Fighter Pilot for a Day

My first job out of school was with Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), the quintessential international style office that first introduced me to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs designed by Walter Netsch. At the age of 27, he joined SOM’s San Francisco office, became partner at 31 and moved to the main Chicago office where he designed the cadet chapel at age 34 with partner in charge Bruce Graham. Earlier this summer, I made my pilgrimage to the academy, located one hour south of Denver, and this visit reminded me of my ‘Fighter Pilot for a Day’* experience that I had won in a raffle. Here, two novice pilots are dueling in the sky on board 1950s era mono-props, the dog-fight made ever more realistic by the cross-hair target search and laser guns to shoot at the other plane.

We take off from Long Island’s Brookhaven Calabro Airport, each chaperoned by an experienced pilot. A few minutes after take-off, the joystick is mine to control. Nothing beats the sensation of maneuvering this rattling little machine through the wide open blue sky, the infinite expanse of the ocean glittering below. Weightlessness, absolute freedom of movement, free like a bird, high like a kite — all these sensations rushing through me — and within 15 minutes of learning to command the plane, starts the dog-fight. Imagine this: the two planes fly past each other in opposite directions, each maneuvering through the skies to get on the other’s tail while pulling the laser gun trigger, just like in the movies. With both planes flying at full throttle, the skill is to out-maneuver the opponent by flying tight turns, seeking to gain speed with hair raising nose dives or full 360 loops over and around the other plane. All is acrobatics while battling gravity through tight turns with 4 or 5 G forces, when the weight of your head crushes into your shoulders, your neck squashed into your back bones, the vertebrae compressed and your blood pooling in your shoes while your heart beats in excess. All this while trying to apply the tricks learned in the initial one hour orientation/safety class to counteract gravity’s relentless grip. Reaching the apex of the 360 loop, silence, weightlessness, the upside-down escape from gravity reveals a momentary equilibrium before the plane plunges back down...all while having to search for the other plane in the infinite sky. Is he hiding behind a cloud, I cannot look into the blinding sun, a real cat and mouse charade, and the sky is mine to crisscross. Me, myself and I solely in control — Nirvana.


Finally, I reconnect with reality, find the opponent in the sky and pull the trigger for the imaginary kill. A hit rattles the onboard alarm loud enough to wake up the dead with smoke blowing from the tail, altogether a thrilling experience. Visiting the cadet chapel at the Air Force Academy was no less memorable than my fighter pilot memories. This stunning and mesmerizing sculpture is one of the most impressive, unexpected and magical buildings I have ever experienced — as breathtaking as my previous flying experience.

Design Inspiration

SOM designed the masterplan for the 54,000 sqf Air Force Academy* in 1959, with construction not completed till 1963. Based on a 3 1/2” & 7’-0” module sourced from a Japanese tatami mat the entire campus abuts the Rocky Mountains and sits up on a bluff, inspired by the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi* in Italy. Composed mostly of two and three story low-rise buildings, it is carved into the slope and includes student housing, classrooms, administrative buildings, a social center and the Cadet Chapel on the upper most level.

Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes

Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes

Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

Seen frontally, the A-frame chapel takes after a Darth Vader-like Indian teepee. The chapel is composed of 17 tetrahedrons made of Aluminum folded panel structures* that resembles stacked fighter jets hugging each other like flying in patrol, just one foot apart. The origami like folded aluminum delta shapes are resting on spindly little legs, feeling free and weightlessly hover above the plaza. The 17 jagged steeples cut into the sky not unlike the Rocky Mountain in the back and shimmer in the gleaming sun. Black reveals between each of the delta shapes further accentuate the chapel’s sculptural quality. Most fascinating is that the folded shapes are barely recognizable forms, and they do not imply an imaginable interior volume.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

Yet the chapel’s inside is awe-inspiring. It “was created as a single symbolic religious structure that accommodates the individuality of three major American faiths, thus requiring three distinct chapels.” The largest Protestant chapel is on the main floor, the catholic chapel below and the adjacent Jewish temple is adjacent. Later-on, a Buddhist shrine and a Muslim prayer room were integrated. The main chapel’s interior is an absolutely mesmerizing and stunning, an awe-inspiring de-materialized space. The protruding origami shapes visible on the exterior, become interior voids - negative hollows. The dark voids visibly separating the tetrahedrons on the exterior are now sources of lights, stained glass vitrines from Charters. The exterior’s aluminum folds reflect the filtered daylight on the interior — blue, red, yellow. Here, the origami shapes comes to life in triangular shaped volumes, while the clearly defined stained glass vitrines zig-zag the volume (not unlike the Sainte Chapelle in Paris* that the Cadet Chapel was modeled after).

Within SOM, the chapel’s unorthodox modernist design was so controversial that no lead partner dared to claim the rights, leaving the young Walter Netsch to assert design credit, the first SOM design partner to attain such a distinction. Initially, the design received a cool reception, yet in 1996, Cadet Chapel was awarded the AIA’s National Twenty Five Year Award and was named a US National Historic Landmark in 2004. Today, it is Colorado’s most visited man-made structure.

Michel Franck, AIA, Partner

Michel Franck, AIA, Partner