Air Force Academy A Cappella Group Wins Over Nation's Heart

Most of the AFA a capella group, In the Stairwell, are back at the Air Force Academy and have started practicing for the semi-finals show of America's Got Talent.
Most of the AFA a capella group, In the Stairwell, are back at the Air Force Academy and have started practicing for the semi-finals show of America's Got Talent.

America loves a boy band.

But not just any boy band. This particular group is a cadre of fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked, clean-cut and slim U.S. Air Force Academy cadets known as In the Stairwell. The all-male a cappella group has won over the country's collective heart with its four-part harmonies and awkward dance moves on the current season of NBC's reality show "America's Got Talent."



"None of us ever expected it to get to this level," said Cadet 2nd Class Thompson Knox, an aspiring pilot and stealth baritone. "And it's not really that we made it, because it was never really a goal to get here. But now that it's here, it's wonderful, it's awesome. We're just so excited to be where we are now, and to just hopefully keep moving the group forward to bigger audiences and bigger stages."

The 15-member official cadet club first performed on the 12th season of the talent show in mid-June. Clad in their pristine dress uniforms, they busted out a rendition of English-Irish pop boy band One Direction's "Drag Me Down."

Judge Howie Mandel wasn't smitten with the performance, however, and blasted them with the buzzer as baritone soloist and 2nd Lt. Benjamin Hightower started to bring it on home. He powered through though, and the group received a standing ovation and praise from the other three judges, Heidi Klum, Mel B and Simon Cowell, who said, "I think people are really going to like you."

"It took us all by surprise," said Knox. "We weren't expecting the buzzer to be that loud. We just kept going and finished and moved on, and it's in the past, so we don't even worry about that from now on."

Voters and judges relish the group's amateurish dance moves -- Mel B deemed it "adorable" -- which are choreographed by the captain of the USAFA dance team.

"She brings the choreography to us," said Knox, "and we struggle to achieve it."

Mandel's non-enthusiastic response hasn't put a damper on the group's momentum. It's now up to the viewers to decide who moves ahead on the show, and they clearly want more of the polite military guys. In the Stairwell was voted into the semifinals last month after covering American pop boy band NSYNC's "Bye, Bye, Bye" and the indie pop band Fun's "Some Nights" in August. Their next performance will be either at 7 p.m. Tuesday or 7 p.m. Sept. 12. Finals are Sept. 19.

The a cappella ensemble started in 2004 when five freshmen needed to blow off steam amid the rigorous academic life and months of confinement with few privileges. They gathered in the refuge of a stairwell to sing their hearts out. Since then, the group has grown and holds yearly auditions to replace outgoing cadets.

This year, they'll have to replace five singers, including Hightower, who's stationed at the academy but told Parade last month that his next adventure is earning his master's degree on a Fulbright scholarship. The four other lieutenants, who are pursuing pilot training, are stationed at Columbus Air Force Base near Columbus, Miss., and Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla.

"The academy isn't known for any sorts of arts program ever," Knox said. "We have a few musical clubs -- the drum and bugle corps, the cadet chorale, that's it. That's part of the surprise we have going onto this big of a stage, is they're military guys and they can also sing. People just don't expect it."

Back to real life

It's August, and the guys have returned from Los Angeles a few days earlier, ready to return to their hardcore life of military training. The high-octane group pours into a conference room attired in an array of uniforms -- camouflage, flight suits, blues -- depending on what they were doing before the media interview. Knox, one of the group's leaders, declares they're not going to sing today, as they jostle for a spot. One young man jokes about finding the right angle for the TV camera: "It's my bad side."

The guys are still wrapping their heads around their sudden shot to fame and exploring the most appropriate behavior for members of such a prestigious military academy who are still excited at being Hollywood celebrities.

"We have a strong base of 14-year-old girls," said Hightower, which elicits a laugh from the group. "That's mainly our demographic."

They may be dealing with the strappings of newfound fame, but academics are still a priority. Finding time to rehearse also poses a challenge. They typically get together twice a week for about an hour, though not everybody can always make it.

The group members who are no longer at the academy are sent recordings and videos so they can practice on their own and, they hope, fall naturally into step with the group when they reconvene in L.A. for semifinals.

"When we auditioned for the group, it was supposed to be something casual, and we've grown to so much more than that," said Knox. "We're happy with where it's at, but it's definitely a drain on our academics and military and all our other jobs we have going on. It's definitely not our only thing we're doing here. We're all busy people."

But what will happen to this particular version of singing cadets should they win the whole shebang? First place comes with a $1 million prize and a chance to headline a show on the Las Vegas Strip.

"The majority of us here owe our commitment to the Air Force," said Knox. "We came here to serve, and we're going to end that way, too, no matter what happens."

And as for the money?

"I don't think the money matters to any of us, especially when there's 15 guys. Divided up so small, it wouldn't matter," Knox said, evoking a chorus of disbelieving responses from the guys. "The money will actually go to the USAFA Endowment under the club fund. We don't want the money. We're just out here trying to make an impact on people, now that we've realized how big a stage we're actually on.

"The fact we get to wear the uniform on America's biggest TV show is just great publicity for the Air Force and armed forces in general, and we're just grateful to be part of it." ___

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