If your goal in life is to be a pilot, I truly believe that the Ultimate Career Path is signing up directly with a Guard or Reserve unit. If you can enlist with that unit while you’re in college, you’ll be even better off. However, this isn’t the only way to do it. If you want to serve as a pilot on Active Duty, then attending the USAF Academy in Colorado Springs, CO, could be a great option for four main reasons:
- It’s a fantastic school
- The education is valued at $416,000…and you get that practically for free
- You’re guaranteed a high-paying job when you graduate
- If you’re medically qualified to be a pilot, you’re all but guaranteed to get a pilot slot
The USAF Academy is highly competitive and the experience is not for everyone. However, if you think it might work for you, read on.
Table of Contents
- The Case for Attending USAFA
- Background Information
- Applying to USAFA
- Life as a Cadet
- Flying at USAFA
- How to Get a Pilot Slot
- Is It Worth It?
The Case for Attending USAFA
Over the past few decades, the cost of college has skyrocketed. Americans worry that unsecured student loan debt has the potential to crash our economy, much like the housing bubble that popped in 2008. Many young men and women have accrued that debt while earning degrees that aren’t very marketable. They graduate and find themselves unable to get work in their desired field, if at all. It’s pretty tough to pay off a six figure student loan when you can’t even find a decent job.
The USAF Academy solves all those problems. New cadets bring roughly $2,500 to cover costs like uniforms and a mandatory computer but pay nothing for the rest of their time. The US government covers tuition, room, board, books, fees, etc…even health care. In fact, cadets get paid as members of the military, eventually receiving several hundred dollars a month, on top of all their other benefits.
Although the Academy offers some less-marketable degrees (ahem, philosophy), it offers an impressive array of technical majors. The Academy’s engineering programs consistently rank among the Top 10 in the country. Graduates with technical majors are likely to get solid jobs in their fields. They’ll do research & development, but will also quickly move into management rolls – making them highly competitive in the civilian job market later in life. I personally have friends from USAFA who now work at Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace, and Scaled Composites (well, technically Northrop Grumman now). If you want to be a no-kidding rocket scientist for a living, you can’t beat a degree from USAFA.
Most BogiDope readers are interested in being pilots. We don’t necessarily want to work as engineers. Like it or not though, you’re going to have to get a degree in something. If you pick something valuable, like one of USAFA’s engineering degrees, it will open doors for you in the future. Want to be a test pilot or an astronaut? You’d better have a degree in science or engineering. There’s also the ever-present threat of losing your medical certificate as a pilot. If that were to happen, it’d sure be nice to have a highly-marketable degree from a respected school.
Although the Academy gives you free school, a guaranteed job, and a fantastic degree, perhaps the most important reasons you might want to go there is that the Academy is allocated roughly half of the USAF’s annual pilot training slots. Most Academy classes contain enough people who aren’t medically qualified to even be pilots, so if you meet the medical standards, you’re almost guaranteed a spot. In my graduating class, there were only about 30 people (at the rock-bottom of my class’ rankings) that didn’t have the option of being a pilot. In 2017, the Academy actually had unfilled pilot slots. In most cases, if you’re medically qualified and don’t want to fly, you have to report in to the Commandant and explain why.
Other than getting hired directly by a Guard or Reserve unit, there is no better shot at an Air Force pilot slot than the USAF Academy.
For starters, let’s get some terminology straight. The US Air Force Academy is frequently abbreviated as USAFA. That’s pronounced you-SA-fa. (Kind of like Mufasa. Oooh, say it again!) It’s also sometimes referred to as “the Southern Colorado School for wayward boys and girls,” “Camp USAFA,” or simply “The Zoo.” (While marching in formation past the famous Cadet Chapel where tourists get to stand and gaze at the cadets it’s not uncommon to hear, “Look mommy! There’s a girl one!”)
Founded in 1954, USAFA is the youngest of America’s service academies. It’s nestled on 18,000 gorgeous acres along the Rampart Range, the foothills to the Rocky Mountains. The campus is relatively small, fitting for a student body of roughly 4,400 cadets. The Academy as a base has its own airfield, a separate section of base with housing and facilities for professors and support personnel, a hospital, a golf course, and more. The campus/base is absolutely gorgeous. It’s great for running and hiking. The buildings are designed to invoke a sense of futurism. The most famous building on base is the Cadet Chapel.
