SINCE THEY FIRST received the white caps of their dress uniforms four years ago, the cadets of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s graduating class have dreamed of the moment they could chuck those hats straight into the air. That moment will soon be upon them.

Their blue jackets, white pants and gold sashes in immaculate order, the newly sworn-in second lieutenants will march into Falcon Stadium for graduation. The stadium, in the shadow of the Rockies just north of Colorado Springs, will fill with dignitaries and thousands of family members. After receiving their diplomas and listening to the commencement address, they will be formally dismissed from the ceremony to begin their careers as Air Force officers.

Then comes the dramatic finale, as 1,000 caps go sailing into the sky in celebration. The cadets will never see those hats again. Why bother to retrieve them? They won’t be part of any uniform they’ll need in the Air Force. While the graduates embrace each other and seek out friends and family in the crowd, a mass of children swarms the field to collect the discarded caps – one per child. In addition to the fine souvenir, many kids will find a little surprise tucked inside each cap’s headband: $20.13, to commemorate the Class of 2013.

THE BEAST The pomp and ceremony of graduation couldn’t be more different from the bewildering experience that is Inprocessing Day, the incoming class’ first day at the academy. They arrive as teenagers just a few weeks removed from high school and still dressed in jeans and T-shirts. At this point, they’re simply known as “basics” – they have to earn the right to be called “cadet,” and it won’t be easy.

The break with civilian life comes as soon as they board the bus at Doolittle Hall. As the bus starts rolling toward the cadet area, a member of the training cadre, an imposing upperclassman in white gloves and a blue beret, rises from his seat in the first row.

“Everyone in this bus!” he bellows in a hoarse rasp. “All eyes on me.”

The basics comply at once.

“Sit up straight! Put your hands on your knees, look at me and do not move!”

It will be a quick ride for these passengers, but one forever seared into their memories. And though the basics have already gone through a lot in choosing the academy – compiling sterling academic credentials, winning endorsements from members of Congress – they still have another important decision to make.

“If you want to choose mediocrity, do not insult my cadre or the Long Blue Line by exiting this bus,” the upperclassman says. “If you are not a person of absolute integrity, stay on my bus! If you are not willing to sacrifice for your country, stay on my bus! If you accept the minimum as your personal standard, stay on my bus!”

The captive audience reflects on this – silently, of course – as the bus ride ends.

“But, basics, if you are ready to dedicate yourselves to something greater than us all, to selflessly develop yourself as a warrior and to fight for this great nation, then basics, pick up your bags and get off my bus!”

They all charge off to be greeted by the rest of the training cadre, who correct the new arrivals’ posture and demeanor with commands barked inches from their faces. The young men get buzz cuts, and women have two minutes to put their hair into buns if they don’t want it cut to a regulation above-the-collar do.

This is just the beginning of six weeks of Basic Cadet Training. It’s known as BCT for short, but most people simply call it “the Beast.” If someone is going to drop out of the academy, they usually do it during second half of this boot camp, called “Second Beast,” when the basics do intense combat training in Jacks Valley on the academy grounds. They live in tents, fire rifles, run obstacle courses and do a lot of punitive push-ups when they mess up.

“We’d wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning,” cadet Chad Sufficool said. Well, it was early, anyhow – he’s not sure of the exact time. “We weren’t allowed to have a watch,” he admitted. “But I had a friend whose squadron made a sundial and hid it behind a tent.”

Second Beast is stressful, but it’s also a time when strong friendships are forged. Sufficool met his two roommates during their time in Jacks Valley. They were battle buddies, never allowed to be more than four feet apart at all times – for three weeks.

“When you’re together like that, you learn to get along and become insepara-ble, or else there’s tension,” Sufficool said. “It helps you become less selfish, thinking what you need to do to better your team, as opposed to just you.”

Sufficool, a former track standout at Colorado Springs’ Cheyenne Mountain High School, made it through the physical stress of Second Beast. But, like his fellow new cadets, he found a different sort of stress awaited him once the academic year began. At a civilian college they’d be called freshman; at the academy they’re known as fourth-class cadets, or, less formally, “doolies” or “smacks,” and the rules for them are strict. 

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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.” 

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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.

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