Soaring Program pioneers stage fall visit to Academy

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  • 94th Flying Training Squadron


Two soaring program pioneers took a stroll through history with cadets and staff this fall at the 94th Flying Training Squadron, home to the Air Force’s only Soaring Program.

Retired Lt. Col James Leland helped create the soaring program and retired Lt. Col. Richard Trail, a 1959 Academy graduate, was the first cadet to take a solo flight in a glider, in Denver.

Today, more than 200 cadets, military and civilian instructor pilots, are assigned to the 94th Flying Training Squadron, but the program didn’t get off the ground until Leland arrived at the Air Force Academy in 1960. Leland designed the program with the support of Brig. Gen. William Seawell, the third commandant of cadets.

“Although I was assigned to the Academy in April 1960, I didn’t get involved in a soaring program until the middle of 1961,” Leland said.

Leland contacted soaring enthusiasts at the Black Forest Glider Port, eight miles east of the Academy, and earned glider ratings to get a vision of what the program should entail.

“All of my soaring was on my own free time,” he said. “I spent most of my weekends at the Black Forest Glider Port with the [cadets].”

Leland directed the construction of a hangar, improved the airfield and acquired three gliders for the nascent Soaring Program, at the Academy.

“When we purchased the first sailplanes and started the Airmanship Program, I spent more and more time at the airport during duty hours and weekends,” Leland said.

 Soaring didn’t take off at the Academy until the hangar was complete.

 “Before we got the hangar, we flew the sailplanes from the Black Forest Glider Port,” he said.

Leland attended soaring instructor training in Elmira, New York, to make sure he was ready to train cadets, once the program was ready for take-off. The program was in full flight with an infrastructure and three Schweizer SGU/Air Force TG-2 gliders for cadets.  

Cadets were not involved in the Airmanship Program until 1965, when the Air Force began allocating funds for the program. Before then, cadets soared out of the Black Forest Glider port.

Today, junior and senior class cadets give almost all soaring instruction to 1,300 third and fourth class cadets enrolled in the various courses the Airmanship Program provides each year.

Leland said the program has come a long way since 1961.

“You have the best equipment of any soaring operation in the world,” he said. “The leadership training you receive will serve you well in your Air Force career regardless of what you do.”

These days, Trail said, cadets do it all.

“They are the instructors and the hands and feet of a very complex organization,” he said. “Cadets do it all with what seems like very little oversight of the commissioned officers in charge. It is excellent preparation for future careers in rated positions.”

Rated officers are specifically tasked to carry out the military’s operational missions, such as piloting aircraft.

“I was totally and favorably impressed with the smooth-running organization the glider program has become,” Trail said. “Today the Soaring Program is an organized and integral part of the overall Academy program. It is an experience that can plant the [idea] that ‘I can become a pilot.’”

Trail said cadets participating in the Soaring Program should “hang in the there.”

“You are learning skills you will never know you had until they save the mission of your very life,” he said.

Leland said cadets who attend pilot training have an advantage over officers who didn’t take part in the Soaring Program.

“Those who do not get pilot slots will still be able to use the leadership skills they learned as glider instructors in any field they enter,” he said.

Trail agreed.

“Graduates who have accomplished something significant in their career following graduation can give cadets someone to look up to and strive to emulate,” he said.

Trail said taking part in the Soaring Program influenced every aspect of his Air Force career, from his Vietnam War experience or successfully knowing how to make a forced landings which occur when a pilot in unable to control the aircraft.

Trail said cadets may think, “’He trained on gliders and went on to become a successful Air Force pilot. That makes what I am now doing [as a cadet] now worth it,”’ he said.


Cadet 1st Class Tony Smith and Cadet 2nd Class Tori Gilster were among the scores of cadet instructor pilots who met Leland and Trail during the visit.

“It is very touching to know I would not have all the experience I have today if it were not for Lt. Colonel Leland getting the program started,” Smith said. “All the stories and experiences he shared were amazing and should be shared throughout the squadron and the Academy in general.”

Smith was equally impressed with Trail.

“He really showed [the purpose of leaving] your comfort zone and take on challenges with a full head of steam.” Smith said. “He helped us realize you can’t be scared to try new things that could be influential for the rest of your life.”

Gilster said the influence of the 94th FTS is felt across the Air Force.

“When we graduate, these experiences will influence how we fly and conduct ourselves as pilots and officers,” she said.

Smith said the visit reminded him of the importance of resiliency and overcoming challenges.

“My biggest takeaway was to continue to strive to be resilient in all matters of life,” he said. “One of the biggest things I learned [during the visit] was the program was denied a couple of times when it was first introduced to senior leadership. With a lot of resiliency, it was finally approved.”

During his visit, Leland donated personal papers and research materiel to the Academy, accepted on behalf of the school by retired Brig. Gen. James McCarthy, the first officer in charge of the soaring program.

Trail donated his soaring logbook to the 94th FTS in the 90s'.  He’s visited the Academy airfield three times since 1959.

“Every time I go back to visit the Academy, I drive by the airfield and have a longing just to poke around and visit,” he said.

(Editor's note: Visit  for more information on the Academy's Airmanship Program)