As previously mentioned, the U.S. Air Force Academy trains future officers using four main pillars of development: Academics, Athletics, Military Service and Character/Leadership to train future Air Force Officers. While the academic and athletic programs are among the best in the nation, what truly sets USAFA and other service academies apart from civilian institutions of higher learning is the focus on military service and leadership.
The Air Force Academy uses training focused on the Fourth Class system, meaning cadets receive training based on their level of experience at the Academy. Freshman, or Fourth Class cadets, start by learning military customs, courtesies and decorum during six weeks of Basic Cadet Training (BCT), conducted the summer prior to the new cadets’ first semester of academics.All incoming cadets take the Oath of Allegiance and are members of the active duty Air Force.
Military training continues throughout the school year and is particularly grueling for Fourth Class cadets. Not only are they are subject to daily room and uniform inspections, they are also required to recite various quotes from notable military leaders and other Air Force “knowledge” verbatim. They are also responsible for cleaning the dorm hallways, common areas and lavatories every morning before class.
The Cadet Wing is organized to replicate an operational Air Force wing with cadets assigned to one of 40 squadrons. The responsibility of cadet training falls squarely on the shoulders of the cadets corps itself. Third Class cadets (sophomores) have the primary task of training the Fourth Class Cadets. Second Class cadets (juniors) assume the role of senior non-commissioned officers while First Class Cadets (seniors) take on the top leadership roles: flight, squadron, group and wing commander.
After the completion of each academic year, cadets have the opportunity for three weeks of leave, while the rest of their summer is spent on military training. Second and First Class cadets are responsible for administering and instructing all summer programs at USAFA. They are charged with training the incoming Fourth Class Cadets during BCT.
New Third Class cadets take part in Expeditionary Survival Evasion Training, where they learn how operate and survive in austere environments. During either their Second or First Class summers, all cadets enroll in Ops Air Force, a three-week program focused on life at an operational Air Force Base. Cadets can end up anywhere from Kuwait to North Dakota and, depending on the base assigned and mission requirements, many cadets receive incentive flights in different aircraft.
There are numerous summer programs offered at USAFA, but let’s look at the basic airmanship programs available to cadets entering their Third Class summer:
Basic Soaring introduces aspiring pilots to the skills required for unpowered flight in the Flugzebau TG-16A sailplane. The soaring syllabus includes ground school and anywhere from five to thirteen training flights. This program teaches students basic glider maneuvers and culminates with a solo flight.
If a Third Class cadet can pass stringent physical fitness standards, they may also participate in Basic Free-fall Parachute training–the second airmanship program. During 33 hours of ground training, cadets learn the skills necessary to safely complete 5 free-fall parachute jumps. Each jump is from an altitude of 4,000 feet AGL, utilizing the DeHavilland UV-18B Twin Otter. Unlike other parachute programs that use static-lines or a tandem jump where the student is physically connected to the parachute instructor, the basic free-fall training at USAFA is the only place where a student’s first parachute jump is a solo free-fall. Upon successful completion of their fifth jump, cadets become rated Air Force parachutists and are awarded their basic parachutist badge.
Those cadets showing advanced proficiency in either of the airmanship courses can enter advanced programs to become either soaring or jump instructors. Select cadets train during their Third Class academic year to become either soaring instructor pilots or parachute instructors–perhaps even becoming members of the Academy Parachute Team- Wings of Blue.
First Class cadets have the opportunity to participate in the the Academy’s third basic aviation program, the Powered Flight Program (PFP). PFP cadets fly with Air Force instructor pilots and learn the basics of motorized flight. During the nine-sortie syllabus, cadets log 13.5 hours of flight time in the T-53A Kadet II–the military version of the Cirrus SR-20, the same aircraft used in Air Force Initial Flight Screening. Those who demonstrate proficiency are allowed to take a solo flight at the end of the program.
Cadets who are unable to experience Basic Soaring, Basic Parachuting and PFP during the summer have the opportunity to complete these courses during the school year. These airmanship programs offer a couple of unique advantages to USAFA cadets. As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, Air Force officers going on to SUPT must first attend Initial Flight Screening and the PFP provides excellent lead in training and flight experience prior to IFS. Cadet soaring instructor pilots who log at least 100 instructor sorties validate Air Force Flight Screening altogether and go directly to SUPT. Additionally, cadets with their jump wings get to validate the parachute training portion of SUPT.
“I will not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate among us anyone who does.”- Cadet Honor Code
This statement creates a simple focus, do the right thing and live honorably. As with the rest of the Cadet Wing at USAFA, the Cadet Honor System is administered by the cadets themselves. Each cadet is not only responsible to report their own violations, they must also confront other cadet’s violations of the code. Living under the Honor Code helps develop the integrity that is required among all of our nation’s military leaders, especially our pilots.
In addition to the Cadet Honor Code, the Academy fosters character and leadership development with several symposia through out an individual’s time as a cadet. One of the many seminars cadets attend includes the Leaders In Flight Seminar. Here, cadets learn the importance of servant leadership and moral courage as they relate to their current and future duties as leaders in their squadrons. The Air Force Core Values, “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do” are the cornerstone of the ethical standards at the Academy.
After four years of intensive study and military training, cadets graduate with their Bachelors of Science degree and their commission as Second Lieutenants on the United States Air Force. In stark contrast with their civilian counterparts, who graduate with an average debt of $33,000, USAFA graduates finish their degrees debit free with a guaranteed job and a starting salary in excess of $40,000. As we say in Air Force parlance, that certainly does not suck.
In conclusion, here’s a fun and relatively unknown bit of trivia:
The United States Air Force Academy is the single largest tourist attraction in the state of Colorado. While the Cadet Area – the dorms, dining hall and academic buildings – is off limits, tourists can visit the iconic Cadet Chapel, offering guests the perfect vantage point from which to watch the cadets march to breakfast and dinner. Every weekday, the entire Cadet Wing forms up, by squadron, and marches in formation to those meals. Parading past tourists as they look down from their perch next to the Cadet Chapel, combined with limited access to the “outside world” (in the case of underclassmen), many cadets end up feeling like caged animals. Ever wonder why USAFA graduates refer to their alma mater as “The Zoo?” There’s your answer!
The U.S. Air Force Academy offers a great leadership program and a great education, but it’s not the only way to earn your “butter bar” en-route to becoming a pilot. In our next segment of The Road to Wings, we’ll survey the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) and the outstanding opportunities it provides to aspiring pilots at some of our nation’s best civilian colleges and universities.
Anyone interested in more information about USAFA, please visit their admissions site.