The Air Force Academy Extended
The United States Air Force Academy
The United States Air Force Academy (USAFA or Air Force) is an officer candidate military academy of the United States Air Force. Its campus is located immediately north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County, Colorado, United States. The Academy’s stated mission is “to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.” It is the youngest of the five United States service acade – mies, having graduated its first class in 1959. Graduates of the Academy’s four-year program receive a Bachelor of Science degree and are commissioned as second lieutenants in the United States Air Force. The Academy is also one of the largest tourist attractions in Colorado, attracting more than a million visitors each year.
Candidates for admission are judged on their academic achievement, demonstrated leadership, athletics and character. To gain admission, candidates must also pass a fitness test, undergo a thorough medical examination, and secure a nomination, which usually comes from the member of Congress in the candidate’s home district. Recent incoming classes have had about 1,200 cadets; historically just under 1,000 of those will graduate. Tuition along with room and board are all paid for by the U.S. government. Cadets receive a monthly stipend, but incur a commitment to serve a number of years of military service after graduation.
The program at the Academy is guided by the Air Force’s core values of “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do,” and based on four “pillars of excellence”: military training, academics, athletics and character development. In addition to a rigorous military training regimen, cadets also take a broad academic course load with an extensive core curriculum in engineering, humanities, social sciences, basic sciences, military studies and physical education. All cadets participate in either intercollegiate or intramural athletics, and a thorough character development and leadership curriculum provides cadets a basis for future officership. Each of the components of the program is intended to give cadets the skills and knowledge that they will need for success as officers.
Prior to the Academy’s establishment, air power advocates had been pushing for a separate air force academy for decades. As early as 1918, Lieutenant Colonel A.J. Hanlon wrote, “As the Military and Naval Academies are the backbone of the Army and Navy, so must the Aeronautical Academy be the backbone of the Air Service. No service can flourish without some such institution to inculcate into its embryonic officers love of country, proper conception of duty, and highest regard for honor.” Other officials expressed similar sentiments. In 1919, Congressman Charles F. Curry introduced legislation providing for an Academy, but concerns about cost, curriculum and location led to its demise. In 1925, air power pioneer General Billy Mitchell testified on Capitol Hill that it was necessary “to have an air academy to form a basis for the permanent backbone of your air service and to attend to the…organizational part of it, very much the same way that West Point does for the Army, or that Annapolis does for the Navy.” Mitchell’s arguments did not gain traction with legislators, and it was not until the late 1940s that the concept of the United States Air Force Academy began to take shape.
Support for an air academy got a boost with the National Security Act of 1947, which provided for the establishment of a separate Air Force within the United States military. As an initial measure, Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington negotiated an agreement where up to 25% of West Point and Annapolis graduates could volunteer to receive their commissions in the newly established Air Force. This was only intended to be a short term fix, however, and disagreements between the services quickly led to the establishment of the Service Academy Board by Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. In January 1950, the Service Academy Board, headed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, then president of Columbia University, concluded that the needs of the Air Force could not be met by the two existing U.S. service academies and that an air force academy should be established.
Following the recommendation of the Board, Congress passed legislation in 1954 to begin the construction of the Air Force Academy, and President Eisenhower signed it into law on 1 April of that year. The legislation established an advisory commission to determine the site of the new school. Among the panel members were Charles Lindbergh, General Carl Spaatz, and Lieutenant General Hubert R. Harmon, who later became the Academy’s first superintendent. The original 582 sites considered were winnowed to three: Alton, Illinois; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; and the ultimate site at Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Secretary of the Air Force, Harold E. Talbott, announced the winning site on 24 June 1954. Meanwhile, Air Training Command (ATC) began developing a detailed curriculum for the Academy program.
The early Air Force Academy leadership faced monumental tasks, including the development of an appropriate curriculum, establishment of a faculty, design of a distinctive cadet uniform, oversight of the construction of the permanent site, and the creation of a structure for military and flight training. To establish the foundations of the Academy program, officials ultimately drew from sources within the Air Force, from West Point and Annapolis, and occasionally from outside the military entirely.
