Celebrating the Air Force Academy's 60th anniversary

  • Published
  • By Steven Simon
  • Academy Development and Alumni Programs
April 1, 1954, is considered the U.S. Air Force Academy's birthday, the beginning of its distinguished history of achievement and contributions to the nation. On that momentous date 60 years ago, with prominent Congressional and Air Force leaders looking on, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Public Law 325, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, formally authorizing the establishment of the Academy.

In actuality, however, rather than a beginning, April 1, 1954, was the successful culmination of decades of planning and advocacy as many of the most important events in Academy history occurred prior to its official founding. Coverage elsewhere in this special issue will focus on the 60 years since "Founders Day." This feature addresses milestones before that date -- the Air Force Academy's "pre-history."

The notion of an air academy for the United States is almost as old as aviation itself. The Wright Brothers' historic Dec. 17, 1903, flights are a good starting point. While the French used tethered observation balloons as far back as the 1790s, the Wrights' powered flight greatly expanded the military possibilities for aviation.

In 1909, the Army purchased an aircraft from the Wright Brothers for $30,000. Less than a decade later, forward-thinking Army officers were musing aloud the need for an air academy. Lt. Col. A.J. Hanlon wrote in a Nov. 26, 1918, letter, "As the Military and Naval Academies are the backbone of the Army and Navy, so must the Aeronautical Academy be the backbone of the Air Service. No service can flourish without some such institution to inculcate into its embryonic officers love of country, proper conception of duty and highest regard for honor."

In the next few months, other officials, including Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, Lt. Col. Barton K. Yount and Lt. Col. William C. Sherman issued supportive memos fleshing-out details of the curriculum and purpose of the academy.

One of the most contentious arguments in the early days was how much flight training should be included in the program. Some wanted academy graduates to be fully-trained pilots; others believed the Academy should provide the military instruction and academic education, while flying training would take place elsewhere.

Another controversial issue was where the school would be located. It didn't take long for communities to propose themselves as the ideal setting. In 1919, Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, were all mentioned, with countless other locations around the nation being offered-up thereafter.

On July 28, 1919, California Congressman Charles F. Curry introduced legislation providing for an academy. Congressman Fiorello La Guardia of New York, an enthusiastic supporter, conducted hearings. While true believers found the case for an academy compelling, their enthusiasm was not widespread. Curry's legislation failed, and disputes about cost, operation, curriculum (to include the previously mentioned amount of flying training), location and other matters abounded. Also, post-World War I isolationist sentiments and turf battles within the Army made it clear the dream of an air academy would not be realized anytime soon.

While advocates were in the minority, they never stopped trying to convince the Army and Congress of the need for an academy. Mitchell, the namesake of the cadet dining hall, was one of the most persistent and influential advocates for a separate air service and a separate air service academy. According to "Quest for an Air Force Academy," by M. Hamlin Cannon and Henry S. Fellerman, Mitchell testified on Capitol Hill Jan. 31, 1925, that it was "most essential . . . to have an air academy to form a basis for the permanent backbone of your air service and to attend to the . . . organizational part of it, very much in the same way that West Point does for the Army, or the Naval Academy for the Navy."
Mitchell's impassioned advocacy did not turn the debate, nor did a 1926 name change from "Army Air Service "to "Army Air Corps." Aviation still enjoyed "less prestige than the infantry," according to Cannon and Fellerman.

Despite the opposition to a separate service and air academy, the value of military aviation was becoming more and more evident. The Army established flight training bases throughout the country, none more famous than Randolph AFB, Texas, which soon after its 1930 dedication became known as the "West Point of the Air." San Antonio community leaders would refer to this nickname repeatedly in their efforts to stake their claim as the most appropriate home for the Air Force Academy.

Meanwhile, the real West Point was resistant to the growing reality of aviation, arguing there wasn't enough time in the already crowded curriculum for flying training. It wasn't until 1936 when the U.S. Military Academy finally began to provide aviation training.
Air power's pivotal role in World War II rekindled support for an academy, though several of the same questions asked in the period between the wars had yet to be satisfactorily answered. Still, members of Congress introduced a flurry of bills, several in hopes of ensuring the school would be located in their districts. Despite this high-level interest, disagreement regarding the need for an academy and the form it would take, not to mention service parochialism, continued to doom the concept.

The fortunes of academy advocates received a huge momentum boost when the National Security Act of 1947 created an Air Force. On Sept. 18, 1947, the U.S. Air Force began operations as a separate service on equal footing with the Army and Navy. While this was a positive development for academy proponents, the idea took a while to work its way to the front burner. There were countless other matters of higher priority to resolve first. In the interim, the Air Force's first secretary, W. Stuart Symington, was successful in negotiating an agreement that West Point and Annapolis would provide 25 percent of each class's graduates (provided they were volunteers) to the Air Force. This agreement provided the new service with a host of high quality leaders who would become very instrumental in the early successes of the Air Force.

Symington saw this arrangement as only a short-term fix. Disagreements between the services prompted Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in March 1949 to establish the Service Academy Board. This group was chartered to study all service academy related matters and make recommendations regarding junior officer education and training. The Board, cochaired by Colorado University president Dr. Robert Stearns and Columbia president and retired Army Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, issued a final report less than a year later. The Board recommended "that an Air Force Academy should be established without delay and that appropriate legislation to accomplish this purpose, including the authorization of interim plans, should be obtained."

There was also a flurry of activity within the Air Force to promote and plan for an academy. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the namesake of the original cadet dormitory, advocated a more hands-on approach to reviewing and recommending legislation. Air Training Command prepared a detailed outline for an academy program. In 1948, the secretary of the Air Force convened another board. Chaired by Air Force vice chief Muir S. Fairchild, the namesake of the Academy academic building, the board made two key recommendations: the Academy should be established with a five-year course of instruction; and that course of instruction should not include pilot training. As legislative efforts, spearheaded by Congressman Carl Vinson of Georgia, appeared to gain momentum, Vandenberg in December 1949 recalled Lt. Gen. Hubert R. Harmon, the namesake of the Academy administration building, from retirement and tapped him to head the newly established Office of Special Assistant for Air Force Academy Matters.

What looked like quick and sure passage of Academy-establishing legislation was delayed each year in the early 1950s by, among other things, the Korean War, conflict within the Defense Department and Congress, and some of the same issues that had dogged the project since its inception. Frustration grew to the point that some Air Force leaders advocated the unilateral establishment of an experimental academy without the approval of Congress.

Finally, in May 1953, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Dewey Short of Missouri introduced House Resolution 5337, a bill "To Provide for the Establishment of a United States Air Force Academy." Hearings were postponed until early the next year, but the concept finally had the momentum necessary to carry it to passage on March 29, 1954. President Eisenhower signed it two days later.