Graduating classes start with 1000-1300 Basic Cadets and usually end up graduating just under 1000 officers four years later. Each cadet becomes a 2nd Lieutenant in the USAF and is required to serve on Active Duty for at least 5 years. Cadets who go on to attend pilot training are obligated to serve for 10 years, starting on the day they receive their wings.
Although USAFA is first and foremost a college, it’s also a military institution. The Cadet Wing is divided up into four Groups. Each group contains 10 Squadrons. Each squadron lives together in a section of the dorms. (Living in the dorms is mandatory. Also, you’re not allowed to be married or responsible for any dependents as a cadet.) The Wing has a full military chain of command with leaders and staff officers, etc. Cadets wear uniforms to class every day, and meals are only offered at certain times. There is no skipping class. There is no leaving without a pass. The command post plays Taps on loudspeakers all over campus every night and you’re not allowed out of your room after that point, except to use the restroom. Some of these restrictions make USAFA unattractive, but we’ll discuss shortly how to thrive in this environment. First, you have to get there.
Applying to USAFA
The Academy is very competitive with a 12.3% acceptance rate. While not quite as competitive as Harvard, it’s still tougher than most of the UC-system schools, and a lot harder to get into than UGA. The application process is more difficult than average and must be pursued aggressively.
It should be obvious that you need the best possible grades and SAT/ACT scores to get into any college these days. USAFA also requires you to take a fitness test with some uncommon events that are surprisingly challenging for some applicants, and you have to pass a series of medical exams administered by the Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board. (Yes, DODMERB is as daunting a government bureaucracy as it sounds. Pro tip: don’t ever let a doctor diagnose you with asthma. Irritation or allergies? Fine, but never asthma.)
Even with these straightforward ways to rank applications, there are still too many competitive people. The Academy also looks at your other activities during high school: sports, clubs, service organizations, work, etc. If you want to be competitive, you need to be involved in at least some of each of these. As a military future officer (pilot or otherwise) your primary job description starts with “Leadership.” As such, you need to show leadership in as many of these activities as possible. You might play a different sport each season and be a member of 20 different clubs, but that won’t impress anyone. You’re far better off being the team captain for one sport and the president of one club than just a member of a bunch. You need to be the Cadet Commander in ROTC or CAP, the Drum Major of the marching band, the Senior Patrol Leader and an Eagle Scout, and the Captain of your tennis team.
You’ll submit your grades and scores, letters of recommendation, some essays (no, not just one), and a summary of all your activities to the Academy’s online portal at AcademyAdmissions.com. Once your application has reached a certain completion level, you’ll be contacted by an Admission Liaison Offer, like me. Our job is to mentor you through the application process, but also to conduct an interview. (Don’t worry…they’re all done online now and we wear polo shirts instead of uniforms. I guess in-person interviews have been deemed too intimidating.)
You shouldn’t take this interview lightly though. This ALO is the only human being from the USAF that speaks directly to you during the application process. The questions we ask shouldn’t be a big surprise. What we’re really trying to get at when we talk to you is stories from your life where you exercised leadership, teamwork, and character to accomplish something above average. Ideally, you’d have lots of examples like this, each one from a different area of your life (academics, sports, clubs, work, family, church/community, etc.) The best interview ever would consist of the ALO asking a question and you spending the next 2-3 minutes telling a great story like this…for every question. This is absolutely something you can prepare for.
As if all this wasn’t enough, it’s critical to note that you can’t get into the Academy just by applying. You must also receive a nomination from a member of Congress, the Vice President, the President, or a few other sources. Each of the 500+ Congressional Representatives and Senators has his or her own application and interview process and it’s up to you to figure out what they are and get the applications done.
Each Congressperson is limited to having 10 cadets attending each of the military service academies at any given time. Depending on where you live, this might mean that there are only a couple spots available for USAFA in a given year. For this reason, it’s critical for you to apply for a nomination with every possible source: your Representative, both of your Senators, and the Vice President at the very least. Now, if your application is amazing and the Academy really wants you, it’s sometimes possible for them to ask a Congressperson from a district with fewer cadets to put you on his or her “slate.” However, you shouldn’t plan on this. Apply with everyone!
