Many of America’s pioneer airmen advocated the creation of an academy to prepare officers especially for the air service. One of them, Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, tried in vain to persuade first the government and, then, private interests to establish such a school.
In 1948, the Air Force appointed a board of leading civilian and military educators to plan the curriculum for an Air Force academy. The idea made little progress outside of the Air Force, until 1949 when Secretary of Defense James Forrestal appointed a board of military and civilian educators. Headed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, then president of Columbia University and Robert L. Stearns, president of the University of Colorado, the board was tasked to recommend a general system of education for the Army, Navy and Air Force.
In 1950, the board found the needs of the Air Force could not be met by a desirable expansion of the older service academies. The board recommended that an Air Force academy be established without delay and proposed that, in peacetime, not less than 40 percent of the regular officers taken into each service should be academy graduates.
Congress authorized creation of the Air Force Academy in 1954. Harold E. Talbott, then secretary of the Air Force, appointed a commission to assist him in selecting the permanent site. After traveling 21,000 miles and considering 580 proposed sites in 45 states, the commission recommended three locations. From those, Secretary Talbott selected the site near Colorado Springs. The state of Colorado contributed $1 million toward the purchase of the property.
The idea surfaced decades ago, but did not become a reality until April 1, 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill establishing the USAF Academy.
The first Academy class entered in July 1955 at temporary facilities at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colorado. Construction at the permanent location also started the same year and was sufficiently complete for the cadet wing to move into its permanent home in late August 1958. Initial construction cost was $142 million.
Two hundred seven members of the first class were commissioned as second lieutenants in June 1959. That class graduated the fewest cadets. Five years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill into law authorizing a student increase in the cadet wing from 2,529 to approximately 4,000.
Expansion began in June 1964 when 1,002 cadets entered the Academy. To provide facilities for the increase, Air Force officials programmed $40 million during a five-year period beginning in fiscal year 1965.
Perhaps, the most controversial event in Academy history was the admission of women. President Gerald R. Ford signed legislation on October 7, 1975, permitting women to enter the nation’s military academies. Women entered the Air Force Academy for the first time on June 28, 1976. The first class to include women graduated in May 1980.
As with any other institution, the Air Force Academy has suffered growing pains. But in its relatively short period of existence, the Air Force Academy has excelled in its quest for excellence to a degree that similar organizations achieved only after much longer periods.
The Academy’s academic program showed evidence of high quality almost immediately. The Commission of Colleges and Universities of the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited the Academy’s degree program in 1959, an uncommon occurrence since the first class had not yet graduated.
The Academy has provided the Air Force with a corps of officers dedicated to upholding the government of the United States. The Air Force has provided a proving ground for these officers and a source for the dedicated staff members who have come to the Academy to educate and train these future leaders.
Throughout its history, one theme has been constant and persistent – a “Commitment to Excellence.” And, it’s with that theme that the Air Force Academy looks forward to the future.