The History of the United States Air Force Academy
Compared to West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) is in its infancy. Founded in 1958, USAFA is 152 years younger than West Point, the older service academy — that’s a full century and six major wars worth of experience to catch up on.
When it comes to tradition, however, USAFA is just as fascinating as the other service academies, and it comes with a distinct modern flair.
Congress Establishes USAFA in 1954
Thanks to the growing presence of air combat during World War I and World War II, the Air Force became a separate branch of the U.S. military in 1947. From then on, it was only a matter of time for a new service academy to be built.
Sure enough, on July 11, 1955, construction began on USAFA and the first class of cadets entered the Wing. Now, more than 50 years later, USAFA has graduated and commissioned more than 27,000 officers to serve their country.
USAFA Goes to Vietnam
Vietnam represents the first American conflict in which USAFA cadets had to fight. Class sizes exploded from 200 to nearly 800 between 1961 and 1970, as pilots played a pivotal role in the conflict. During the Vietnam War, however, 140 graduates died and 32 were captured as prisoners-of-war. To put it into context, this would have been about one graduating class of USAFA cadets.
The Academy installed The War Memorial to remember and support veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice. Additionally, many buildings around the grounds, such as Sijan Hall, a dormitory, were named after heroic cadets who died in the conflict.
USAFA Allows Women
As a result of a Congressional act signed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, women were permitted to enroll in service academies. The Class of 1980, then, became the first USAFA class to graduate women.
In 1976, when female cadets in-processed for the first time, they participated in the symbolic tradition of standing in silver footprints on the USAFA grounds. A visual representation of the Long Blue Line — the generations of Air Force veterans — they were about to join.
Unlike in years past, however, the women controversially participated in this tradition beneath a ramp displaying the message, “Bring Me Men.”
The sign remained until 1999, though it was removed in 2004 and replaced instead with a sign reading, “Integrity First.”
Today, cadets have the opportunity to participate in varsity sports, extracurricular clubs, and to compete on Airmanship teams (such as the Wings of Blue parachute team or the Soaring Program). Additionally, they can take Powered Flight as a class option, meaning they might fly solo in a T-53 right after sitting through a Calculus class.
Every year, nearly 1,000 young adults in-process and commit the next nine years of their life to service. Whether they stay in the Air Force for their career or get out after five, USAFA graduates are all still veterans.
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