The Beginnings of the US Air Force Academy

  • Published
  • By Christopher McCune
  • 460th Space Wing Historian
For nearly 60 years, the US Air Force Academy (AFA) has welcomed cadets for the purpose of training them as officers. However, the opening of the Academy’s campus in 1958 was merely the beginning of the second chapter of its existence. From 1954-57, Lowry Air Force Base served as its home.

The origins of the Air Force Academy go back to 1918, when Gen. Billy Mitchell conceived of the idea for an “Aeronautical Academy” similar to the Army and Navy institutions at West Point, New York and Annapolis, Maryland, respectively. The creation of the US Air Force as a separate service branch in 1947 sparked further discussion of the need for an institution that would train incoming cadets in the growing field of aeronautical sciences. On 1 April 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Public Law 325, which officially established the Air Force Academy. Shortly afterwards, each Congressional Senator and Representative nominated up to 10 applicants for the first class of cadets, scheduled to begin in July 1955. Out of 6,000 applicants, only 306 were ultimately accepted for the first AFA class of 1959.

Competition for the site of the AFA was fierce. Out of 580 proposed sites, Colorado Springs was ultimately chosen, but the cadets required a temporary home until the campus facilities could be completed. Sixty miles to the north, Lowry Air Force Base still possessed a number of standing World War II-era barracks as well as administrative and support facilities on its “Lowry 2” annex, northeast of the main installation complex. On 11 July 1955, this area became the initial training ground for the first class of cadets, called “doolies,” with a dedication ceremony that was broadcast live by Walter Cronkite. “The one element of air power in which American enjoys the greatest margin of superiority is leadership,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Nathan F. Twining in his address to the new cadets. “It is the objective of this new academy to provide such leaders for the future.”

Under the command of Superintendent Maj Gen Hubert Harmon, the Academy received its organizational framework and began establishing traditions that remain to this day. Because no upperclassmen existed to indoctrinate the first class, as was the case at West Point and Annapolis, newly commissioned Lieutenants served as Air Training Officers and set about instilling the rigid discipline that became the standard way of life in the AFA. After the summer of 1957, the Class of 1959 assumed the leadership roles that the ATOs had served. It was during this period that the cadet handbook “Contrails” was created, which every cadet was required to memorize, as well as the “Prop and Wings” insignia and the cadet honor code—“.We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” The falcon was adopted as the Academy’s mascot and several athletic teams were formed to compete against other local and regional colleges.

Although most of the Academy graduates were slated to become pilots after graduation, the initial curriculum reflected the traditional academic “whole-person” concept, emphasizing the improvement of reading, writing, and speaking skills, and the pursuit of knowledge along intellectual lines. Classes included history, philosophy, English, and geography, as well as science courses, and taught primarily by career military officers with a few civilian instructors. Incoming cadets received a summer basic training course that taught military customs and courtesies, as well as instruction in leadership and team building. This culminated in a week-long field exercise at the Lowry Bombing Range.

Out of the 306 students who entered the Academy in July 1955, 207 graduated. Among the notable members of the first Class of 1959 were Valmore Bourque, the first cadet to take the oath and the first to be killed in combat; Maj Gen Harold Todd, the first to achieve the rank of General Officer; College Football Hall of Famer Brock Strom; Col Karol Bobko, who piloted the space shuttle Challenger on its initial flight in April 1983 and became the first Academy graduate in space; and Col James Burton, who made national headlines in the mid-1980s for his battles with the US Army over testing of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The AFA remained at Lowry AFB until August 1958, when it relocated to its permanent home in Colorado Springs.