On 60th anniversary, Air Force Academy's traditions still core to cadet experience
By Tom Roeder | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: March 30, 2014
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sixty years into its existence, the Air Force Academy is changing again.
This time, the biggest change is money. Planned Pentagon budget cuts of $900 billion in the next decade will take their toll, with 99 job cuts and the elimination of 10 academic majors. But other moves are afoot.
This year, the public will get its first glimpses of the academy's Center for Character and Leadership Development, the biggest architectural addition to the school since Sijan Hall was built in the 1960s.
The academy is also re-examining its programs and procedures as it prepares to send cadets into an Air Force more focused on flexibility and electronics.
But leaders say there's something steady amid all that change. Something that's been building since President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill to found the academy on April 1, 1954.
"We're doing something very consistent, and that's knowing what we're about — what we call our essence," said Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, who took over as the academy's first female superintendent in August.
The academy plans to mark the anniversary with a parade of cadets and a concert on the campus. It's a subdued celebration for a time of austerity — one of a half-dozen downturns the school has faced.
But that doesn't reflect a negative view of the academy's future. Leaders say the school and its 4,000 cadets will do big things well into the future.
"We'll stay great," Johnson pledged.
The optimism for the future comes from a strong grasp of how the academy has weathered an often-turbulent past.
"It's neat to have this history and heritage," said senior cadet Reuben Luoma-Overstreet, who is the school's cadet wing commander and top-ranking upperclassman.
The Air Force was split from the Army in 1947 and began lobbying for its school that would give cadets character and leadership lessons, academic rigor and a love for the sky.
It took seven years of wrangling to coax Congress into approving the idea.
The school was set in Colorado Springs after a nationwide competition. Losing finalists were Alton, Ill., and Lake Geneva, Wis.
Just over a year later the academy, then temporarily at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, welcomed its first cadets — the 306-member class of 1959.
They trained while the former ranch north of Colorado Springs was converted. Their first uniforms — still used in parades today — were designed by Hollywood icon Cecil B. DeMille.
"In relative terms, we're still a young academy," said Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, the school's commandant of cadets.
The '59ers were responsible for much of the tradition at the school.
They picked its Falcon mascot and established the honor code: "We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does."
The academy has always been in the spotlight. Its opening was covered on live national television. Missteps of cadets have been national news, including the school's first cheating scandal in 1965 when 105 cadets cheated on a physics exam.
"We realize we're not the biggest institution in the region," Johnson said. "We may be under the biggest magnifying glass, though."
In the past year, the academy has faced controversy. A recent report defended Air Force Office of Special Investigation agents using cadets to spy on their classmates. Forty freshmen are under investigation for alleged cheating in a chemistry class. And commanders have dealt with a flap that drew national scrutiny over Bible verses posted on a whiteboard outside a dorm room.
Neighbors have complained that the school's flying program makes too much noise.
"You can never declare victory," Lengyel said.
But balancing the controversies have been piles of plaudits. The academy is consistently ranked as one of the nation's best colleges. Its undergraduate research programs are unmatched in America, and possibly the world.
"The academy is unique in that our top-level research is undergraduate research," said Col. Marty France, an academy professor who oversees the cadet-run satellite program.
Cadets are building a satellite for launch and are involved in other work from aerodynamics to green energy. Most of the work is done to solve real-world problems for the Defense Department.
France said the work is gaining importance for the Air Force as the service's budget shrinks.
"Because of tight budgets, the Air Force is looking for places to get research done," France said.
While the academy's budget is shrinking, the school's influence on Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region is not.
The academy is the top man-made tourist attraction in Colorado, drawing more than 400,000 visitors annually.
The academy's sports teams give Colorado Springs national visibility and draw 300,000 fans to the campus yearly.
The academy estimated its 2012 economic impact in the Pikes Peak region at nearly $900 million.
El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, a 1988 graduate of the academy, said in six decades the school has become a key piece of the community.
"I remember when I graduated from the academy," Glenn said. "When you're there and it's time to leave, you want to leave. And then you find yourself fighting to get back."
Many influential political and business leaders in the region are academy graduates.
Glenn said he's amazed by how many of his neighbors attended the school.
"You really have deep connection to the academy here," he said.
Some civic leaders are looking to deepen that connection, with a new academy visitors center that's part of the City for Champions proposal that's being debated.
The academy is looking at its impact and heritage, too. The examples of the past are a powerful teaching tool for cadets, Lengyel said.
"The older the academy gets, the more you can leverage that history," he said.
But at 60, it's hard to call the academy old.
The biggest population there is between the ages of 18 and 22.
Luoma-Overstreet said youthful cadets see that past as and obligation, with cadets carrying a simple duty to those who came before them.
"Every cadet feels it is their obligation to make this a better place," he said.