The Academy’s permanent site had not yet been completed when the first class entered, so the 306 cadets from the Class of 1959 were sworn in at a temporary site at Lowry Air Force Base, in Denver on 11 July 1955. While at Lowry, they were housed in renovated World War II barracks. There were no upper class cadets to train the new cadets, so the Air Force appointed a cadre of “Air Training Officers” (ATOs) to conduct training. The ATOs were junior officers, many of whom were graduates of West Point, Annapolis and The Citadel. They acted as surrogate upper class cadets until the upper classes could be populated over the next several years. The Academy’s dedication ceremony took place on that first day and was broadcast live on national television, with Walter Cronkite covering the event. Arnold W. Braswell, a native of Minden, Louisiana, was commander of the original four cadet squadrons at the academy 1955 to 1958.
In developing a distinctive uniform for cadets, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott was looking for “imagination” in the design. Talbott initially used military tailors, but was unhappy with their products. As a result, the first classes of cadets wore temporary uniforms while the official uniform was developed. Secretary Talbott then sought out legendary Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille for help. DeMille’s designs, especially his design of the cadet parade uniform, won praise from Air Force and Academy leadership, were ultimately adopted, and are still worn by cadets today.
The Class of 1959 established many other important traditions that continue until the present. The first class adopted the Cadet Honor Code, and chose the falcon as the Academy’s mascot. In 1957, the Air Force cadets marched in the Inaugural Parade of President Dwight Eisenhower in Washington, D.C.. On 29 August 1958, the wing of 1,145 cadets moved to the present site near Colorado Springs, and less than a year later the Academy received accreditation. The first USAFA class graduated and was commissioned on 3 June 1959.
The Vietnam War was the first war in which Academy graduates fought and died. As such, it had a profound effect on the development of the character of the Academy. Due to the need for more pilots, Academy enrollment grew significantly during this time. The size of the graduating classes went from 217 cadets in 1961 to 745 cadets in 1970. Academy facilities were likewise expanded, and training was modified to better meet the needs of the wartime Air Force. The Jacks Valley field training area was added, the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program was expanded, and light aircraft training started in 1968.
Many Academy graduates of this era served with distinction in the Vietnam War. F-4 Phantom II pilot Steve Ritchie ’64 and F-4 Phantom II weapon systems officer Jeffrey Feinstein ’68 each became aces by downing five enemy aircraft in combat. One hundred forty-one graduates died in the conflict; thirty-two graduates became prisoners of war. Lance Sijan, ’65, fell into both categories and became the first Academy graduate to be awarded the Medal of Honor due to his heroism while evading capture and in captivity. Sijan Hall, one of the cadet dormitories, is named in his memory.
The effects of the anti-war movement were felt at the Academy as well. Because the Academy grounds are generally open to the public, the Academy often became a site for protests by anti-war demonstrators. Regular demonstrations were held at the Cadet Chapel, and cadets often became the targets of protesters’ insults. Other aggravating factors were the presence in the Cadet Wing of cadets motivated to attend the Academy for reasons of draft avoidance, and a number of highly publicized cheating scandals. Morale sometimes suffered as a consequence.
Women at the Academy
One of the most significant events in the history of the Academy was the admission of women. On 7 October 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed legislation permitting women to enter the United States service academies. On 26 June 1976, 157 women entered the Air Force Academy with the Class of 1980. Because there were no female upper class cadets, the Air Training Officer model used in the early years of the Academy was revived, and fifteen young female officers were brought in to help with the integration process. The female cadets were initially segregated from the rest of the Cadet Wing but were fully integrated into their assigned squadrons after their first semester. On 28 May 1980, 97 of the original female cadets completed the program and graduated from the Academy—just over 10% of the graduating class. Women have made up just over 20% of the most recent classes, with the class of 2016 having the highest proportion of any class, 25%.
