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A long blue line of history: Looking back at Academy graduations

The First Graduation

The Class of 1959 graduates at the U.S. Air Force Academy, June 3, 1959. The ceremony occurred in Arnold Hall and the graduating class included 207 graduates. (U.S. Air Force photo)

[Editor's note: (Steve Simon, the author of this feature is a Class of 1977 graduate and a retired lieutenant colonel. He's the executive vice president of the U.S. Air Force Academy Association of Graduates ]

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Air Force Academy’s class of 2020 graduates April 18 and earns many historic distinctions. This year’s graduation will be unlike any other in Academy history, with the event occurring on a Saturday, during April, on the terrazzo, and without the usual throng of family and friends cheering cadets as they receive their diplomas and commissions as second lieutenants.   

This graduation marks the first time Academy graduates will commission in to the Space Force, a new separate military service charged with protecting U.S. and allied interests in space.

It’s also the first year cadets have had to cope with a global pandemic. Due to the COVID-19 disease, the class of 2020 is the first class to attend classes through online distance learning.

Finally, Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to give the commencement address, marking the 12th time a vice president has given remarks at graduation.

Facts and Data

-- Farley Pipkins, class of 2018, is the 50,000th graduate; Whitney Weider, class of 2008, is the 40,000th; Michelle Chamberlain, class of 1997, is the 30,000th; Dennis Keith Moore, class of 1987, is the 20,000th; and Richard Gustafson, class of 1976, is the 10,000th graduate.

-- Eight presidents have addressed 11 graduating classes: 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; Barack Obama in 2012 and 2016; and Donald Trump in 2019.

-- Along with Pence’s address, 11 other vice presidents have addressed graduating classes: 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 graduation took place June 3, 1959 in Arnold Hall, the only graduation to occur indoors.

-- Bradley Hosmer is the Academy’s first graduate and Rhodes scholar. He’s the first graduate to become superintendent. 

-- The class of 1959 is the smallest, with 207 graduates.

-- Graduation ceremonies for the classes of 1960, 1961 and 1962 were on the cadet parade field. The field was renamed Stillman Field in September 1994 to honor Brig. Gen. Robert Stillman, the first commandant of cadets.

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

-- The Class of 1961 is the last of three classes to receive navigator wings.

-- From 1963 until 2019, every graduation occurred at Falcon Stadium.

-- Class of ’63 members Charles Bush, Isaac Payne and Roger Sims are the first African-Americans to graduate.

-- Since June 8, 1966, cadets at all service academies earned academic majors.

-- The first three foreign-national cadets to complete four years at the Academy received their diplomas in 1966. They were citizens of Bolivia, the Philippines and Thailand.

-- Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown gave the commencement address to the class of 1968, June 5, 1968, after Vice President Hubert Humphrey was called back to Washington after Sen. Robert Kennedy’s assassination.

-- The class of 1975 graduated with the highest attrition rate in Academy history: 46.19%.

-- The class of 1977 is the last class to graduate by order-of-merit. The final graduate, known as “Tail End Charlie,” received a silver dollar from each classmate. Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tallman, the superintendent from 1977-1981, ended the tradition because he thought it rewarded mediocrity.

-- The class of 1978 is the first class that did not graduate in June. “June Week,” a term describing activities culminating with the graduation ceremony, faded into history.

-- The class of 1980 is the first to include women. In all, 97 women graduated that year. Kathleen Conley was the first.

-- The class of 1984 is the first to include more than 1,000 graduates.

-- President Ronald Reagan gave the commencement address to the class of 1984, but many parents and guests could not enter the stadium due to strict security screening. The crowds returned to their cars, which caused the Federal Aviation Agency to cancel that Thunderbirds’ graduation performance because the parking lot wasn’t clear.

-- The largest class so far is the class of 1992, with 1,076 graduating cadets.

-- Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman, a 1963 Academy graduate, is the first graduate give a commencement speech when he address the class of 1996.

-- Cadet radio station KAFA broadcast live from graduation for the first time in 2006. Station manager Dave West and several cadets reported from the Falcon Stadium Press Box, covering the ceremony, interviewing parents and senior officials and giving traffic and weather updates.

-- The Class of 2010 graduation ceremony marked the first time a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered the commencement address. That year’s commencement speaker was Adm. Mike Mullen.

-- Due to government sequestration, the Thunderbirds did not perform at the 2013 graduation. Volunteers arranged graduation-week flyovers from several heritage aircraft, including two P-51s, a B-25, and a P-40.

-- Until 2015, every graduation occurred on a Wednesday. That year, and 2016 and 2019, ceremonies occurred on a Thursday to avoid having graduation activities occur on Memorial Day.

-- Finally, in 1982, the first three second-generation cadets graduated, that is cadets who have a parent and grandparent are graduated.

Thunderbirds History

The Air Force’s aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, will fly over this year’s ceremony.

The Thunderbirds didn’t fly at that the Academy’s first graduation as the event occurred indoors, but they were there. Since then, the team has helped celebrate every graduation.

-- The team’s first flight over the Academy occurred during graduation week, May 30, 1959.

-- The Thunderbirds made their first Academy-related flight over Lowry Air Force Base, July 9, 1955. The next day, the team flew over the Pikes Peak Air Rodeo and returned to Lowry for Academy dedication ceremony, July 11.

-- Capt. Henry Canterbury, a 1959 graduate, is the first graduate to fly with the Thunderbirds. The flight occurred Feb. 1, 1965, with the team performing during Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis Lemay’s retirement ceremony at AFB, Maryland. LeMay is the fifth chief of staff.

-- Capt. Nicole Malachowski, a 1996 graduate, flew with the team November 2005-November 2007. She’s the first woman to become a Thunderbird pilot.

-- Capt. Jerry Bolt, a 1964 graduate, is the first Academy alumni to die during a Thunderbirds training mission over Nellis AFB. His aircraft collided with another over the base, Dec. 21, 1972.