Class of 2020 completes an eventful four years at USAFA
By Lt. Col. (Ret.) Steven A. Simon ’77 and Jeff Holmquist
There were glimpses of a normal graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy — the catchy processional music, the hat toss, the Thunderbirds flyover.
But much of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the annual commencement for the newest members of the Long Blue Line was lost in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
On Saturday, April 18 — more than a month earlier than the originally scheduled graduation date — 967 members of the Class of 2020 (plus 13 international cadets) marched out to the Terrazzo and were sworn in as second lieutenants in the Air Force and Space Force.
The 62nd graduating class from the Academy was the first to include second lieutenants going directly into the nation’s newly formed Space Force. A total of 86 were sworn in by Gen. John Raymond, Space Force chief of staff, at the conclusion of the ceremony.
The Class of 2020 — which adopted the motto “Target in Sight” during its Basic Cadet Training in the summer of 2016 — showed plenty of emotion and excitement during the shortened commencement.
Of the new graduates from the Class of 2020, 686 were men (71%) and 281 women (29%). There were 296 minorities (30%) — 72 African Americans, 96 Hispanics, 91 Asians, 26 Pacific Islanders and 11 Native Americans.
International cadets were citizens of Georgia, Macedonia, Moldovia, Pakistan, Panama, The Philippines, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Tunisia.
Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria ’85, USAFA superintendent, welcomed the cadets after they arrived at their seats. He also gave a shout-out to thousands of family members and friends who were watching the live stream feed over the Internet.
“This format is a first for our Academy,” he admitted. “And today’s ceremony will look quite a bit different than ever before.”
Silveria unveiled a plaque, donated by the Class of 1959, recognizing the permanent bond between the first class and the 62nd class from the institution.
“I’m incredibly proud of each and every one of you,” he told the cadet. “On behalf of the entire Academy community, congratulations to the Class of 2020.”
Gen. Raymond spoke glowingly of the 86 new second lieutenants who will join him in the Space Force. He said of all the classes among the 62 that have graduated from USAFA, three carry historical significance — the first class of 1959, the Class of 1980 (the first class with women), and the Class of 2020 (the first class whose members joined the Space Force).
“You are our future, and I need you to be bold,” he told his new subordinates. “You will build this service from the ground up.”
He said the Space Force will be a vital player in maintaining U.S. and partner superiority in the air and beyond.
Raymond noted USAFA graduates have gone on to accomplish great things in the Air Force and elsewhere.
“Now it’s your time to make history,” Raymond said. “You have already demonstrated, with the support of the Air Force Academy staff and faculty, that you are capable of responding to extraordinary times with incredible strength, resilience and fortitude. I can’t wait to see where you lead us.”
Gen. David Goldfein ’83 told the Class of 2020 that April 18 marked the 78th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. He said it was appropriate that the new graduates were being officially commissioned on such a historic day in aviation history.
“Seventy-eight years ago, the Raiders cemented the very notion of joint air power with the clear statement that America’s Air Force — working side by side with our joint teammates, can hold any target at risk anywhere, anytime,” Goldfein said. “Today, we cement the notion of joint air and space power… we are our nation’s aerospace services. We own the high ground.”
He challenged the new graduates to live up to the example set by previous aviation heroes, including the Doolittle Raiders.
“Are you up to the task? Do you have what it takes to lead us into the future?” he asked. “I believe you do.”
Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett congratulated the soon-to-be graduates.
“As beacons of freedom and leaders of change, you will apply the lessons of these past four years … to change the world,” she said. “You will defend America on the ground, you will protect this great nation from the skies, and you will advance freedom from space — the ultimate high ground.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who was originally slated to offer a commencement address virtually, was personally on hand for the ceremony.
“We gather at a time of great challenge in the life of our nation,” he said. “America knows you completed one of the most challenging semesters in the history of the Air Force Academy. You did it, Class of 2020. You proved yourself, and today you will graduate from this storied institution, and you will become officers in the United States armed forces.”