Many of the women from those early classes went on to achieve success within the Cadet Wing and after graduation. Despite these successes, integration issues were long apparent. Female cadets have had consistently higher dropout rates than men and have left the Air Force in higher numbers than men. Some male cadets also believed that the presence of women had softened the rigors of Academy life and that women received special treatment. According to at least one commentator, as many as ten percent of male Academy graduates in the late 1970s and early 1980s requested Army commissions, in part because of controversy over such issues. The Class of 1979, the last all-male class, went so far as to unofficially label themselves “LCWB,” or “Last Class With Balls” an abbreviation that appeared on many of their class-specific items and still appears at reunions, sporting events and other Academy alumni functions.
Campus and Facilities
The campus of the Academy covers 18,500 acres (73 km²) on the east side of the Rampart Range of the Rocky Mountains, just north of Colorado Springs. Its altitude is normally given as 7,258 feet (2,212 m) above sea-level, which is the elevation of the cadet area. The Academy was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) and lead architect Walter Netsch. SOM partner John O. Merrill moved from Chicago to a Colorado Springs field office to oversee the construction and to act as a spokesman for the project.
The most controversial aspect of the SOM-designed Air Force Academy was its chapel. It was designed by SOM architect Walter Netsch, who at one point was prepared to abandon the design; but the accordion-like structure is acknowledged as an iconic symbol of the academy campus.
The Cadet Area
The buildings in the Cadet Area were designed in a distinct, modernist style, and make extensive use of aluminum on building exteriors, suggesting the outer skin of aircraft or spacecraft. On 1 April 2004, fifty years after Congress authorized the building of the Academy, the Cadet Area at the Academy was designated a National Historic Landmark.
The main buildings in the Cadet Area are set around a large, square pavilion known as ‘‘the Terrazzo’‘. Most recognizable is the 17-spired Cadet Chapel. The subject of controversy when it was first built, it is now considered among the most prominent examples of modern American academic architecture. Other buildings on the Terrazzo include Vandenberg Hall and Sijan Hall, the two dormitories; Mitchell Hall, the cadet dining facility; and Fairchild Hall, the main academic building, which houses academic classrooms, laboratories, research facilities, faculty offices and the Robert F. McDermott Library.
The Aeronautics Research Center (also known as the “Aero Lab”) contains numerous aeronautical research facilities, including transonic, subsonic, low speed, and cascade wind tunnels; engine and rocket test cells; and simulators. The Consolidated Education and Training Facility (CETF) was built in 1997 as an annex to Fairchild Hall. It contains chemistry and biology classrooms and labs, medical and dental clinics, and civil engineering and astronautics laboratories. The Cadet Area also contains an observatory and a planetarium for academic use and navigation training.
The cadet social center is Arnold Hall, located just outside the Cadet Area, which houses a 3000-seat theater, a ballroom, a number of lounges, and dining and recreation facilities for cadets and visitors. Harmon Hall is the primary administration building, which houses the offices of the Superintendent and the Superintendent’s staff.
The Cadet Area also contains extensive facilities for use by cadets participating in intercollegiate athletics, intramural athletics, physical education classes and other physical training. Set amid numerous outdoor athletic fields are the ‘‘Cadet Gymnasium’‘ and the Cadet Fieldhouse. The Fieldhouse is the home to Clune Arena, the ice hockey rink and an indoor track, which doubles as an indoor practice facility for a number of sports. Falcon Stadium, located outside of the Cadet Area, is the football field and site of the graduation ceremonies.
Many displays around the Cadet Area commemorate heroes and air power pioneers, and serve as an inspiration to cadets. The ‘‘War Memorial’‘, a black marble wall located just under the flagpole on the Terrazzo, is etched with the names of Academy graduates who have been killed in combat. The ‘‘Honor Wall,’‘ overlooking the Terrazzo, is inscribed with the Cadet Honor Code: “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” Just under the Cadet Chapel, the ‘‘Class Wall’‘ bears the crests[dead link] of each of the Academy’s graduating classes. The crest of the current first (senior) class is displayed in the center position. Another display often used as a symbol of the Academy, the ‘‘Eagle and Fledglings Statue’‘ was given as a gift to the Academy in 1958 by the personnel of Air Training Command. It contains the inscription by Austin Dusty Miller, “Man’s flight through life is sustained by the power of his knowledge.” Static air- and spacecraft displays on the Academy grounds include an F-4, F-15, F-16 and F-105 on the Terrazzo; a B-52 by the North Gate; a T-38 and A-10 at the airfield; an F-100 by the preparatory school; a SV-5J lifting body next to the aeronautics laboratory; and a Minuteman III missile in front of the Fieldhouse. The Minuteman III was removed in August 2008 due to rusting and other internal damage.
