'Historic' Air Force graduation ceremony goes off with masks and social distancing

Families had to adapt to not being allowed to attend the celebration.

April 18, 2020, 4:11 PM

As nearly 1,000 Air Force Academy cadets took part in their socially distanced graduation ceremony Saturday, swearing an oath to the United States, wearing face masks before and after, separated at all times by at least 6 feet and without family and friends there to cheer them on.

This year, in a historic first prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Air Force Academy Graduation went virtual.

Families said watching graduation on a computer screen is not exactly how they envisioned celebrating the completion of four years of hard work. But they’re taking it all in stride.

The Carlisi family had been looking forward to a big gathering in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with 22 family members and guests from at least five states planning to attend before the pandemic struck.

"We rented a couple of houses, and we had some big parties planned and lots of family coming in, and it was going to be exciting," Alison Carlisi told ABC News. "And, yeah. It's different now."

Spaced 8 feet apart, United States Air Force Academy cadets celebrate their graduation as a team of F-16 Air Force Thunderbirds fly over the academy on April 18, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

As their youngest daughter, Rose, became a second lieutenant, Alison and Scott Carlisi were watching from their home in Layton, Utah, more than 500 miles away.

"We are very excited for her, very proud of her," Scott Carlisi said.

Alison Carlisi said her daughter and fellow seniors have adapted to the fact that some time-honored traditions have been curtailed or eliminated for the class of 2020. The ceremony itself was moved up six weeks as the school year was forced to end early.

"I think there was some disappointment there, but I think that Rose and her fellow cadets have bounced back really well. They have a great attitude," Alison Carlisi said.

The Air Force said attendance at the ceremony was strictly limited. In addition to Vice President Mike Pence and a few high-ranking Air Force officials, a "small number" of the school’s faculty will be watching from a distance.

"You know your families couldn't be here because of the extraordinary times in which we live, but we know they're watching from afar," Pence said in delivering the commencement speech. "And they couldn't be more proud of each and every one of you."

Cadets marched onto the parade field at least 6 feet away from each other and sat in chairs placed 8 feet apart, the Air Force said.

Vice President Mike Pence arrives at Peterson Air Force Base on Air Force Two before giving a graduation address at the Air Force Academy on April 18, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Pence spoke of the country "protect[ing] the most vulnerable," and said "we will heal our land."

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, who also spoke, referenced the uniqueness of the ceremony.

"When you arrived in 2016 or so, you knew your graduation day would be memorable," she said. "But did you imagine that your commencement would take place in mid-April, or that each of us would have a face mask at the ready, or that you would march, a COVID-compliant 8 feet apart to the terrazzo? Or for that matter that commissioning into the Space Force would be an option? Today you are living history."

The graduation ceremony wasn’t without a few important academy traditions.

Graduates still threw their hats into the air as the ceremony concluded, just as the Thunderbirds aerobatic flying team's jets streaked overhead.

The Carlisi family watched it all, champagne at the ready.

"It’ll be a great story," said Alison Carlisi. "Some of the worst things that happen to you end up being the greatest stories later on."

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