What is Basic Cadet Training like at the Air Force Academy?

Hey! My name is Ryan Harden, and I'm a 2018 graduate of the Air Force Academy (USAFA). The words below are my own observations and reflections of Basic Cadet Training (BCT). Further, it is my hope that this post helps prospective applicants understand BCT.

For any graduates who happen to read this, I hope the post invokes reminiscence. That you relive BCT's better moments, and feel more connected to the Long Blue Line.


To prospective applicants...

I want to commend you for starting your application. The decision to join the military is not for everyone and is definitely, not easy. This observation is especially true if you go to a service academy. But, if you do continue, please know that the undergraduate experience remains unparalleled.


Even though the academies have a demanding admissions process, know that it will pay off. In fact, developing skills, like tenacity or public speaking, will only add to future success. So, grit through the Candidate Fitness Assessment and rehearse for the Congressional interviews! Without further ado, let's begin.


What is Basic Cadet Training, and how is it structured?

Basic Cadet Training is a process that transforms civilians into military Cadets. The program is six weeks long, where the first three weeks are "On the Hill," and the next three are in "Jack's Valley."


Life "On the Hill" is especially difficult for newcomers. During those three weeks, individuality dies for conformity's sake. Previously accepted expressions of speech are no longer allowed. Instead, you can only use seven basic responses.


The seven basic responses are:

- Yes, Sir/Ma'am

- No, Sir/Ma'am

- No Excuse Sir/Ma'am

- Sir/Ma'am, may I make a statement?

- Sir/Ma'am, may I as a question?

- Sir/Ma'am, I do not understand.

- Sir/Ma'am, I do not know.


Later, when you head to "Jack's Valley," you'll build up camaraderie. The classmates in your Basic Flight will also be your academic-year squadron mates. So, it is vital to be a team player and work hard.


You want to have a positive reputation since your social life will depend upon it. Also, unless you're a Division I athlete or part of an academic Dean's Team, you will only interact with them. (Of course, classes provide limited opportunities to work with non-Squadron mates.)


What is the Challenge Bridge, and how tough is the first day?

Basic Cadet Training begins the moment when you walk across the Challenge Bridge. Once you cross, you become a "Basic" for the next six weeks. So long as you understand that you're always going to be incorrect (in the cadre's eyes), you'll have loads of fun!

Once over the bridge, you'll board a bus. Either one or two Upper-Class Cadets will give a canned speech on the bus, and then yell at an unfortunate soul. By the time they finish, you'll hear "GET OFF MY BUS." When that happens, the doors will fling open, and you'll grab your backpack. You'll then run to the painted footsteps, standing on a set. These footsteps are about twenty or so feet away from the bus, and Upper-Class Cadets will yell at you along the way.


While on the footsteps, you'll learn to stand at attention. If you don't comply, like almost anything else in BCT, you'll see the most intimidating person yell at you. On rare occasions, you or another person may be accidentally spat at--but try not to take it personally. If or when this happens, the cadre likely didn't mean it and is only trying to give you the same experience he had. (for better or worse) If my memory is correct, most cadre don't do anything like this, and are respectful.

Although the first day seems daunting, it isn't. Aside from the footstep yelling, you shuffle from place to place, accomplishing in-processing. Tasks like getting a regulation haircut or picking up your uniform fill the day. Also, you're handed Contrails*, and you'll meet your squadron** mates.


*Contrails = Pocket-sized knowledge books filled with information that you must memorize. Military knowledge is tested even after BCT ends, so spend time studying. It impacts your Military Grade Point Average and Class Rank!


** Squadron = The 100-120 who you'll live with during your four years. In this context though, I am referencing the other Basics in your Basic Flight of 20-30.


What is a typical day like in Basic Cadet Training?

The typical day in Basic Cadet Training is chock-full of stressful activities. Physical exercise is before and after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is no moment to rest, and your body is going to be sore. So, stretching, proper nutrition, arriving with good cardio, and focusing on calisthenics are helpful tips before and during Basic Cadet Training.


Also, if your dream is to attend and graduate from a service academy, don't let a mean Upper-Class Cadet take it away from you. The world is filled with others who are jealous, want to rob you of your dreams, or are apathetic towards your life--but you shouldn't have that opinion of yourself. Success despite the obstacles, don't succumb to them.


What Youtube Videos would you recommend watching?

The best YouTube video that I would recommend is by a classmate and friend, Sam Eckholm. After graduation, he has served as a Public Affairs Officer on Active Duty and has gone above and beyond. His YouTube channel has informative, entertaining, and exciting content for those interested in the Air Force or the Air Force Academy.


What other challenges or "mental battles" did you go through in BCT?

During Basic Cadet Training, I found that there are three significant challenges Basics experience.


First, you have to overcome the realization that you made a mistake. Yes, you read that correctly. My point is: attending an institution for the sake of prestige isn't a good enough reason. And, it won't sustain you. The fact that mom and dad are proud of you won't matter when a 6'2'' male with massive biceps yells at you.


You may hear...

  • "Why are you failing your classmates?"

  • "Why are you here?"

  • "You shouldn't be here."

  • "Why aren't you trying, don't you care?

Oh, and he's two inches from your face. Look, you're going to feel terrible and not understand why Basic is so tricky. But that's also the entire reason behind BCT. You are having your old identity deconstructed while facing adversity. But, on the other side, you're going to be more proficient as a human and capable as a leader. Becoming great requires pain points and overcoming obstacles.


That's one of the reasons I was so tough on my Basics when I was an Upper-Class Cadets: I wanted them to succeed in life. But it starts with figuring out why you truly, want to be in the military.


Second, studying Contrails and learning how to march is essential. And, if you want to be a leader one day, especially on national security issues, you'll need to be a good follower. It sounds dumb, but it works. Leadership needs followers to carry-out instructions.


Also, studying Contrails will make you a well-informed Cadet and improve your Class Rank. If you want to have unicorn outcomes, then your Class Rank needs to be near the top. Great opportunities like being on the Wings of Blue, the parachute team, or attending graduate school (for free) after USAFA are inherently finite opportunities. That means competition will be great.


Learning to march on cadence is no different. Both are about mastering attention to details on, albeit, matters of little consequence. But it isn't the knowledge you walk away with, and it is the skill to perform at a high level. So work hard and prove yourself. Third, this is the most challenging aspect, but nothing you do as a Basic will be correct. It doesn't matter if you were waiting on your Battle Buddy in the Front Leaning Rest; you're wrong.


The whole exercise, as mentioned before, is to push you through adversity. Thus, the cadre will inconsistently apply the facts to physically or mentally expand your capabilities. So, you can't let the yelling and screaming make you feel bad about yourself. If you earned an admissions letter, then you're worthy. Now, show that you deserve to be there through your consistent actions.


Once you can wrap your mind around these three adjustments, then Basic gets ten times easier. There are moments during BCT that you'll remember forever, and the experience can be fun. Remember, Basic Cadet Training is an experience that everyone will have to go through. It's part of what makes being part of the Lone Blue Line so special.


What happens when Basic Cadet Training ends?

After Basic Cadet Training concludes, Basics enter the Cadet Wing. The Basics become Fourth Class Cadets. The challenges shift, like choosing an academic major, but the enduring bond you have with your Basic Flight will remain with you for life.


Stay tuned for more!


//Last Updated: 19 Nov 21//

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