Other Locations On Campus
Other locations on campus serve support roles for cadet training and other base functions. Doolittle Hall is the headquarters of the Academy’s Association of Graduates and also serves as the initial reception point for new cadets arriving for Basic Cadet Training. It is named after General Jimmy Doolittle. The Goldwater Visitor Center, named after longtime proponent of the Academy United States Senator Barry Goldwater, is the focal point for family, friends and tourists visiting the Academy grounds. The Academy Airfield is used for training cadets in airmanship courses, including parachute training, soaring and powered flight. Interment at the ’‘Academy Cemetery’‘ is limited to Academy cadets and graduates, certain senior officers, certain Academy staff members, and certain other family members. Air power notables Carl Spaatz, Curtis E. LeMay and Robin Olds, are interred here.
The Honor Code and Character Education
The Cadet Honor Code is the cornerstone of a cadet’s professional training and development – the minimum standard of ethical conduct that cadets expect of themselves and their fellow cadets. The Honor Code was developed and adopted by the Class of 1959, the first class to graduate from the Academy and has been handed down to every subsequent class. The Code itself is simple: We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.
In 1984, the Cadet Wing voted to add an “Honor Oath,” which was to be taken by all cadets. The oath is administered to fourth class cadets (freshmen) when they are formally accepted into the Wing at the conclusion of Basic Cadet Training. The oath remains unchanged since its adoption in 1984 and consists of a statement of the code, followed by a resolution to live honorably: “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God.”
— “Honor Code Handbook”
To reinforce the importance of honor, character and integrity to future officers, cadets are given an extensive character and leadership curriculum. The Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development provides classroom, seminar, workshop and experiential-based learning programs to all cadets, beginning when they enter Basic Cadet Training and continuing each year through their last semester at the Academy. The Center’s programs, when coupled with the Honor Code and Honor System, establish a foundation for the “leaders of character” that the Academy aspires to produce.
The Cadet Wing
The student body of the Academy is known as the Cadet Wing. The students, called “cadets”, are divided into four classes, based on their year in school, much like a civilian college. They are not referred to as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, however, but as fourth-, third-, second- and first class cadets, respectively. Fourth class cadets (freshmen) are sometimes referred to as “doolies,” a term derived from the Greek word δουλος (“doulos”) meaning “slave” or “servant.” Members of the three lower classes are also referred to as “4 degrees,” “3 degrees” or “2 degrees” based on their class. First-class cadets (seniors) are referred to as “firsties.” In the military structure of the Cadet Wing, first class cadets hold the positions of cadet officers, second class cadets act as the cadet non-commissioned officers and third class cadets represent the cadet junior non-commissioned officers.
The Superintendent of the Academy is the commander and senior officer. The position of Superintendent is normally held by an active-duty lieutenant general. The superintendent’s role is roughly similar to that of the president of a civilian university. As such, the Superintendent oversees all aspects of the Academy, including military training, academics, athletics, admissions and the administration of the base. The Academy is a Direct Reporting Unit within the Air Force, so the Superintendent reports directly to the Air Force Chief of Staff.
Those reporting to the Superintendent include the Dean of the Faculty and Commandant of Cadets, each of whom typically holds the rank of brigadier general, as well as the Director of Athletics, the Commander of the 10th Air Base Wing and the Commander of the Prep School, each of whom typically holds the rank of colonel or, in the case of the Athletic Director, a senior civilian position. The 10th Air Base Wing provides all base support functions that exist at other air force bases, including civil engineering, communications, medical support, personnel, administration, security and base services. The Preparatory School provides an academic, athletic and military program for qualified young men and women who may need certain additional preparation prior to acceptance to the Academy. All flying programs at the Academy are run by the 306th Flying Training Group, which reports to the Air Education and Training Command, ensuring uniformity of flight training with the rest of the Air Force.