Pence said the new graduates are entering a military that is better supported than at any point in American history. He pledged continued investment in new technology and airframes, ensuring that the Air Force dominates in the air and in space.
Pence thanked the families, faculty and friends who have supported the new second lieutenants throughout their lives. He said each graduate’s success and future accomplishments are attributable to the incredible people who have stood behind them.
“Your families couldn’t be here because of the extraordinary times in which we live,” he said. “But we know they’re watching from afar, and they couldn’t be more proud of each and every one of you. And you’re an inspiration to every American.”
In conclusion, Pence encouraged the new officers to follow in the footsteps of fellow graduates who have gone on to distinguished service in the Air Force, other military services and in society.
“Whether your service takes you into the wild blue yonder, or out into the stars, always remember that you’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” he said. “By heroes who have passed through these halls, fought the good fight, and defended freedom in their time … as surely as you will in yours.”
As the ceremony came to a close — and the wind began to pick up — Brig. Gen. Linell Letendre ’96 announced that the Class of 2020 had attained status as graduates of USAFA.
And with the playing of the “Air Force Song,” the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron flew overhead and the graduates’ hats rose into the cloudy Colorado sky.
GRADUATION FACTS 2020
The Class of 2020 earned many historic distinctions, including being the Air Force Academy class to:
- Graduate in April.
- Graduate on a Saturday.
- Graduate on the Terrazzo.
- Graduate without spectators or family members in attendance.
- Commission graduates immediately into the Space Force.
In addition, ’20 was the first Air Force Academy class to take academic classes remotely.
Here are some facts and figures about Air Force Academy graduations:
- The 50,000th USAFA graduate crossed the stage in 2018. His name is Farley Pipkins, Cadet Squadron 09. The 10,000th graduated in 1976 (Richard Gustafson), the 20,000th in 1987 (Dennis Keith Moore), the 30,000th in 1997 (Michelle Chamberlain), and the 40,000th in 2008 (Whitney Marie Weider).
- The president of the United States has spoken at graduation 11 times: John Kennedy in 1963, Richard Nixon in 1969, Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H. W. Bush in 1991, William Clinton in 1995 and 1999, George W. Bush in 2004 and 2008, Barack Obama in 2012 and 2016, and Donald Trump in 2019.
- Vice President Mike Pence’s appearance in 2020 will be the 12th time a Vice-President has spoken at graduation: The previous 11: Lyndon Johnson in 1962, Spiro Agnew in 1971, Gerald Ford in 1974, Nelson Rockefeller in 1976, George H. W. Bush in 1982 and 1986, Dan Quayle in 1992, Richard Cheney in 2001 and 2005, and Joe Biden in 2009 and 2014.
- The first Air Force Academy graduation took place on 3 June 1959. It was held in the Arnold Hall Theater, making it the only USAFA graduation ever held indoors. Bradley Hosmer was the first graduate. He went on to become the Academy’s first Rhodes Scholar and in 1991 its first graduate superintendent. With 207 graduates, 1959 is the smallest class in Academy history.
- Graduations for the Classes of 1960, 1961, and 1962 took place on the Cadet Parade Field (which would be named Stillman Field in September 1994, in honor of Brigadier General Robert M. Stillman, the first Commandant of Cadets.)
- The Class of 1960 was the first to graduate outdoors.
- The Class of 1961 was the last of three classes to receive navigator wings for work done as part of the Academy curriculum.
- The Class of 1962 was the first to have a Vice President (Lyndon Johnson) deliver a commencement address.
- The first graduation in Falcon Stadium took place on June 5, 1963. Until this year, every graduation since then has been at the stadium.
- The first three African-American graduates were members of the Class of 1963 (Charles Bush, Isaac Payne, and Roger Sims).
- 1963 was the first time a president (John Kennedy) spoke at graduation. Incidentally, the limousine he used during his USAFA trip was the same one he was riding in a few months later when he was assassinated in Dallas.
