COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In all of North America there is only one Air Force Academy. More: The academy is Colorado's most visited man-made tourist attraction.
For good reasons, too: Much of the architecture is extraordinary, the landscaping handsome, the buildings neatly tucked away among 18,000 acres of pine, spruce and fir forests. Behind the academy rises the impressive Ramparts Range of the Rocky Mountains.
Earmark at least half a day for your (gratis) visit. Come by car. Begin at the Visitor's Center off Interstate 25 and get your bearings.
The free map will be helpful; it tells you what to see on your 13.5-mile self-guided tour. Although more than a million tourists visit these grounds every year, the property is so spacious, and has so many possibilities for quiet contemplation, that you'll never feel hemmed in.
You'll discover good picnic grounds, exciting glider takeoffs and landings, a stunning cadet parade (weekdays at noon) complete with marching band.
Periodic Free Shows
Visitors are welcome to the superbly run 560,000-volume library and to the planetarium that offers periodic free shows and doubles as classroom for astronomy, physics and navigation.
Which is the most popular academy destination?
It's the 150-foot-high Air Force Chapel with its 17 spires, an all-faith church that gives even the non-religious some aesthetic jolts. The deft use of glass, steel and aluminum, the lead windows and tastefully designed interiors are all memorable.
Protestant, Catholic and Jewish services can be held simultaneously and the three congregations can enter and leave without disturbing each other. The Protestant nave seats 1,200, the Catholic nave 500 and the Jewish synagogue 100 worshipers. (The academy employs a full-time rabbi.)
In addition, there is a meeting room for the use of any religious organization that doesn't want to use the three chapels. Stained-glass panels suffuse the room with multicolored light. Behind the altar is a curved 14-foot wall covered with pastel shades of glass tessera. The top of the altar, 15 feet long, is a single slab of marble.
The architecturally bold chapel is part of a 75-minute walking tour, a summer feature that the visitor shouldn't miss. The stroll includes numerous other buildings, all of them well conceived and blending into the scenery.
Apart from the daily parades of the 4,000 spic-and-span cadets (of which 11% are females) you can watch periodic air shows and see a 30-minute introductory film.
You gain a better understanding of the academy when you learn a little about the painstaking selection process and the tough physical and scholastic training.
Only the healthiest, sturdiest, most intelligent and most stable young people are admitted to this school. In most cases a candidate must find a member of Congress to nominate him/her many months before admission and a student must score high on college entrance exams.
There are tough health exams, and the applicant undergoes a hard physical qualification test. For every cadet who is accepted, many more are turned down. (Of 12,000 men and women who apply, only about 1,400 will make it.) Many of the rejects are brilliant young people, and often high school football heroes.
Once accepted, cadets put in four years of more, wider and deeper studies than at most universities. They take 145 semester hours of math, civil engineering, computer science, chemistry, physics, physiology, navigation and astronomy, as well as English, philosophy and foreign languages including Russian and Chinese. The faculty consists of almost 600 professors and instructors, including many career Air Force officers.
The hardest time for cadets is the first eight weeks. The newcomer is cut off from the world. Colorado Springs is only a few miles away, yet the cadet receives no pass. He or she is not allowed to drive an automobile. Parents cannot visit.
Races Through the Day
They'd be amazed if they saw their son or daughter now. The cadet is up at 6 a.m., then races through the day on the double, doing push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, sprinting over hurdles.
Inside the gleaming buildings, the future Air Force officer must walk at attention. He/she must come to attention before each meal.
The Air Force Academy is tougher than West Point or Annapolis. For one thing, the air in Colorado is thin. Most flat land recruits must get used to the 7,000-foot altitude. So they'll be huffing and puffing at their final calisthenics until their toughening bodies become accustomed to the altitude.
The visitor has a much easier time, and no cause to hurry or march. Colorado Springs is easy to reach by air and car rentals are available at the airport. Vast parking lots are well-distributed among the buildings and sports facilities. Cafeterias and an Officer's Club beckon for reasonably priced lunches.
Later, you will long recall the wide-open spaces, the lush grass and multitude of trees, the steep chapel spires and the blue Colorado sky.
Academy grounds are open to the public all year from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Many buildings open at 9 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. For more information, write to U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80840, or phone (303) 472-2555.