COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The air was so silent on the bus loaded with fresh, wide-eyed Air Force "doolies" one could hear a beret drop. But only until it turned the corner, out of the sight of friends, family end everything familiar.
Then bedlam broke loose.
Cadet Cpt. Bradley Snadeki and Cadet Cpt. Molly Dunkelberger, both cadre charged with breaking in in-coming cadets, barked orders to their stunned charges.
The new cadets were told to sit up straight, place their hands on their knees and answer all commands to respond with one of seven responses.
A flustered cadet at the rear of the bus responded to a command from Dunkelberger with a mistaken "Yes, sir."
"Do I look like a sir?" Dunkelberger bellowed back. "If you were able to get into this fine institution, I would hope you are smart enough to tell the difference between male and female."
The infamous Doolie Day, and the start of the Air Force Academy's 2018 class, was underway.
Nearly 1,200 new cadets arrived Thursday to begin their Basic Cadet Training. Each had come to add their inch to the academy's long blue line. Before they could embark however, they had to leave their old lives behind.
The separation started that morning with cadets and their families pressed together under a white tent outside the academy's Doolittle Hall.
There were very few dry eyes as the cadets said their final farewells. The five-to-six-week program, designed to prepare cadets for their time at the academy, would be the longest amount of time many had ever spent away from home.
"The toughest part is not getting accepted to the Air Force Academy. It's the next four years," Maj. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, commandant of cadets, informed assembled students and their parents.
"Every graduating class adds to that long blue line," Brig. Gen. Evan Miller, the academy's vice superintendent, told another group. The term refers to the history of the academy and its linage of 74,000 graduates dating back to 1959.
Many students were eager to get underway, though most were unsure what exactly awaited them.
"I'm as ready as I can be," said new Cadet Noah Dennison, a Fort Collins native, with aspirations of one day flying para-rescue missions. Dennison's mind-set was shared by many cadets who all expressed similar feelings.
"It's great being part of a long line of tradition," said Nkozi Stewart another new cadet. "It's always good to think positive. Many have done it before you, many will do it after."
For most parents, the send-off was moment of pride mixed with pain.
"We're very proud and very excited," said Dave Fisher, as he and his wife, walked their son Ben to the doors of Doolittle Hall. They had traveled together from Maryland, but once Ben crossed the threshold they were no longer able to follow.
After many emotional good-byes like the Fishers', cadets boarded buses that would take them further into the academy. There, they continued their transformation from recently graduated high school students to freshman cadets.
It is a transformation that will test the limits of many cadets. A few will eventually break.
The harshness expressed by the cadre could easily be mistaken for hazing. However, it serves a much more important purpose: teaching the cadets their responses to any situation have serious consequences.
"One day your choices will determine whether people live or die," Snadeki yelled at the cadets. "The training which will help you make those choices correctly starts here and now."
Even the often-derogatorily used term Doolie has a purpose. Derived from the Greek word meaning subject, it serves as a constant reminder to cadets why they chose to attend the academy.
After the longest 10-minute trip of the fresh cadets' lives, the bus pulled to a halt and the doors sprung open. "Get off my bus," Snadeki roared. "Move, move, move!"
The doolies sped off, taking their first steps down that long blue line.
"You are not the best of the best yet," a cadre roared in the distance as his new charges rushed into formation. "You have a whole hell of a lot to learn."