Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va., during a ceremony to mark the 100th Anniversary of Marine Corps Aviation.

Multiple decades of aerial adaptation, agility, steadfastness and excellence were recognized by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta May 16 as the Marine Corps, guests and invited dignitaries celebrated another milestone in the corps' storied history.

A Marine aviation centennial parade and wreath-laying ceremony at the Iwo Jima Memorial climaxed with an aerial review featuring 10 USMC aircraft which could be viewed along a flight path that included parts of Washington, D.C., Arlington and the National Harbor area.

Both Panetta and the evening's first speaker, Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling, deputy commandant for aviation, remembered the corps' humble aerial beginnings and the Marine, Alfred Austell Cunningham, who initially reported to the Annapolis Naval Aviation Camp on May 22, 1912.

"Marine aviator number one, 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham's vision foresaw an aviation force whose sole existence was dedicated to support the Marine on the ground," said Robling. "Tonight we reflect on that vision and upon all those who have gone before who have given their last full measure of devotion fighting our nation's wars. It is appropriate for us to pass and reflect on their sacrifice."

During his 13-minute address, Panetta took the audience on a whirlwind excursion of the flying Marines' past, paid tribute to all the Marine Families who have supported past and present pilots and vowed to keep the corps' aviation force technology well above state-of-the-art status.

"From the very beginning, the spirit of courage, the spirit of determination exemplified by Alfred Cunningham has been the legacy of Marine aviation," the secretary said. "It is a spirit driven by a mission to project power from ship to shore and support Marines on the ground. It is a spirit that has guided Marine pilots to achieve the unthinkable and dare the impossible with their aircraft[s]."

The defense secretary also became an advocate for Marine aviators to keep their position as the top global fighting force well into the 21st century by upgrading and maintaining fighter performance and agility. "[On a visit to the USS Peleliu,] I was nearly blown off the deck," Panetta recalled a visit to view Marine aviators in action.

"That experience re-enforced for me the need for this unique take-off/landing capability we need in the future, because it gives us the ability to take the fight to the enemy on short notice and with overwhelming firepower. That is why the department is pushing ahead with the development of the world's first supersonic stealth aircraft with short takeoff and landing capabilities."

Before accompanying Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos and Col. Paul Montanus, commanding officer of Marine Barracks Washington, for a wreath-laying in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial, Panetta remembered the flying Marines who made a difference in World War II's South Pacific theater, Korea, Vietnam and in the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Panetta said those Marines set the bar high for future pilots and aviation officers. "The future for our military and for Marine air depends on innovative leaders.

It depends upon our ability to think creatively and to maintain our decisive, technological edge," Panetta said. "There is simply no force in the world that can match the Marine Corps' ability to conduct agile and flexible expeditionary operations. There are no pilots anywhere that can match the relentless determination of Marine aviators to take the fight to the enemy on the ground and in the air. That has been true for the past hundred years -- and will be true for the next hundred years."

As the program came to a conclusion, Panetta reviewed Marine Barracks Washington Companies Alpha and Bravo, The U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and The U.S. Marine Corps Band. At approximately 7:30 p.m., the flyover consisting of two waves of aircraft breezed the Arlington treetops and Rosslyn skyscrapers.

Participating Marine helicopters in the initial wave included the UH-1Y Huey, AH-1W Cobra, CH-46 Sea Knight Rotorcraft, CH 53E Marine Super Stallion. The second wave aircraft cruising the District of Columbia skies included the KC-130 Marine Super Hercules, MV-22 Osprey, EA-6B Prowler, AV-8B Harrier and the F/A-18 Hornet.

Page last updated Sat May 19th, 2012 at 00:00