Hubert R. Harmon   

Airman, Officer, Father of the Air Force Academy


The Friends commissioned this authoritative biography of Lt. Gen. Hubert Harmon, the Academy’s first Superintendent. Written by Dr. Phillip Meilinger, a graduate of the Academy with the class of 1970 and a former member of the Academy’s Department of History, the book was published by Fulcrum Publishing in 2009 and received excellent reviews from airpower historians.



For most of us, Lieutenant General Hubert R. Harmon is, simply, Father of the Air Force Academy–despite his long and productive service and rich collection of earlier achievements. Seeing General Harmon as Mister Academy is not unreasonable…

To cadets in that first year 1955-1956 General Harmon was, officially, inaccessibly remote, the ultimate omnipotent authority behind and above the entire phalanx of visible and often much too intrusive authorities that were part of daily life. At the same time, when he was present and involved in conversation or dialogue, he was warm, personable, completely present. The one image somehow did not illuminate the other, although both began to plant useful seeds in young minds searching to understand what “commander” should mean. Our first yearbook dedication–“He brought us through selfless example to the true meaning of honor and devotion to country”–is our early collective insight to the measure of the man.


Learning the Ropes

In April 1926, Harmon flew up to Wright Field in Dayton for the annual Air Service maneuvers. Brigadier General James Fechet, Mitchell’s replacement as Patrick’s deputy, was in charge of the maneuvers and Harmon was his aide for the exercises. Among others on Fechet’s temporary staff were Carl Spaatz, Conger Pratt, and Ira Eaker. Over dinner one evening, Fechet told his staff of the time he bailed out of a airplane. He then asked impishly if any of them had ever used a parachute. No one had, but several got the impression that the Old Man wanted somebody to enjoy the experience. Harmon and Eaker volunteered to do the deed the next day. Fechet smiled wolfishly and said, “I will be down to watch you boys do it.”

As the “boys” were putting on their parachutes, Harmon said, “if you don’t mind, I would like to jump first; I am superstitious.” Eaker merely shrugged. They climbed onto the wing of a Curtiss B-2 bomber piloted by C.V. Haynes and grabbed a wing strut–Harmon was on the right and Eaker on the left. (Page 60)


The Quest for an Air Academy

The idea for an air academy was voiced at least as early as 1918. In November of that year–as World War I was ending–Lieutenant Colonel A. J. Hanlon wrote a memo to his superior stating: “As the Military and Naval Academies are the backbone of the Army and Navy, so must the Aeronautical Academy be the backbone of the Air Service.” There were numerous other suggestions regarding and air academy–by Billy Mitchell, Mason Patrick, Bert Dargue, Bart Yount, and others–but nothing ever came of these proposals. It would take nearly five decades for Hanlon’s vision to become a reality.

The main reason for this slow progression was the bureaucratic situation the air arm found itself in during that period. In essence, airmen first had to justify to the War Department, Congress, the president, and the American people of the need for a separate Air Force, equal in importance and political power to the Army and Navy…

World War II made clear to all but the most inveterate opponents of change that airpower had earned its place as a coequal branch of the armed services. The Air Force became a reality on September 17, 1947. Step one achieved. (Pages 174-176)


Frustration and Triumph

Harmon was intimately involved with all aspects of the academy issue. Besides tenacity, Harmon would display a flexibility of mind that caused him to entertain countless ideas, some of them fairly radical, in a quest to push the required legislation through Congress. He never waivered from the goal–to gain an Air Force academy–but the paths to that objective could be many and varied. He never gave up. The struggle for legislation to provide an academy  was long and frustrating, but in the end, Harmon and his service prevailed–on 1 April 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill establishing the United States Air Force Academy. (Page 191)


Preparing the Academy Home

Almost as soon as President Eisenhower signed the Air Force Academy bill into law, Secretary Talbot moved to nail down the school’s permanent site. Although he had expressed enthusiasm when Harmon had confided to him that Colorado Springs had been the Spast Board’s first choice, Talbott testified before Congress that he did not know of the Board’s findings. Senator Lyndo Johnson of Texas pressed him on the subject, hoping to ensure the site decision was still wide open. (Recall that three of the Spaatz Board’s finalists had been in Texas.) Johnson asked Talbott if he would oppose an amendment stating that the president, rather than he, should have the final say. The secretary replied that he had already discussed the matter with Eisenhower who told him: “Not on your life. This is your baby and you settle it.” (Page 221)


Finalizing the Program

By January 1954 the curriculum was ready to present to others. Harmon was proud of what his team had accomplished. That month he briefed his Senior Advisory Board–retired generals and old friends Tooey Spaatz, Bill Streett, and Conger Pratt. Harmon thought the proposed air academy curriculum was unique–no college or university in the country could boast of such a balance that emphasized both the sciences and humanities, while at the same time including a significant airmanship component. He was convinced that the new beginning to be offered by the Air Force Academy was a blessing, allowing the staff to start fresh without the crushing conformity of tradition, excessive political guidance, or instructor whims.

In 1954, however, voices at the Air University began to complain that the curriculum was too social sciences and humanities oriented–there was not enough science and engineering…(Page 250)


“The Academy is his Monument”

It had been Eisenhower’s plan that Harmon would be superintendent for only two years–until the summer of 1956. At the same time, the president made an exception to the unwritten rule that the position was a two-star slot–he let Harmon keep his third star…

…Harmon knew well in advance that he would not shepherd his first class through to graduation, or even to their permanent home near Colorado Springs. That seemed not to bother him. He was ebullient that he was given the opportunity to begin the Academy. That was enough… To a friend he wrote: “The job of Superintendent is fascinating, and I have grown ten years younger in the assignment.” Would only that had been the case. (Page 297)