Colorado Springs' Air Force Academy
The Air Force equivalent of West Point may be just a stone's throw from Colorado Springs, but for basics at the academy, there is still a long blue line to walk before they can earn their wings.
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THEY RUN THE LINE The academy’s dormitories and school buildings lie on an expansive courtyard of terrazzo tiles. Every 10 yards or so, the terrazzo is broken up by strips of marble that form a wide grid. Looking down at the courtyard, it’s easy to pick out the doolies. Most cadets walk across the terrazzo as they please, but the doolies are all running, and they must run only on the marble strips.
All 4,000 cadets eat simultaneously in Mitchell Hall, the immense 1.7-acre dining hall. Doolies are required to look straight ahead whenever they’re in public, and that includes mealtime, when they must fix their gaze on the eagle insignia at the top of their plates. The upperclassmen quiz them throughout the meal and sometimes impose table-specific rules, such as requiring they chew each bite exactly seven times.
Fourth-class cadets’ dorm rooms have to be ready for inspection at all times. Unless they’re sleeping, their beds must be in SAMI order – that is, tidied to the incredibly high degree usually reserved for Saturday A.M. inspections. For novices, it takes 30 minutes to make a bed in perfect SAMI order, though more experienced cadets can do it in 10 or 15 minutes. “Unless you want to wake up a half-hour early to make your bed, you learn to sleep on top in a sleeping bag,” Sufficool said.
Cadets struggle with “cynicism,” the euphemism they use for the nagging suspicion that all these rules are pointless. But on the rare occasions when they get to go off campus – wearing their dress uniform, as required – they realize it’s all building toward something worth-while. At the end of basic training, Sufficool went to dinner with his family at a Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Colorado Springs. “These two older women came up to me,” he recalls. “At first I was thinking, ‘Do I know them?’ Then they hugged me and shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’ ”
It takes a lot of soul searching for cadets to make it through their first year. They come to the academy for many reasons, from love of country to the free tuition, but they stay for just one: They want to serve in the Air Force.
“My reasons for coming here were money, education and proximity to home,” said Zeb Hanley, a graduate of Overland High School in Aurora. A few years ago, in March of his freshman year, Hanley questioned whether he’d made the right decision in coming here. He was close to calling it quits – he pulled up on his computer Form 34, the paperwork cadets file to withdraw. “I hadn’t quite accepted the fact that I was going to be in the military,” he said.
An email from his father persuaded him to stick with it until the recognition ceremony at the end of the month, when freshman become upperclassmen. Sure enough, things got better, and Hanley felt a new sense of duty well up inside him.
“We have some trite phrases – service before self, be bigger than yourself – that are pretty cliché, but I think there’s something to that,” he said. “Military people hold themselves to a high moral standard, and that’s a big reason why I decided to stay.”
Now Hanley is graduating with the academy’s Class of 2013, hoping to earn a scholarship for graduate school before serving his required five years in the Air Force. Like about half of his fellow cadets, Hanley doesn’t intend to be a pilot. He is training to be an operations research analyst, which is a lot less boring than it sounds.
In the civilian world, operations research analysts save shipping companies billions of dollars by using computer models to create the most efficient delivery truck routes. In the military, analysts can use those same modeling skills to do things like IED mapping – tracking where and when insurgents’ bombs go off to find patterns in the attacks, allowing U.S. forces to predict where the next bomb will be.
SOARING Contrary to popular belief, the Air Force Academy is not a flying school; it graduates officers, not pilots. But even aspiring number crunchers like Hanley can get a taste of the wild blue yonder in the academy’s soaring classes. Motorists on Interstate 25 know the sight of propeller planes towing gliders into the air. The gliders detach, then soar in wide, slow swoops back to Earth. After just 10 practice runs, Hanley was able to do a solo glider fight.
“I was released from the tow plane, and there I am, 3,000 feet above the ground,” Hanley said. “If I will be living tomorrow, it will be because I am able to get this piece of metal onto the ground.”