A look back: Academy graduation facts

Class of 1959 graduation

The Class of 1959 graduates at the U.S. Air Force Academy. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- As we prepare for another graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy and look to the the future, it's equally important we consider our past accomplishments. Here are a few facts and figures about previous Academy graduations:

-- The 50,000th Academy graduate graduate crossed the stage in 2018. His name is Farley Pipkins and he was assigned to Cadet Squadron 09. The 10,000th graduated in 1976, the 20,000th in 1987 (Dennis Keith Moore), the 30,000th in 1997 (Michelle Chamberlain), and the 40,000th in 2008 (Whitney Marie Weider)

-- This will be the 11th time a  U.S. president has given the commencement address at the Academy. The previous ten are: John Kennedy in 1963; Richard Nixon in 1969; Ronald Reagan in 1984; George H. W. Bush in 1991; William Clinton in 1995 and 1999; George W. Bush in 2004 and 2008; and Barack Obama in 2012 and 2016.

-- The U.S. vice-president has spoken at 11 graduations: Lyndon Johnson in 1962; Spiro Agnew in 1971; Gerald Ford in 1974; Nelson Rockefeller in 1976; George H. W. Bush in 1982 and 1986; Dan Quayle in 1992; Richard Cheney in 2001 and 2005; and Joe Biden in 2009 and 2014.

-- The first Academy graduation took place June 3, 1959 in Arnold Hall Theater. Bradley Hosmer was the first graduate. He became the Academy’s first Rhodes scholar and, in 1991, its first graduate superintendent. With 207 graduates,1959 is the smallest class in Academy history.

-- Graduations for the Classes of 1960, 1961 and 1962 took place on the cadet parade field (later renamed Stillman Field in September 1994 in honor of Brig. Gen. Robert M. Stillman, the first commandant of cadets.)

-- The Class of 1960 was the first to graduate outdoors.

-- The Class of 1961 was the last to receive navigator-observer wings as part of the curriculum.

-- The Class of 1962 was the first to have a U.S. vice president, Lyndon Johnson, deliver a commencement address.

-- The first graduation in Falcon Stadium took place June 5, 1963. Every graduation since has occurred there.

-- The first three African-American graduates were in the Class of 1963: Charles Bush, Isaac Payne and Roger Sims.

-- 1963 was the first time a U.S. president (John Kennedy) spoke at graduation. The limousine he traveled in during his Academy visit was the same he used a few months later when he was assassinated in Dallas.

-- June 8, 1966 was the first time at any service academy that every member of a graduating class earned an academic major. Also in 1966, the first three foreign national cadets to complete four years at the Academy received their diplomas. They were from the Philippines, Bolivia, and Thailand.

-- On June 5, 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was scheduled to speak, but was called back to Washington due to the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.  Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown filled in.

-- The Class of 1975 graduated with the highest attrition rate in Academy history --46.19 percent.

-- The Class of 1977 was the last class to graduate totally by order-of-merit. The final graduate, known as “Tail End Charlie,” received a silver dollar from each of his classmates. The incoming superintendent, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tallman, ended the tradition because he believed it was inappropriate to reward mediocrity.

-- The Class of 1978 was the first class to not graduate in June. The term “June Week,” traditionally used to describe graduation week festivities, instantly became a misnomer and began to fade into history.

-- In 1980, the first class with women graduated. Kathleen Conley was the first of the 97 women to graduate that day.

-- The Class of 1984 was the first to have more than 1,000 graduates.

-- President Ronald Reagan spoke at the Class of 1984’s graduation, and security screening prevented many parents and guests from getting into Falcon Stadium before he finished his speech. They returned to their cars, and the Federal Aviation Agency representative cancelled the Thunderbirds performance because the parking lot was not clear of people.

-- The Class of 1992, with 1,076 members, is the largest graduating class in Academy history.

-- In 1996, General Ronald R. Fogleman, Class of 1963, while chief of staff of the Air Force, became the first graduate to serve as commencement speaker.

-- KAFA broadcast live from graduation for the first time in 2006.

-- The graduation of the Class of 2010 marked the first time a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered the commencement address (Admiral Mike Mullen).

-- In 2013, due to Pentagon-wide automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the Thunderbirds were unable to perform at graduation. In their place, volunteers arranged for graduation-week flyovers by several heritage aircraft, to include two P-51s, a B-25, and a P-40.

-- Until this year, 2015 and 2016 were the only years graduation was not held on Wednesday. Those ceremonies took place on Thursday to avoid having major graduation activities on Memorial Day.


-- The Air Force's airiel demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, have been part of Academy graduations since the very beginning. The Class of 1959 graduated indoors, so while the Thunderbirds didn’t fly at the graduation ceremony, their pilots were still there. On 30 May 1959, they made their first flight at the Academy’s Colorado Springs campus during Graduation Week festivities for the Academy’s first graduation.

-- The Thunderbirds’ Academy-related history goes back even further, to the Lowry Air Force Base days. On July 9, 1955, they made their first Academy-related flight, at Lowry. The team flew the next day at the Pikes Peak Air Rodeo, and on July 11, 1955 returned to Lowry for the Academy dedication ceremony.

-- Capt. Henry Canterbury, Class of 1959, was the first Academy grad to fly with the Thunderbirds. His first flight was Feb. 1, 1965 when the team performed at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on the occasion of Gen. Curtis LeMay’s retirement. LeMay was the fifth chief of staff of the Air Force.

-- Capt. Nicole Malachowski, Class of 1996, was the first female Thunderbird pilot. She flew with the Air Force demonstration team November 2005-November 2007.

-- On Dec. 2, 1972, Capt. Jerry Bolt, Class of 1964, became the first Academy graduate killed while flying with the Thunderbirds. He died in a mid-air collision during winter training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

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