Ideally, this all works out. You complete the arduous USAFA application and ace your interview. You get at least one nomination. That’s only the start of the journey.
Life as a Cadet
Unlike most schools where your parents help you carry your belongings to your new dorm room and maybe you hang out for a while, starting at USAFA is a shock. Your parents drop you off at Doolittle Hall where you board a bus. You all wave and smile as the bus pulls away, but then the senior cadets on the bus flip a switch and things get ugly. You’ll spend the next 6 weeks getting yelled at and pushed to your physical and mental limits. Though certainly nowhere near as tough as Marine Corps boot camp, USAFA’s Basic Cadet Training earns its nickname of BCT (pronounced “beast”). I could tell you all sorts of stories, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll refer you to the Academy’s official description.
You might think that the end of BCT marks the end of the pain, but you’d be wrong. As a fourth class cadet (freshman) at the Academy, you spend the next 7-8 months in only slightly better conditions. You’re at the position of attention anytime you’re not in your dorm room or the academic building. You’re required to greet upper class cadets by name (the equivalent of saluting senior officers) and you’ll get screamed at if you screw that up. You’re required to be in some type of uniform 24/7, and you only get passes to leave base a few times a month. You go to class all day, then after school, the upper class cadets will take you out for “training sessions” that feel a lot like flashbacks to BCT.
It’s a tough year. You’ll make some great friends and have some great experiences despite it all. However, it bears almost no resemblance to the typical “college experience.” Thankfully, it does end eventually. Most years, the culmination is a 24-36 hour ordeal called “Recognition.” Once it’s all over, life settles into a more normal routine.
The Academy cycles between hardcore military and more relaxed, depending on the leadership and social/political climate of the year. You’ll generally be required to wake up at the same time every morning, with the bugle call Reveille playing. (You will learn to despise that song.) Some years breakfast is optional, while others it’s mandatory. Yes, someone will be looking for you.
The school day consists of seven class periods, and you have two different class schedules on alternating days of the week. At most colleges, taking 9-12 credits (3-4 classes) is considered “full-time.” You will likely never take fewer than 5 classes (15 credits) in any semester at USAFA. However, my average was about 6.5 classes and my record was 8 classes for 23.5 credits. If you’re driven enough to get into the Academy, you were probably good enough at high school that you didn’t actually have to study all that much. It doesn’t matter how bright you were before, you will have to study, hard, at USAFA. You’ll also put in long hours on projects.
Many colleges will allow students an unlimited amount of time to finish their degree, as long as they keep paying. Many engineering programs expect students to take a full 5 years to complete. Neither of those is an option at USAFA. Everyone graduates in 4 years, or you get kicked out. It’s a lot of work.
The academic day is broken up by lunch. Again, things change from year to year, but Academy leadership tends to prefer an event they call Noon Meal Formation. This involves all 4400 cadets in the wing lining up in a giant military formation on the center of campus (called The Terrazzo) and marching into the chow hall in a big parade. The whole process takes about a half-hour. It’s novel the first couple times you do it, but it gets old after a while…especially when it’s hot or cold outside.
After class lets out for the day, you’ll need (and want) to get to studying. However, you’ll probably need (and want) some sort of physical activity. Sometimes you’ll just be able to work out on your own. However, a significant portion of the Cadet Wing is involved in intercollegiate or club athletics. Those athletes can expect to be at practice until roughly sunset every night. Even if you’re not on a traveling team, you’ll be expected to participate in one of your squadron’s intramural sports teams for most of the year. This only occupies a couple of hours of your time. The competition usually isn’t fierce and if done right, it’s usually fun.
Dinner is optional and it’s the one meal that you’re allowed to bring back to your dorm room in a to-go container. The Academy has one building, Arnold Hall, that approximates what most colleges would think of as a “student center.” There’s a small food court that offers a nice alternative to the dining hall. There’s room to study. There’s even a bar named after Hap Arnold for anyone of drinking age.