Board of Visitors
Congressional oversight of the Academy is exercised through a Board of Visitors, established under Title 10, United States Code, Section 9355. The Board inquires into the morale, discipline, curriculum, instruction, physical equipment, fiscal affairs, academic methods and other matters relating to the Academy. The Board meets at least four times per year and prepares semi-annual reports containing its views and recommendations submitted concurrently to the Secretary of Defense, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the House Armed Services Committee. The 15 members of the board are variously appointed by the President of the United States, the Vice President, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Since 2006, the Board has been required to include at least two Academy graduates. In July 2009, Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed Colorado Congressman Jared Polis to the BOV, the first openly gay person to serve on a service academy’s advisory board.
Cadets’ military training occurs throughout their time at the Academy, but is especially intense during their four summers. The first military experience for new cadets (called “basic cadets”) occurs during the six weeks of Basic Cadet Training (BCT), in the summer before their fourth class (freshman) year. During BCT, also known as “beast,” cadets learn the fundamentals of military and Academy life under the leadership of a cadre of first and second class cadets. Basic cadets learn military customs and courtesies, proper wear of the uniform, drill and ceremony, and study military knowledge and undergo a rigorous physical training program. During the second half of BCT, basic cadets march to Jacks Valley, where they complete the program in a field encampment environment. Upon completion of BCT, basic cadets receive their fourth-class shoulder boards, take the Honor Oath and are formally accepted as members of the Cadet Wing.
After the first year, cadets have more options for summer military training. Between their fourth and third class years, cadets undergo training in Air Force operations in a deployed environment (called “Global Engagement”) and may participate in flying gliders or free-fall parachute training. From the late 1960s until the mid-1990s, cadets also completed SERE training in the Jacks Valley complex between their fourth- and third-class years. This program was replaced with Combat Survival Training (CST) in 1995 and done away with entirely in 2005. In the summer of 2008, the CST program was reintroduced and now includes survival, evasion, and resistance training portions. During their last two summers, cadets may serve as BCT cadre, travel to active duty Air Force bases and participate in a variety of other research, aviation and leadership programs. They may also be able to take courses offered by other military services, such as the U.S. Army’s Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, or the Air Assault School, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. During the academic year, all cadets take formal classes in military theory, operations and leadership.
The Air Force Academy is an accredited four-year university offering Bachelor’s degrees in a variety of subjects. Active- duty Air Force officers make up approximately 70 percent of the faculty, with the balance long-term civilian professors, visiting professors from civilian universities and instructors from other U. S. and allied foreign military services. In recent years, civilians have become a growing portion of senior faculty.
Every Dean of the Faculty (equivalent to a Provost at most universities) has always been an active-duty brigadier general, although technically, a civilian may hold the position. The Dean, the Vice Dean, and each academic department chair hold the academic rank of Permanent Professor. Permanent Professors are nominated by the President of the United States and approved by the Senate, and can serve until age 64.
All graduates receive a Bachelor of Science degree, regardless of major, because of the technical content of the core requirements. Cadets may choose from a variety of majors, including engineering, the basic sciences, social sciences and humanities, as well as in a variety of divisional or inter-disciplinary subjects. The academic program has an extensive core curriculum, in which all cadets take required courses in the sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities, military studies and physical education. Approximately sixty percent of a cadet’s course load is mandated by the core curriculum. As a result, most of a cadet’s first two years are spent in core classes. During the third and fourth years, cadets have more flexibility to focus in their major areas of study, but the core requirements are still significant.
Externally funded research at the Air Force Academy has been a large and growing part of the technical majors. Air Force has ranked highest of all undergraduate-only universities in federally funded research as reported by the National Science Foundation, surpassing $60 million in 2010. Many cadets are involved in research via their major, coordinated in more than a dozen Academy research centers, including the Institute for Information Technology Applications, the Institute for National Security Studies, the Air Force Humanities Institute, the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies, the Life Sciences Research Center, the Academy Center for Physics Education Research, among others.
