Air Force Academy’s football fan cutouts honor fallen grads, help fill stadium left empty by pandemic
By KARIN ZEITVOGEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 1, 2020
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In a section of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium on Saturday, cutouts of nearly two dozen graduates who have passed away “watched” as the academy’s football team fell to Mountain West conference rival Boise State, 49-30.
The fallen grads’ cutouts are part of a program launched in September by the athletic department to raise money to support cadet athletes and ensure that coronavirus restrictions don’t mean the nearly 47,000-capacity stadium is empty for home games.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep everyone at the academy safe while complying with state and local guidelines, but we also want to try to fill the stands,” Eric Silakowski, the athletic department’s associate director and executive director of development, told Stars and Stripes in a telephone interview from Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday.
Days later, Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark announced that because of rising infection numbers, cadets would not be required to attend the Oct. 31 football game.
Some did, anyway, and a section away from them, cutouts of 22 fallen grads had been seated in the stands a day before the game.
One row held cutouts of several members of the class of 1997. Capt. Luke Johnson, who died in 2002 when his F-16 crashed near Spangdahlem Air Base as he prepared to land after a night training mission, was next to Maj. Jeffrey Percy, who died in 2015 when the Sabreliner he was flying was involved in a midair collision on approach to Brown Field in San Diego. Next to them were David Ramsey and Dennis Rando, two of several cadets who died in the 1990s before graduating. Each cutout lists the fallen graduate’s name, the year they graduated and their last squadron at the academy.
Cutouts of all 13 members of the class of 2001 who have passed were also in the stands for the Boise State game, one of their classmates told Stars and Stripes by email.
“We came together as a class to honor them,” he said, asking not to be named so as not to detract from the group effort to “represent our fallen friends.”
One of the 2001 fallen grads was 2nd Lt. Holly Adams, one of just two women along with Capt Kimberly Harmon Wielhouwer who were represented by cutouts at the game.
Adams was killed in a car crash a week before Christmas 2002. Wielhouwer, class of 1991, died when the C-130 transport plane she had just taken the controls of slammed into a mountain in Wyoming in August 1996.
Anna Vincent Adams bought the cutout of Wielhouwer, who was her roommate at the academy and at pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Texas.
“It's a small gesture to honor her this way,” said Adams, who retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 2016. “Gone, but not forgotten.”
The athletics department started selling cutouts after coronavirus restrictions spurred the academy to bar all but cadets from attending home football games. Even when all 4,000 cadets attend games, which was a requirement until last week when coronavirus restrictions were stepped up, they only occupied 10% of Falcon Stadium.
The cutouts program got off to a roaring start, with more than 300 cutouts of cadets’ pets, friends, families and Falcons fans sold in the six days leading up to the game against Navy in early October. After that game, which the Falcons won decisively, the Association of Graduates told the athletic department they’d been contacted by “lots of people asking if they could buy a cutout to honor a fallen grad,” Silakowski said.
By the end of October, a few dozen cutouts of fallen grads had been sold. “A lot of people have reached out and said they’re really interested in the idea but want to work with the families, to be respectful,” Silakowski said.
The money raised from selling the cutouts goes toward buying equipment, renovating team rooms where athletes can get away from the daily strains of cadet life, and ensuring the nutritional needs of cadet athletes are met, Silakowski said.
And if the pandemic continues to bar fans from attending sports events, cutout programs might be launched for the academy’s hockey, wrestling, and men’s and women’s basketball programs, he said.