And so, once the bad part of freshman year is over, you settle into a groove. Wake up, class, lunch, class, athletics, study, sleep. Although the classes are demanding, they’re also pretty interesting. Every cadet is required to take one class in each of the major engineering disciplines (Mechanical, Electrical, Civil, Aeronautical, Astronautical) along with plenty of math and science courses. There are impressive guest speakers and opportunities to do trips and exchanges to interesting places. Once you get to the classes in your major, the lab projects will be fun and interesting. The Aero department has several wind tunnels and computers for doing computational fluid dynamics. The Astro department builds real satellites that get launched into space. I got to take part in a hacking contest against the NSA and build a swarm of autonomous robots that worked together to solve a puzzle.
During the summers, you’ll get three weeks of no-kidding leave to go home or just relax. However, the other 6 weeks will be spent doing things like combat survival training, glider flying for jump training, interning at an Air Force base somewhere in the world, or instructing BCT or some of these other programs. Some of these programs feel like more work than others, but they’re all generally fun.
Flying at USAFA
The Academy has every kind of extracurricular activity you could imagine. From the Drum & Bugle Corps, to club lacrosse, to fencing, to mock trial, to a drama company, you can find great ways to spend your free time. Since this is BogiDope, I feel like it’s worth emphasizing what I consider the best type of extracurricular at USAFA: flying.
The Academy has several flying programs. The first is flight screening. Every potential pilot gets to spend a few hours flying a T-53A (Cirrus SR20) and learning the basics of aviation. The program is run entirely by officers and modeled to resemble pilot training. If you’re interested in aviation, this is a fun program that you usually do during your senior year.
The next aviation opportunity is the Flying Team. This is a small and highly-selective team that competes against big-name aviation schools from around the country…Embry Riddle, UND, Purdue, etc. They fly Cessna C-150s and it’s a great deal. It’s so competitive that if you want a shot, your best bet is to have as much flight experience as possible before showing up at USAFA.
Although it isn’t a piloting program, per se, the Academy’s jump program is unmatched anywhere in the world. After several days of intense training, you ride a UV-18B (DHC Twin Otter) to altitude and complete 5 parachute jumps. They’re all solo…even the first one. Not even the Army trains like this anymore. You earn jump wings to wear on your uniform for the rest of your career and gain unparalleled confidence.
The last flying program is soaring. Every cadet in the program gets at least 10 flights in a gorgeous DG-1001, a $200,000 racing glider. The point is to familiarize you with aviation, but if you pick things up quickly enough you’ll get to solo before the end of the program.
The jump and soaring programs are both largely cadet-run. Each year, they choose a cadre of cadets from the freshman class who did well in the basic version of the program and upgrade them to become jump masters or soaring Instructor Pilots. Once you’re a qualified instructor, you get to spend the next 2-2 1/2 years teaching the program yourself.
The jump team, called the Wings of Blue, also does demonstration jumps at events like football games and competes against other teams worldwide. The soaring program has cross-country racing and aerobatic teams that fly specialized gliders and compete around the country as well.
Aviation is scheduled a lot like a PE class. You’ll end up with three class periods blocked off for one of these activities for part of the semester. If it’s PE, you just walk down the hill to the fieldhouse. If it’s soaring, jump, or flight screening, you’ll just catch a bus to the airfield.
For me, the best things about the Academy have always been the people I was with and the flying. The aviation programs build your confidence and help prepare you for full-on Air Force pilot training after graduation.
The academic environment at the Academy is intense, and the military side of things can be draining. It made a huge difference in my life to get away from “the Hill,” the part of campus where cadets spend most of their time and enjoy some flying at the airfield. Another way we used to put it is:
A bad day at on the flightline is better than a good day anywhere else.
How to Get a Pilot Slot
Since we’re talking about aviation, let’s remember the whole reason you decided to go to the Air Force Academy in the first place: you want to be a pilot.
As I’ve mentioned, USAFA gets a lot of pilot slots. In some years, they even get more than they can handle. This contrasts sharply to a college ROTC unit that may only get a handful of pilot slots, or even just a couple. In those units, you’ll have to be “the best of the best of the best, with honors, sir!” if you want one of those slots. At USAFA, that’s not the case.
