The Contrails: Air Force Academy History

  • Published
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Editors note -- This week's excerpt  from The Contrails is seen exactly as shown on page 30 and 31 in the 2015 edition of this cadet guidebook


Following the organization of the United States Air Force as a separate service in 1947, work commenced toward the realization of yet another dream–its own academy.

In 1948, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal appointed a Service Academy Board to review the capabilities and facilities of the Military and Naval Academies and make recommendations for the establishment of an Academy for the Air Force. On 1 April 1954, four years after the board’s report was received, Congress authorized the construction of an Air Force Academy. The Air Force had been preparing for this action. Forty officers and civilian educators headed by Colonel Eiler at the Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, had developed the curriculum for the Academy several years in advance. Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott personally selected the location for the Academy on the basis of the Colorado site’s notable advantages of a quiet, isolated location still accessible to large towns, favorable weather for training, and the fact that the State of Colorado offered one million dollars for the purchase of the land.

Over 340 architectural firms competed for the commission of designing and constructing the Academy. Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, Architects and Engineers finally won. Their original plans were deemed “too modernistic’’ by Congress. The “accordion-like’’ chapel was the central object of controversy. Not only Congress, but also well-known American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright considered the design to be in poor taste. Before 126 million dollars were allocated for construction, the design had to be modified to more traditional lines of architecture, a change which increased the final building cost by four times. The approved layout of the newest Academy was finally unveiled on 14 May 1955.

On 11 July 1955, the same year construction began, the first class of 306 men was sworn in at a temporary site at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver. Lt General Hubert R. Harmon, a key figure in the development of the Academy since 1949, was recalled from retirement to become the first Superintendent. Two years later Maj General James E. Briggs took over as the Academy’s second Superintendent. During his tour, on 29 August 1958, the Wing of 1,145 cadets moved to its present site from Denver. Less than a year later the Academy received accreditation. On 3 March 1964, the authorized strength of the Cadet Wing was increased to 4,417 cadets. In 1995 Congress capped the cadet strength at 4,400 cadets and 40 international students, effective 30 September 1998. This number was further reduced to 4,000 cadets by 1 October 2012.

The 18,000 acres which comprise the Air Force Academy are located on the east slope of the Rampart Range; 7,258 feet above sea level. The base is divided into three major areas: the cadet area, the base community area, and the service and supply area.