at the dedication ceremony and underscored the memorial’s meanings: “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,” the president stated. “And so it’s fitting that, 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.” Other speakers included Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley, who spoke of several USAF members who made the ultimate sacrifice. As with the groundbreaking ceremony, the dedication ceremony featured a flyover consisting of aircraft from the 1930s through the present day, and it ended with a demonstration from the USAF Thunderbirds—who performed the “bomb-burst” formation that inspired the memorial’s design. 


In April 2002, the Air Force Memorial Foundation selected renowned architect James Ingo Freed, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, to design the memorial. Freed’s other notable works in the Washington, D.C. area include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (1993) and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (1998).

The Air Force Memorial’s striking centerpiece consists of three 200- to 270-foot, curving stainless steel and concrete spires overlooking Washington, D.C.—and visible from both the city and highways approaching Arlington. The spires, collectively called “Soaring to Glory,” translate the contrails of the bomb-burst formation into soaring physical form. According to James Ingo Freed, the memorial’s “array of arcs against the sky evokes a modern image of flight by jet and space vehicles. At the same time, it enshrines the past in permanent resemblance of the pioneers of flight who came before,  and pays homage to the future.” Furthermore, the number three holds particular meaning for the Air Force, evoking its core values: “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.” The three spires also suggest the USAF’s total force—active, guard and reserve. Each is illuminated by its own light source. Beneath the spires stands the USAF’s star logo, seen on its aircraft, missiles and enlisted uniforms.

Another signature feature of the Air Force Memorial is a bronze sculpture of an Air Force Honor Guard, designed by renowned sculpture Zenos Frudakis. Depicting four, 8’ tall figures, the sculpture  (in the sculptor’s own words) “act[s] as a human complement to the overwhelming steel spires of the memorial.” Working with the Air Force, Frudakis precisely replicated USAF Honor Guard clothing and appearance—down to the correct crossing of the figures’ shoelaces (which were resculpted after it was determined that they had been crossed incorrectly in the first version). Two of the figures are flag bearers (one holds a U.S. flag and the other an Air Force ceremonial flag), and the others are weapons bearers. According to Frudakis, the figures “came into view as unique people, with faces and bodies infused with life, inspiring connections to the real people who serve and sacrifice. They reflect the diversity of gender and race that strengthens the Air Force and the nation.”

Designed as a holistic, immersive space, the site includes several other commemorative elements. The Parade Ground—walkways reminiscent of runways—leads to two black granite walls (north and south) bearing inscriptions, including the names of Medal of Honor recipients and quotes related to the USAF’s three core values. Additionally, a contemplative space—featuring a  glass wall engraved with an image of the missing-man fighter jet formation—honors missing Air Force members and prompts visitors to reflect upon the memorial’s overall meanings.

The Air Force Memorial has won a number of awards, including the 2006 Air Force Organization’s Gill Robb Wilson Award; the 2007 American Concrete Institute’s Award of Excellence; a Certificate of Merit for Excellence in Construction from the Associated Builders and Contractors: Metropolitan Washington and Virginia Chapters in 2007; Illuminating Engineering Society of North America’s International Illumination Design Awards: The Paul Westbury Award for Outdoor Lighting Design’s Award of Distinction in 2008; and the 2008 Lumen Award: Award of Merit from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America’s New York City Section.


David Rubin, then with OLIN Studio based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, designed the landscape architecture of the Air Force Memorial. He has since founded the DAVID RUBIN Land Collective, “a landscape architecture, urban design, and planning studio committed to practicing with an emphasis on socially-purposeful design strategies.” In the Washington, D.C. area,  other projects of Rubin and his team include the revitalization of Franklin Park (NPS) and the landscape design of the National World War I Memorial (opened on April 17, 2021), to include integrating the memorial into the rehabilitated Pershing Park.

In conceiving his design for the Air Force Memorial, James Ingo Freed believed that the landscape architecture would be as significant as the memorial’s sculpted elements. “The critical component, the site, had to be analyzed for its informational and formational impact,” he stated. In other words, the memorial had to encompass the site’s unique qualities as a potential space for commemoration, interpretation and reflection. These intentions informed the collaborative process of designing the landscape.

In designing the landscape, Rubin considered how visitors’ physical movement throughout the space would affect their emotional experience of the memorial. The landscape unfolds in an intentional sequence. Visitors access the memorial by walking the paths of the Parade Ground, which lead to the spires, the promontory’s expansive vistas onto Washington’s “monumental core” (especially the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument) and the contemplative spaces. As explained on the Land Collective’s website, “The concept arises from ancient temple structures, increasing emotion as one passes from court to sanctuary. Areas are defined by changes in tree species: oak, London pine, maple.”

The site also provides views of Arlington National Cemetery. Once integrated into ANC, the Air Force Memorial will be a more accessible part of a commemorative landscape that includes graves and columbarium courts.


The Air Force Memorial honors the long and distinguished history of U.S. aviation and the USAF, from Orville Wright’s first military flight at nearby Fort Myer (September 1908) through the Air Force of today. Visible from both Washington, D.C. and Arlington—as well as from many passenger planes arriving at or departing from Washington Reagan National Airport—the memorial’s three soaring spires elegantly symbolize the United States’ quest to reach for the skies and the stars. Meanwhile, its landscape and other physical elements (the Honor Guard sculpture, the granite walls with inscriptions and the commemorative glass wall) enable visitors to more intimately connect with the human costs that accompanied the United States’ ascendancy as an aerospace pioneer.

In designing the memorial, Freed grappled with a foundational challenge: how to represent the air? In his words, “The Navy has the medium of water, which can be shown in fountains. The Army has the medium of land, which can be referenced with mountains and plans. The Air Force has the medium of air, which is much more difficult to illustrate than water or land.” Yet the memorial’s iconic spires—which, viewed from afar, appear to “float”— symbolize what the air has represented for human beings since the classical age: the desire for ascent and the expansive freedoms promised by the defiance of gravity. At the same time, the massive steel and concrete structure of the spires (most palpable when viewed closely) suggest the material foundations of American air power, embodying the strength of the U.S. Air Force to protect the nation and its allies. As Freed stated, the core of the memorial’s meanings “lies in making air tangible and making technology felt.” This dual intention, executed in the memorial’s design, aptly embodies the intertwined dimensions of U.S. aviation history: soaring ambition and achievement, but also the grounded heaviness of consequences that included loss of Air Force members’ lives (as also embodied by the memorial’s other commemorative elements).

Once integrated into ANC, the Air Force Memorial will join a hallowed commemorative landscape that includes the gravesites of members of the Air Force and its predecessor agencies, as well as numerous gravesites and memorials to astronauts—which honor American service members' journeys to the skies and beyond. For more information on USAF gravesites at ANC, please click here