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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Cadets who want to become Air Force pilots must complete two more years of training after they graduate. Zachary Adams, who graduates this year, hopes to become a fighter pilot. He came to the academy with a head start toward his goal – Adams’ dad is an airline pilot, and he grew up in Franktown, near Castle Rock, where in high school he worked at an outlet camping store to save up for lessons to get his private pilot license.

He competes as a pilot on the school’s intercollegiate flying team, but flying isn’t Adams’ only passion. From the time he was a boy, he’s had a knack for building things. “In middle school, I built a steam engine,” he said. At the academy, he moved on to more cutting-edge projects. We meet him in front of a large wind tunnel on campus, where he’s testing the latest designs of his cyclorotor.

What is a cyclorotor? It looks like the paddlewheel from a Mississippi River steamboat, but instead of churning through the muddy water, it slices through the air. (It is, of course, far more complex than that.) Mounted on an aircraft called a cyclogyro, these specialized rotors have the potential to hover like a helicopter or fly at high speeds like an airplane. Adams, with a team of collaborators, helped design the first cyclogyro to successfully hover.

Before cadets can graduate, they have to do a combination research and teamwork exercise called a capstone project. Kelsey Collier, a senior from Monument, worked with her team to design a robot that can explore dangerous enemy territory. As a mechanical engineering student, she’s also done research on the microstructure of steel to develop bunker-busting bombs.

“When people think about the academy, they think of the freshman-year rules and flying planes,” Collier said. “I think people forget that I go to school every day and have really hard engineering classes – and then training all weekend.”

The classes are rigorous, and many of them are taught by professors who have served combat tours. Alyssa Bollig of Fort Collins, in her first year at the academy, took an English class with a teacher who was a helicopter maintenance officer in Afghanistan. On “War Stories Friday,” he’d tell them about his experiences, such as dealing with helicopter crashes and extracting troops and airmen from dangerous situations. “Relating their experience as an officer to what we’re learning makes us feel motivated,” Bollig said.

Cadets also draw inspiration from the jagged grace of the Cadet Chapel, perhaps the best-known symbol of the academy. The chapel’s 17 aluminum-clad spires look like a spiky, metal accordion, or a succession of aircraft wings.

The chapel is popular with tourists – in fact, it’s the most-visited manmade attraction in Colorado, with a half-million visiting annually – but it’s not just for sight-seers. Many cadets attend services there, whether it’s Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist or a number of other faiths. But the chapel’s towering presence on campus is often enough to elevate cadets’ thoughts.

“When I’m running on the terrazzo and see the chapel, it’s an inspiration to keep going,” Bollig said.

Even more inspiring is the Memorial Wall on campus. Inscribed in granite are the names of 171 academy graduates who died as a result of hostile action during military conflicts since the first class graduated in 1959. If cadets ever need a reminder of the importance of their studies here, they need look no further.

Taking courage from the example of their forebears, the Class of 2013 enters a world filled with danger and opportunity, prepared to sacrifice all for their country.


The Academy and Colorado

WHEN THE U.S. AIR FORCE became a separate branch of the armed forces in 1947, it was soon apparent it needed its own service academy on par with the Army’s West Point and the Navy’s Annapolis. The Air Force sought a home for its academy and by 1954 had it narrowed down to three sites: Alton, Ill.; Lake Geneva, Wis.; and Colorado springs, Colo.

Citizens’ groups in Illinois and Wisconsin actually campaigned against having the academy (they apparently feared airplane noise), while Coloradans were enthusiastic about the prospect. When the Air Force chose Colorado springs, it didn’t hurt that President Dwight Eisenhower had a special fondness for Colorado, home state of his wife, Mamie.

The Air Force admitted the inaugural class before the academy was built, so the first cadets began their studies in 1955 at an interim site at Denver’s Lowry Air Force Base, which has since closed. The permanent site in Colorado springs was ready by the start of the academy’s fourth year, and the first class graduated there in 1959.

Lt. Gen. Hubert R. Harmon was the Air Force Academy’s first superintendent.


(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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