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Reading 3: The Air Force Academy Becomes a Reality
America's defense policies during the early Cold War years necessitated a major expansion of the Air Force. The Service grew from 305,827 in 1947 to nearly 1,000,000 personnel by 1954. Accordingly, the Service needed approximately 1,200 new junior officers a year to fill its ranks.1 To meet the challenges of the complex nuclear age, the Air Force would require not only more, but better-educated officers.
As early as World War I, some Air Service officers felt that the Air Service should have an academy to train future officers. In 1918, Lieutenant Colonel A.J. Hanlon claimed, "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."2 By 1925, the Army Air Service did have several training schools for its officers and enlisted personnel, but these were not comparable to the four-year college programs of West Point and the Naval Academy. In the years following World War II, several congressmen and senators introduced bills to establish an air academy in their state. None of these bills was acted upon, however.
After the Air Force became an independent department in 1947, it seemed that legislation for an academy finally could begin to take shape. In a 1948 report, Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington claimed, "The Air Force lacks an adequate source of officer personnel trained as professional Air Force officers from the beginning of their college careers. All leading professions recognize the requirement for formal college career training as the principal source of new blood in that profession. The Air Force is no exception."3
Selecting a suitable location for such an academy was an important step that proved to be a big stumbling block. Politicians and military leaders expressed many opinions on the subject, but no one seemed to agree. An Air Force Academy Site Selection Board, established in 1949, reviewed more than 300 sites in 22 states. The Board believed that a site near Colorado Springs, Colorado was the most appropriate. Their findings were not made public, however, and the quest for an academy languished again while the country focused on the Korean War.
When General Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1953, he renewed pressure for a separate air academy. On April 1, 1954, President Eisenhower signed the Air Force Academy Act. At last, after more than 30 years of struggle, an air academy would be established. As specified in the Act, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott appointed five members to the new Air Force Site Selection Commission. The commission considered 580 proposals in 45 states. The members placed great emphasis on a site's natural beauty and its potential to provide a suitable setting for what would become a national monument.4 The commissioners visited and inspected 34 sites. In an official report of June 3, 1954, the commission narrowed the list to three sites: an area about eight miles north of Colorado Springs, Colorado; an area on the south shore of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; and an area about 10 miles west of Alton, Illinois.
The residents of Colorado Springs were anxious to have the Academy located near their city. They believed that the Academy would help boost the city's economy, which had declined in the postwar period. The Chamber of Commerce and the Citizens Committee worked hard to prove that Colorado Springs was the best location. Their efforts were rewarded on June 24, 1954, when Secretary Talbott announced that Colorado Springs would become the permanent home of the Academy. Beginning in 1955, Denver, Colorado, served as the temporary site until the Colorado Springs location was ready.
The Federal Government and the Air Force considered the Academy's design extremely important. Secretary Talbott stated, "We want the Academy to be a living embodiment of the modernity of flying and to represent in its architectural concepts the national character of the Academy…. We want our structures to be as efficient and as flexible in their design as the most modern projected aircraft."5 The Air Force chose the nationally-recognized architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill Associates (SOM) to make its vision for the Academy a reality.
SOM's design embodied a new style of architecture that used glass, aluminum, steel, and concrete rather than traditional materials like stone, marble, or brick. Modern architecture also commonly organized space according to a regulated geometric grid or module. The design sparked heated debate and severe criticism. Many viewed it as inappropriate for a national monument. Others, however, recognized that the Academy's design was an appropriate representation of the work of the Air Force. The Academy's buildings would be made of metal just like the jet airplanes and missiles that were hallmarks of the Air Force itself. The New York Herald Tribune praised the design saying, "Just as West Point with its medieval fortress-like appearance symbolizes the traditions of land warfare, so does the sharp-lined and soaring Air Force Academy represent the newest and swiftest military science."6
The alternating ridges and valleys of the 18,500-acre Colorado Springs site created a design challenge. The Cadet Area, which forms the heart of the Academy and covers about a fifth of a square mile, was positioned atop the highest ridge with the spectacular Rampart Range serving as the backdrop. SOM's design called for two intersecting rectangular plazas surrounded by the Academy's principal buildings. The higher plaza, the Court of Honor, lies at an elevation of 7,176 feet above sea level. This generally open, paved space is dominated visually by the striking Cadet Chapel. A gently sloping ramp leads down to the slightly lower plaza, known as the Terrazzo. This large, open area is used for daily musters of the cadets. The relatively even terrain in the surrounding valleys (about 70 feet below the Court of Honor) was used for the athletic fields and parade ground. Although the scale of the project was monumental, SOM carefully planned the Cadet Area so that all activitiesmeals, classes, athletics, parade grounds, worship spacewere within a 10-minute walk of the Academy's only dormitory. Air Force officers considered this important because the cadet's rigorous daily routine left little spare time.
On August 29, 1958, 1,145 cadets moved from temporary quarters in Denver to the Colorado Springs site. Although many of the structures were still under construction, this allowed the Academy's first graduating class to spend their final year at the new site. After completing four years at the Air Force Academy, cadets graduate with a bachelor of science degree and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. The Academy quickly became a major source of the officers needed to fill the ranks of the Air Force as it expanded under the nation's defense policies. Through rigorous academics and military training, the Academy instilled in these officers the knowledge and leadership qualities necessary to meet the challenges of Cold War era.
Even before it was established, the military, politicians, and the public understood that the Air Force Academy would become a national monument much like the campuses of West Point and the Naval Academy. Although controversial at first, the Air Force Academy design gained public acceptance and is now one of Colorado's chief tourist attractions.7 As Robert Bruegmann, a professor at the University of Illinois, stated, "It is one of the grandest…most intact ensembles of that era to be seen anywhere in the world. It functions as one of the great monuments of an era that seems so near to us in time but in other ways appears to belong to a past almost beyond recall."8 The Air Force Academy is a proud symbol not only of the Air Force's role in the nation's defense, but also of the modern movement in architecture that characterized the early Cold War era.
Questions for Reading 3
1. Why did the Air Force need so many new officers in the early 1950s?
2. What were some of the obstacles that prevented the establishment of an Air Force academy? When was the Air Force Academy finally approved?
3. What were Secretary Talbott's goals for the Academy's design? Why was SOM's design controversial? Do you think SOM met Talbott's goals?
4. Why do you think planners wanted to pick a site that was "monumental" in nature? Was that consistent with the visions of Hanlon and Talbott? Why or why not?
5. What do you think Robert Bruegmann meant by his quote?
Reading 3 was compiled from George V. Fagan, The Air Force Academy: An Illustrated History (Boulder, Col.: Johnson Books, 1988); and Daniel J. Hoisington, "United States Air Force Academy, Cadet Area" (El Paso County, Colorado) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2003.
1 Daniel J. Hoisington, "United States Air Force Academy, Cadet Area" (El Paso County, Colorado) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2003, 25.