- 8 June 1966 was the first time at any service academy that every member of a graduating class earned an academic major.
- Also in 1966, the first three foreign national cadets to complete four years at the Academy received their diplomas. The members of the Class of ‘66 were from Bolivia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
- On 5 June 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was scheduled to speak, but he was called back to Washington due to the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown filled in.
- The Class of 1975 graduated with the highest attrition rate in Academy history (46.19%).
- The Class of 1977 was the last class to graduate totally by order-of-merit. The final graduate, known as “Tail End Charlie,” received a silver dollar from each of his classmates. The incoming Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tallman, ended the tradition because he believed it was inappropriate to reward mediocrity.
- The Class of 1978 was the first class to not graduate in June. The term “June Week,” traditionally used to describe the entirety of the activities that culminated with the graduation ceremony, instantly became a misnomer and began to fade into history.
- In 1980, the first class with women graduated. Kathleen Conley was the first of the 97 women to graduate that day.
- The Class of 1984 was the first to have more than 1,000 graduates.
- President Ronald Reagan spoke at the Class of 1984’s graduation, and security screening prevented many parents and guests from getting into Falcon Stadium before the President finished his speech. Many of them returned to their cars, and the Federal Aviation Agency representative cancelled the Thunderbirds performance because the parking lot was not clear of people.
- The Class of 1992, with 1,076 members, is the largest graduating class in Academy history.
- In 1996, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, Class of 1963, while Chief of Staff of the Air Force, became the first graduate to serve as commencement speaker.
- In 2006, the cadet radio station, KAFA, broadcast live from graduation for the first time. Station manager Dave West and several cadets reported from the Falcon Stadium Press Box, providing general information about and coverage of the ceremony, conducting interviews with parents and senior officials, and updating traffic and weather.
- The graduation of the Class of 2010 marked the first time a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered the commencement address (Admiral Mike Mullen).
- In 2013, due to Department of Defense-wide automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the Thunderbirds were unable to perform at graduation. In their place, volunteers arranged for graduation-week flyovers by several heritage aircraft, to include two P-51s, a B-25, and a P-40.
- Until 2015, every graduation ceremony had been held on a Wednesday. In 2015, and then again in 2016 and 2019, ceremonies took place on a Thursday to avoid having major graduation activities on Memorial Day.
- The Thunderbirds (U.S. Air Force air demonstration team) will fly over this year’s ceremony.
- The Thunderbirds have been part of USAFA graduations since the very beginning. The Class of 1959 graduated indoors, so obviously the Thunderbirds didn’t fly at the graduation ceremony, but they were there. On 30 May 1959, they made their first flight at the Academy’s Colorado Springs campus. The show was part of Graduation Week festivities for the Academy’s first graduation.
- The Thunderbirds’ USAFA-related history goes back even further, though, to the Lowry days. On 9 July 1955, they made their first Air Force Academy-related flight, at Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado. The team also flew the next day at the Pikes Peak Air Rodeo, and on 11 July 1955 returned to Lowry for the Academy dedication ceremony.
- Capt. Henry Canterbury, Class of 1959, was the first Academy graduate to fly with the Thunderbirds. His first flight was on 1 February 1965 when the team performed at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on the occasion of Gen. Curtis LeMay’s retirement. Gen. LeMay was the fifth chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.
- Capt. Nicole Malachowski, Class of 1996, was the first female Thunderbird pilot. She flew with the Air Force demonstration team from November 2005 until November 2007.
- On 21 December 1972, Capt. Jerry Bolt, Class of 1964, became the first Academy graduate killed while flying with the Thunderbirds. He was killed as the result of a mid-air collision during winter training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
One notable aspect of this graduation ceremony was the date. Falling on the 78th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, the occasion was a chance to pause and reflect on the historic and continued importance of America's airpower mission. It was also a day to look to the future as the Class of 2020 commissioned 86 officers into the United States Space Force.
— USAFA Facebook Post