All cadets at the Academy take part in the school’s extensive athletic program. The program is designed to enhance the physical conditioning of all cadets, to develop the physical skills necessary for officership, to teach leadership in a competitive environment and to build character. The primary elements of the athletic program are intercollegiate athletics, intramural athletics, physical education, and the physical fitness tests.
Cadets are required to take physical education courses in each of their four years at the Academy. The classes cover a wide range of activities: Swimming and water survival build confidence while teaching important survival skills. Combative sports such as boxing, wrestling, judo and unarmed combat build confidence, teach controlled aggression and develop physical fitness. Cadets also take classes in team sports such as basketball and soccer, in lifetime sports such as tennis and golf and on the physiology of exercise.
Each semester, cadets must pass two athletic fitness tests: a 1.5 mi (2.4 km) run to measure aerobic fitness, and a 15- minute, 5-event, physical fitness test consisting of pull-ups, a standing long jump, sit-ups, push-ups and a 600 yd (550 m) sprint. Failure to pass a fitness test usually results in the cadet being assigned to reconditioning until he can pass the test. Repeated failures can lead to dis-enrollment.
All cadets are expected to compete in intramural athletics for their entire time at the Academy, unless they are on- season for intercollegiate athletics. Intramural sports put cadet squadrons against one another in many sports, including basketball, cross-country, flag football, ice hockey, racquetball, flickerball, rugby union, boxing, soccer, mountain biking, softball, team handball, tennis, Ultimate, wallyball and volleyball. Winning the Wing Championship in a given sport is a particular source of pride for a cadet squadron.
The Academy’s intercollegiate program has 17 men’s and 10 women’s NCAA sanctioned teams, nicknamed the ‘‘Falcons.’‘Men’s teams compete in football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, cross-country, fencing, golf, gymnastics, indoor and outdoor track, lacrosse, rifle, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis, water polo and wrestling. Women’s teams include basketball, cross-country, fencing, gymnastics, indoor and outdoor track, swimming and diving, soccer, tennis and volleyball. In addition, the Academy also sponsors two non-NCAA programs: cheerleading and boxing. The Academy also has several club sports, such as rugby, that compete intercollegiately.
The men’s and women’s programs compete in NCAA’s Division I, with the football team competing in Division I FBS. Most teams are in the Mountain West Conference; however, the wrestling team competes in the Western Wrestling Conference, the gymnastics teams compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation; the men’s soccer team will move from the MPSF to the Western Athletic Conference in July 2013; the men’s hockey team competes in Atlantic Hockey and the water polo team competes in the Western Water Polo Association. The men’s boxing team competes in the National Collegiate Boxing Association. The men’s lacrosse team competes in the ECAC Lacrosse League. For a number of years, only the men’s teams competed in Division I. Women’s teams competed in Division II and were once members of the Continental Divide Conference, then the Colorado Athletic Conference. With new NCAA legislation, beginning in 1996, women’s teams also competed in Division I.
Air Force has traditional service academy rivalries with Navy and Army. The three service academies compete for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in football each year. Air Force Falcons football has had the best showing of the three, winning the trophy 18 of its 34 years. The Academy also has an in-state rivalry with Colorado State University, which is located in Fort Collins and is a fellow member of the Mountain West Conference.
The boxing team, led for 31 years by Coach Ed Weichers, has won 18 national championships. The Academy’s men’s and women’s rugby teams have each won multiple national championships and the women’s side recently had two players selected for the United States national team. The football team has played in 17 bowl games and the basketball team has had strong showings in the last several years, qualifying for the NCAA tournament and, most recently, making the final four of the 2007 NIT Tournament. The men’s ice hockey team won the last two Atlantic Hockey conference tournaments, made the first ever appearance by a service academy in the NCAA hockey tournament in 2007, and made a repeat appearance in 2008. The Air Force Academy’s Mens Hockey team recently lost in the ‘Elite Eight’ of hockey in double overtime. This marked the farthest they had gone in the post-season in school history and the longest an Atlantic Hockey Association team has made it into the post-season.
