NORFOLK, Virginia (Reuters) - President George W. Bush took his last official Air Force One flight on Saturday to Virginia for a ceremony to place a warship named after his father into active duty.
Bush, who leaves office on January 20 when President-elect Barack Obama enters the White House, attended the commissioning of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, with close family members and senior officials.
Bush, a wartime president who hands over conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to his successor, called the Nimitz-class carrier “an awesome ship” that honored “an awesome man.”
The president’s helicopter, Marine One, landed on the flight deck and Bush emerged with his father, the former president, who was walking with a cane. Their wives followed.
They walked to a golf cart and the president sat behind the wheel, smiling and joking as if he was about to drive off. But the cart was sitting on the flight deck elevator, which carried the first family to a lower deck.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were among the high-level officials who joined the Bushes aboard the carrier.
Speaking to about 10,000 guests and sailors, Bush said the carrier had already seen some rough times during its short history, including the shipyard closing during construction due to a hurricane.
“I brought along an equally strong force of nature, my mother,” he said.
Bush spoke about how his mother knitted socks for his father while he was overseas during World War Two and how his father collected seashells for her from Pacific atolls before they were married.
Bush paid homage to his father, saying he had “the deep love of his family, the admiration of his friends and the thanks of a grateful nation.”
“So what do you give a guy who has been blessed and has just about everything he has ever needed?” the president joked. “Well, an aircraft carrier.”
His sister, Dorothy Bush Koch, put the ship into service with the traditional proclamation “Man our ship and bring her to life.” On that signal, sailors ran up planks and took up positions around the ship.
Bush’s father told the sailors that “the freedom we seek and the peace we desire can only be found in the countless sacrifices you will make in everyday tasks you will perform.”
Navy ships based in Norfolk are typically deployed to the region covered by Central Command that is overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and includes the Mediterranean and the Gulf, a Navy spokesman said.
The USS George H.W. Bush still has to go through sea trials before it will be deployed.
The ceremony included a flyover by four fighter jets followed by an Avenger torpedo bomber, similar to the one the former president flew in World War Two.
For Bush, it was a day of his final flight on Air Force One, the presidential jet. He will fly to Texas after Obama’s inauguration most likely on the same jet but it will no longer be designated as Air Force One, which is reserved for a plane carrying the president.
Editing by John O'Callaghan