Leaders at the Air Force Academy were putting the final touches on graduation plans Wednesday and keeping a wary eye on the weather for Thursday’s ceremony that will see 1,000 seniors pin on lieutenants bars after a speech by President Donald Trump.
The graduation hasn’t been forced indoors since Falcon Stadium opened in 1962. But every year, the academy has carefully planned to put the rites under a roof to protect the crowd from lightning or hail. Those plans are especially important with the graduation starting at 10:30 a.m. — an hour later than past years — to meet the demands of Trump’s schedule. That means the forecast of afternoon storms for northern El Paso County is causing worry.
“We are keeping a close eye on the weather and will make announcements as early as possible to let people know if we are able to proceed with the graduation ceremonies at Falcon Stadium,” academy spokeswoman Lt. Col. Tracy Bunko said Wednesday. “We definitely plan to have it outside if at all possible, but we do have to consider the safety of our cadets and guests.”
A move to Clune Arena would be a logistical nightmare, academy leaders have admitted. While Falcon Stadium can hold as many as 30,000 people for the graduation, the indoor basketball venue fits less than 6,000.
That means the guest list would be culled, and the academy warned that even the media contingent would be thinned for Clune’s tight confines.
“If weather doesn’t permit an outdoor ceremony, we will move the commencement to Clune Arena,” Bunko said. “Unfortunately if that happens, seats will be severely limited and the event will no longer be open to the public.”
The academy’s graduation has always seemed to have luck on its side. Held as the Pikes Peak region’s seasonal storms begin to take hold, the ceremony has faced wind, rain drizzle and a few dashes of hail over the past 15 years, but has never been driven indoors.
In the academy’s history, the graduation has taken place under a roof just once, for the class of 1959. Those first graduates completed their schooling before the academy’s construction wrapped up, necessitating the indoor venue.
Sydney Jackson, a meteorologist with Gazette news partner KKTV, said the academy’s luck will probably hold for Thursday’s graduation despite the later start.
“I think we will be dry in the morning,” Jackson predicted. “For the afternoon, our models are showing a spotty storm or two.”
The few storms that could drift through the region aren’t expected to be powerful lightning generators. That’s good news for the big crowd expected for the graduation.
The public tickets for the event were snatched up in minutes this month, something that’s been typical for graduations that have a sitting president as the speaker.
Trump is widely expected to address his desire for a new Space Force in his speech. That proposal is now being debated in Congress and would have a big impact in Colorado Springs, which is home to Air Force Space Command and military units that control most of the Defense Department’s satellites.
The city is in a competition now to house the new U.S. Space Command, which would oversee combat in orbit and control the space efforts of all military branches. Local leaders hope Trump will deliver good news on that topic during his academy stop.
What else Trump will address hasn’t been announced. And Trump has been known for his off-the-cuff style that could add the unexpected to his remarks.
Before Trump even hit town, he drew a small protest. A gathering outside Colorado Springs City Hall on Wednesday questioned Trump’s aggressive stance toward Iran.
“I feel we’re going to recklessly get involved in another war,” said Kate Smith, a 1982 graduate of the Air Force Academy and a backer of the group Indivisible Colorado.
Trump, though, has more supporters than detractors in the El Paso County, where he carried 56 percent of voters in the 2016 election. The local GOP branch was preparing a card of welcome for Trump and local Republican officials will be elbowing for room at the academy event.
Trump’s presence will mean tight security in Falcon Stadium and some traffic tangles around the Pikes Peak region.
If he follows the practice of past presidential visits to the academy, Trump will fly into Peterson Air Force Base and take a motorcade to Falcon Stadium. The Colorado Department of Transportation warned drivers that the trip to and from Peterson could gridlock Powers Boulevard from Peterson’s west gate, Fountain Boulevard from Powers to Interstate 25 and the I-25 from Fountain to the academy.
Visitors will need to head to the stadium early to get through airport-like security. The academy said stadium gates will open for the event at 7:30 a.m. and visitors will be allowed to drive to the stadium as early as 6 a.m.
With a large crowd, that could tangle the morning commute through the region. If your morning drive takes you on Interstate 25 past the academy, you’ll want to get an early start.
The graduation will conclude with an Air Force Thunderbirds flyover and demonstration, expected to begin at about 1:30 p.m. The twisting and turning F-16s create a spectacle over the stadium and can be watched through much of northern Colorado Springs.
That means distracted drivers on the interstate and other roads. If you want to watch the Thunderbirds, head north and find a safe place to park for the show. If you stop on I-25 for bird-watching you’ll get to meet an angry state trooper.
After graduation, traffic will get worse. It’s the same two factors that will drive the tangles — a presidential motorcade and a departing crowd.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240