Superintendent: Air Force Academy Updates Will Help it Stay Relevant

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James enters Falcon Stadium to deliver the commencement address to the U.S. Air Force Academy's Class of 2015 at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 28, 2015. U.S. Air Force photo by Mike Kaplan
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James enters Falcon Stadium to deliver the commencement address to the U.S. Air Force Academy's Class of 2015 at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 28, 2015. U.S. Air Force photo by Mike Kaplan

The U.S. Air Force Academy admittedly is not as well-known nationally as other military service schools, such as the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., or the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

Even some local folks don't know much about the academy, which was established in Colorado Springs in 1954.

But Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, superintendent since August 2013, told top brass, local community leaders and elected officials Tuesday that she's out to change that.

"We really want to become the hometown team in so many ways," she said during her second annual State of U.S. Air Force Academy address.

The academy's local economic impact for 2015 was $981 million, Johnson said, in terms of employment, tourism and other work in the region.

Changes to modernize the academy and make it relevant for this generation are in the works. They run the gamut from carving a new skyline to updating curriculum.

* Falcon Stadium: It was announced last fall that the stadium, built in 1962, would undergo renovations. Some have been completed, and others are to come. The goal of getting a new high-definition scoreboard that's 1 inch larger than those at the fields of the Army and Navy academies has been realized, athletic director Jim Knowlton said. The giant 31-by-82-foot board is the biggest in the Mountain West Conference, he said.

The scoreboard made its debut last week at a men's lacrosse game (which the Falcons won). "It is amazing," Knowlton said.

A marquee on Falcon Stadium Boulevard advertising upcoming events also has been installed, and a new sound system is in place. Knowlton said the department wants to buy a second scoreboard to cover both ends of the field.

The east side of the field will get a ticket office, apparel store, VIP seating and premium seating. The aluminum stands will be removed, reducing seating capacity by 6,000. More entry points to the stadium are coming, along with better organized parking.

* New Santa Fe Regional Trail: A 7-mile stretch of the trail that runs through the academy grounds will reopen by the end of this summer, Johnson said. El Paso County workers are repairing the trail, and security equipment, such as cameras, is being installed. The academy closed the section of the popular recreational trail nearly a year ago, citing safety concerns.

* Noise mitigation: The academy is looking into lessening noise for neighbors from flight training. Equipping powered aircraft with air conditioning would mean early-morning takeoffs could be moved to later in the day, Johnson said. Switching from a two- to three-blade propeller design would allow pilots to clear nearby houses sooner.

* Misconduct and violence: "It's our No. 1 challenge," Johnson said. "It's a hard problem for us to tackle. But we own it."

A January report showed 49 cadets reported sexual assault incidents in 2014-15, up from 25 in the previous academic year. Incidents can include harassing language, unwanted touching or violent penetration of a person's body, Johnson said.

The increased reporting shows "competence in the system," which is "a good sign," she said. But the prevalence is not, she added.

"We take it very seriously, and we feel the climate is improving," Johnson said.

Academy training programs on sexual assault are becoming a national model and are being sought by other colleges, she added.

* Curriculum: The academy's Cyber Innovation Center will expand from a staff of five to 28. A new $58 million building at a location yet to be determined is in the early planning stages. In the meantime, the library will be renovated this summer to make room for new classes. The first three students to earn a new bachelor's degree in computer and network security will graduate in May, and 17 more will graduate next year.

* Research: The first royalties are being realized from a partnership with Colorado Springs-based Optical Engines, a company that produces advanced fiber laser technology. The project is one of several that transfer knowledge obtained from academy research projects involving faculty and students to the private sector.

* Community involvement: Students provide 40,000 volunteer service hours in the community annually. Some cadets recently built a bridge near Maroon Bells using no mechanized devices. A new Cadet for a Day club introduces Make-A-Wish children to marching, eating in the cafeteria, being in the flight control tower and other aspects of cadet life. A K-12 STEM outreach program cadets provide to local schools is popular, officials said.

* Recruitment: Only 25 percent of young adults qualify to apply for the military, based on academic record, health and criminal history, Johnson said. Efforts to attract diversity in thought, philosophy, religion, socio-economic background and other qualities are underway, including ads airing during the TV series "The Walking Dead." The message: You can be anything at the Air Force Academy, a pilot, an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, a satellite operator.

* Visitors center: More than 1 million people visit the academy every year -- 400,000 of whom are tourists. Plans for a new academy visitors center, which is part of the City for Champions tourism project, are moving along. The building will be near the North Gate and Interstate 25, the public entrance to the academy. The center will be built and operated by private contractors. Prospective bidders will participate in an informational session April 21. "This is becoming real," Johnson said.

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