Service Womens Action Network

Photo courtesy of Service Womens Action Network

Changing the face of the Air Force Academy

August 05, 2019 - 11:25 am

In 1976, there was something different at the Air Force Academy. 156 women joined their male counterparts as part of the class of 1980. These women walked into an unfavorable environment. Before the class of 1980 had arrived, junior officers were sent to the Academy to be trained as cadets. For whatever reason, this group of women did not make a good impression and were transitioned to being surrogate female upper-class cadets. These Air Training Officers (ATO’s) reputations exacerbated the negative feeling towards the new women cadets.

Joan Olsen (now Adams) was one of these 156 women. She had been looking for a way to pay for college and had considered the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Program. Her dad heard that women were going to be allowed to attend the military academies and encouraged her to apply. She was able to secure a principle nomination from her Representative John Moss. This guaranteed her a spot at the Air Force Academy Class of 1980.

Photo courtesy of Service Women's Action Network
Photo courtesy of Service Women's Action Network

The women walked into an environment where their male classmates resented them from taking spots away from males they believed should be there in their place. Cadences had been altered to take out the derogatory language toward women. The Air Officers Commanding (AOCs) who were there to lead the cadet squadrons looked at the young women with a watchful eye ready to pounce on any weakness they could find.

Joan was the first cadet to be sworn in on June 28. and was followed around by the news crews for most of her first day. She made it through Basic Cadet Training (BCT or Beast). Even when she went to Jack’s Valley and sprained both ankles, she kept pushing until someone found her limping through the final run through the valley and finally took her to the infirmary. After basic training, the Academy requires a heavy academic load with each cadet taking 21.5-semester units. She struggled with calculus and at the end of the semester failed the class. While other students were allowed to catch up over the summer and retake courses, the AOC of her squadron saw this as an opportunity to get another woman out of the Academy and she was disenrolled, even though her professor recommended that she stay. There was no committee or way for her to appeal. She was just sent home. She was both relieved and crushed by the news and found it hardest to tell her father.

Luckily, Joan’s story doesn’t end there.

In 1985, Joan graduated with honors in Electrical Engineering. She then went on to work for Hughes Aircraft (which later became GM Hughes and then part of Raytheon) and worked on a number of programs for the Air Force, Navy, and NASA.

Even though Joan didn’t graduate, her time at the Academy taught her so many things and helped her with her future career in the aerospace industry.

Years later, she attended a Christmas party and met a former KC-135 pilot who had attended the academy in one of the early classes with women. When they started talking about why she joined, the former pilot mentioned a young cadet who had come home from the academy during Christmas break and shared her experience. Based on where they both lived Joan realized she was that cadet who had inspired a young neighborhood girl and realized how her story hadn’t ended when she left the academy. It had just begun.

After hearing Joan’s story, I was amazed to find out that out of the 156 women who began in the class of 1980, 97 graduated and were commissioned. With the odds stacked against them, they persevered, changed the course of history, and forged a path for the women who followed them.

In collaboration with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month.

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