General Moseley, Secretary Wynne, thank you for inviting me to this celebration. As Second Lieutenant Gates at Whiteman Air Force Base 40 years ago, I would never have imagined being on the same stage with the Air Force Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force. So it is a real honor. When I was commissioned at Lackland in January of 1967, we were all asked if we would have any guests at the ceremony in the rank of Colonel or GS-15 or above who would warrant VIP treatment. None of us had friends in such high places.
Colonel Day, Congressman Spratt, Congresswoman Wilson, Congressman Stearns, other distinguished guests. Members of the Department. Airmen, past and present.
Ever since the dawn of civilization, the idea of flight has held an unshakeable grip on the human imagination. The myths of ancient Greece, the musings of great philosophers, the charcoal sketches of Leonardo da Vinci – all illustrated the dream that one day mankind would travel in the skies and maybe even among the stars.
For the romantics, it was always a vision of the future. For the cynics, it was little more than the fantasy of an overactive mind.
Nearly four millennia of dreams and fantasies finally gave way to reality in an unlikely place, the result of years of tireless work by an unlikely pair: two brothers from Ohio, bike salesmen by day, aeronautic visionaries by night.
That first tentative and halting foray into the sky by a heavier-than-air flying machine – a mere ten feet above the sands of Kitty Hawk, 120 feet across the dunes – marked more than just the dawn of the Age of Flight. It also marked the beginning of the incredible journey that brings us here today in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the United States Air Force.
It was not an easy journey. The infancy of flight was beset with problems. After a failed attempt at flight in 1901, Orville Wright recalled his brother saying that man would not fly for a thousand years. And shortly thereafter, a famous scientist said that “Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.” As in previous ages, however, there were those who firmly believed that aviation could change the face of the world. It fell to a man named Billy Mitchell to fight the prevailing conventional wisdom within the military establishment. He did so with great fervor, and little tact. (Laughter) Senior officers took to calling him the “Kookaburra,” an Australian bird more commonly known as the “laughing jackass.” (Laughter)
Mitchell was eventually court-martialed, and one of his protégés took over the cause within the military. For his determination, that young man, who had learned to fly with the Wright Brothers, was finally given the choice of resigning from the services or being court-martialed. He chose the court-martial, but was instead sent into exile. He eventually returned to good favor and ended up making something of a name for himself. Some of you may have heard of five-star General “Hap” Arnold.
Despite the early arguments and acrimony, despite myriad questions over airpower’s utility in war, the public quickly embraced America’s intrepid flying men. Millions came to know the great aces of two world wars – Eddie Rickenbacker, Dick Bong, and others. And they came to know entire units like the Flying Tigers and the Doolittle Raiders – units that sustained and inspired a nation during some of its darkest and most trying days.
Since then and throughout the 60-year history of the Air Force, the American people have stood in awe as Airmen continued to push the limits of bravery and endurance – as they crashed through the sound barrier many times over, and extended the range, scope, and nature of air missions beyond what anyone could have imagined.
And the Air Force has continued to inspire us – during the Berlin Airlift in 1948, during two wars in Asia, during the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union, and today in a new conflict that tests our ingenuity and creativity as much as, if not more than, our technological prowess.
I seriously doubt anyone would have believed that, in the 21st century, Airmen on horseback in the wilds of Afghanistan would direct B-52s to provide close air support for cavalry charges – ironic, considering that early doubters of aviation’s military value feared that noise from the planes would frighten the cavalry’s horses. And then there is the nontraditional nature of the Air Force’s mission in Iraq, where Airmen and airpower are used as often to protect as to destroy. Curtis LeMay is no doubt spinning in his grave. (Laughter)
Above all else, it is the men and women of the Air Force who have for so many years made this institution what it is – the sword and shield of the nation, its sentry and its avenger.
I want to extend my personal thanks to the distinguished guests recognized earlier. For these men and women, the allure of the sky proved stronger than the forces – of both man and nature – working to keep them on the ground. Many had to defy personal fears. Others had to defy societal prejudice. All demonstrated unflagging devotion. They are examples for us all.
As we look back on everything that has made this birthday possible, let us also look forward to many more birthdays as the Air Force continues its dominance of air, space, and cyberspace.
You represent the best that our military and our nation has to offer – a long and distinguished heritage of courage, and endless horizons of innovation.