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Soaring Salute to Reagan

The former first lady dedicates March Air Reserve Base's new C-17 in her late husband's memory. A crowd of 1,000 attends.

January 14, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

The hulking, gray aircraft swooped by the hangar once and then roared back overhead, just in time for the former first lady's arrival.

Hundreds of spectators squinted into the Friday afternoon sun at a March Air Reserve Base hangar in Riverside, gathered for Nancy Reagan's dedication of the base's new C-17 cargo aircraft, named the "Spirit of Ronald Reagan" in honor of the late president.

An Air Force band played "The Stars and Stripes Forever" as Reagan stepped gingerly out of her red sedan, escorted slowly down a red carpet by Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, commander of the Air Force Reserve Command.

Reagan, 84, offered a slight wave, and then joined military and political officials onstage where an iconic photo of Reagan in a cowboy hat beamed from a large screen and the crowd offered a standing ovation.

Speakers lauded her late husband's leadership, describing how his "strategic vision and powerful ideas" fortified the U.S. military, Bradley said.

"He helped pull apart the fabric of communism and oppression," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona). Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), addressed the former first lady directly in her off-the-cuff remarks, identifying with her as a widow of an entertainer-turned-politician. "You've always been a role model and hero," Bono said, praising Reagan's "dignity, grace and poise."

The plane's crew master, Master Sgt. Robert Jendrock, presented Reagan with an oversized, inscribed key to the Long Beach-built airplane. She then helped Air Force officials tug the drape from the "Spirit of Ronald Reagan" insignia above the crew door, and left the ceremony without making public remarks.

The late president "would have loved to be here for all this," said Steve Chealander, Reagan's former military aide.

The $250-million plane is the base's eighth and final C-17 Globemaster III, and the first to be named after a president. But Calvert hopes to acquire more; he labeled the plane's arrival "the dawning of a new era at March."

The C-17 can hold 170,000 pounds of military cargo -- including tanks, medical supplies, food and ammunition -- or temporary shelters and other humanitarian supplies. The planes, which can land in complete darkness, fly 16 hours nonstop and have automatic missile sensors. They should be mission-ready by early fall, said Brig. Gen. James T. Rubeor, commander of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing.

A crowd of more than 1,000 munched on shrimp, sushi and sheet cake in the cavernous ceremony space while Air Force reservist Staff Sgt. Sergio M. Melendez soaked it all in.

Reagan, his favorite president, "was kind of bigger than life," said Melendez, 38, of Glendale, who works as a C-17 loadmaster. He stood for "everything good America has to offer us."

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