To be eligible to enter the Academy, a candidate must:
- Be a citizen of the United States (unless nominated by an official of a
- country invited by the Department of Defense)
- Be unmarried with no dependents
- Be of good moral character
- Be at least 17, but less than 23 years of age by 1 July of the year of entry
- Meet high leadership, academic, physical and medical standards
- In addition to the normal application process, all candidates must secure a nomination to the Academy, normally from a U.S. Senator or U.S. Representative. Each member of Congress and the Vice President can have five appointees attending the Air Force Academy at any time. The process for obtaining a congressional nomination is not political and candidates do not have to know their senator or representative to secure a nomination. Additional nomination slots are available for children of career military personnel, children of disabled veterans or veterans who were killed in action, or children of Medal of Honor recipients. The admissions process is a lengthy one and applicants usually begin the paperwork during their junior year of high school.
There were 306 cadets admitted for the first class (class of 1959). By 1961, class size was down to 271, but due to the need for officers in the Vietnam War, grew to 745 admittees in 1970, and peaking in 1974, with 1620, and 1975, with 1,626, the largest number ever admitted. After that class sizes shrank down to about 1,300. Despite a peak of 1,350 (admitted 2004) and 1,418 (admitted 2005), from 1995 to 2005 class size averaged about 1,250 freshmen. From 2005 to 2010 class sizes were slightly down from the 2005 peak. The 2013 class (beginning 2009) had 1,286 and the 2014 class (beginning Fall 2010) had 1,285. Cutbacks were ordered in 2011, so by 2012, the entering class (class of 2016) was down to about 1,050.
Prop and Wings
The Prop and Wings insignia of the Air Service (1918–26), Air Corps (1926–41), and Army Air Forces (1941–47) became the insignia of upperclass cadets at the Air Force Academy beginning with the first class, 1959. The insignia is given to fourth class (freshmen) cadets at the Recognition Ceremony near the end of their first year rite of passage. The standard insignia uses the design of the Air Corps Prop and Wings, except that it is all silver instead of the gold wings and silver prop of the earlier design. Cadets who have ancestors who served in the Air Service, Air Corps, or Army Air Forces, or those who are direct descendants of Air Force Academy graduates, are eligible to wear the gold wings and silver prop design.
The Air Force Academy cadet sabre is carried by first class (senior) cadets in command positions in the Cadet Wing. All graduates are normally entitled to own no more than two sabres: one for personal use and one to be given as a gift. The Plaque and Sabre Award is the highest award given by the Cadet Wing to dignitaries and other honorees.
The American college tradition of the class ring began with the class of 1835 at the U. S. Military Academy. From there, it spread to the U. S. Naval Academy in the class of 1869. The Air Force Academy continued the tradition, beginning with the first class, 1959, and so is the only service academy to have had class rings for every class since its founding. The Air Force ring is distinctive for being white gold instead of the yellow gold used at the other academies. Each class designs its own class crest; the only requirements being that each crest include all the elements on the Class of 1959’s crest: the class number, the class year, the Polaris star, and the eagle. One side of the ring bears the academy crest, while the other side bears the class crest; the center bezel bears the words United States Air Force Academy. Cadets choose their own stones for the center of the ring. The rings are received at the Ring Dance at the beginning of the Graduation Week festivities for the class ahead of the ring recipients. The rings traditionally are placed in glasses of champagne and are caught in the teeth following a toast. During the cadet’s first class (senior) year, the ring is worn with the class crest facing the wearer; following graduation, the ring is turned so that the class crest faces out. The rings of all the academies were originally designed to be worn on the left hand, so that the wearer reads the name of the academy on the bezel while a cadet or midshipman and others can read it after graduation, the rings are now worn on either hand. The Academy’s Association of Graduates (AOG) accepts rings of deceased graduates which are melted down to form an ingot of white gold from which a portion of all future rings are made. Both the academy’s Association of Graduates and the Academy Library maintain displays of class rings.