I would say that as long as you’re medically qualified, you should be able to rest pretty easy as long as you rank somewhere in the top 80-90% of your graduating class. That rank is based mostly on grades, but also includes scores for military and athletic performance. If you rank lower than this, you’ll be sweating it out, hoping that anyone else on the edge prefers not to be a pilot.
Like many things in the military, even if a large group of people is eligible for the same overall opportunity, you can get a slightly better or worse version depending on where you fall in your class. The highest-ranking graduate will get his or her choice of base and start date for pilot training. There are only so many slots available per class. If you’re just sliding in under the wire, you’ll get to go to pilot training, but you might have to spend a year flying a desk before you get to start…at the base located furthest from your family or significant other. In the end, it doesn’t matter that much. You can do anything for a year and you graduate with a set of silver wings no matter what. However, getting good grades and other scores while you’re at USAFA can improve your quality of life later.
I mention being and staying medically qualified because I’ve seen that bite people more than once. As a senior, I was in charge of a particular freshman who was as sharp as they come. I had no doubt she’d end up ranking in the top of her class and would have her choice of base and date for pilot training. She went snowboarding over Christmas break in 2003, fell, hit her head, and woke up thinking it was 2000. She returned to the Academy, but tragically her chances of being a military pilot ended forever that day.
Another friend in my squadron is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He graduated at the top of our class while majoring in Astronautical Engineering…one of the toughest engineering programs anywhere. He was a fantastic person and leader. When he went for his graduation physical he failed his hearing test. He’d always wanted to be a pilot but became an engineer. (I never asked if he knew why his hearing wasn’t good. He may have secretly attended a lot of Death Metal concerts, but it may have just been congenital.)
I don’t tell these stories to scare you, and I don’t think my friends did anything wrong. However, it’s important to know that every choice you make or risk you take can have an impact on your future. Be careful what you choose to do, and always keep your ultimate goal in mind.
Is It Worth It?
I’m always a little torn talking about the Academy. It’s a fantastic institution, and it does a great job overall achieving its mission: to develop leaders of character for the Air Force.
It’s tough to encapsulate all of that in a single article. If you want a whole book on the topic I recommend Air Force Academy Candidate Book: How to Prepare, How to Get In, How to Survive. It’s a bit dated…it was written by a person I thought of as “some old dude” when I was in high school…and now I’m turning into an old dude myself. However, I think the principles in that book are timeless. (Maybe someday I’ll write my own version.)
Yes, there’s a lot to put up with at the Academy. The academic pace varies from busy to grueling. The military formalities and requirement to wear a uniform every day can get old. However, there are some significant benefits. You cannot beat the quality of the education you’ll earn while you’re there. You’ll also meet and associate with some fantastic people. I graduated 15 years ago, but I still keep in touch with many people from school. I run into them frequently at military bases and in the Delta Air Lines pilot lounge. I know that in a pinch I could ask most of them for anything and get all the help I needed right away.
I’m also a big fan of the book Start With Why. If you have an ultimate goal in mind, and especially if that “why” is becoming a pilot, then you can’t do much better than USAFA. After being hired specifically as a pilot by a Guard or Reserve unit, attending USAFA gives you the highest statistical chance of getting an Air Force pilot slot. If that’s your ultimate goal, then the USAF Academy is a fantastic option.
The featured image for this post is a panorama of USAFA’s main Cadet Area, from its official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/USAFA.Official/photos/a.10150607942028853/10155369645463853/?type=3&theater.
The 1st Class Cadet and a bunch of s*#&-scared-out-of-them Basic Cadets on the bus was taken by Joshua Armstrong and obtained here: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5539135/usafa-day.
The interior shot of the Cadet Chapel was provided by my friend, Tripp Dibble. Thanks dude!
The Wings of Blue arrival at a baseball game was taken by Tech. Sgt. Tony Tolley and is available here: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/609075/us-air-force-academy-parachute-team-wings-blue.
The glider picture was taken by the talented Trevor Cokley and posted here: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5522324/us-air-force-academy-gliders.