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Academy cadet takes flight with falconry program

By Senior Airman Clayton Cupit / Oct. 25, 2017

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – The falcon lunges by at speeds up to 250 miles per hour, pursuing the bait and nearly missing the senior cadet, as the massive crowd roars in excitement.

A tradition that has been held since the beginning of the Air Force Academy in 1955, falcons are launched from the skies to impress the audiences of sporting events for years.

Cadet 3rd Class James Barney never saw himself as a falconer until a simple email crossed his inbox about a unique Academy program.

“I didn’t want to be just any other cadet at the Academy,” said Barnes. “I wanted to do something fun and unique. Why not try out? If worse comes to worse I’ll have a story to tell about holding a falcon.”


Little did Barnes know that the falconry program would entirely change his Academy experience.

Barnes was a Valedictorian and championship-winning athlete at his high school, and with a passion for flying, he applied to the Academy knowing this was his best chance at achieving his dreams.

“It’s always been my childhood dream to fly, and this is the place to go if you want to fly,” said Barnes. “I come from a military family of all services, so I was proud to continue the tradition.”

While at the Academy, cadets are required to participate in activities outside of their classes and squadron duties. For most, it’s intramural sports or clubs. But for a select dozen out of thousands of cadets, some get to take the reins of wild falcons with the Academy’s falconer program.

“I knew only four of us were going to be selected, and looking at the competition, I honestly thought I wasn’t going to make it,” said Barnes. “When they told me I made the team, I had the biggest smile on my face. Maybe the second happiest moment behind getting my appointment letter to the Academy.”

Barnes and his falcon Ziva, a half-white Gya-saker falcon, which is the rarest type of falcon there is, are a unique team unlike any other duo.

“She’s full of energy just like me,” Barnes joked. “We really bonded over that and it gave me even more reason to be a part of the small falconry family we have here.”

There are only nine falconers currently in the program out of approximately 4,000 cadets at the Academy, making it a difficult team to join. Therefore, the ones involved in the falconry program are very close and consider themselves family.

“We’re together every single day,” said Barnes. “You really can’t hold grudges or mad with anyone. It takes eight people to run our public events so there’s no room for any of that.”

Barnes and his small team constantly travel with their falcons to sporting and outreach events, Barnes noted.

“We not only inform others of our falcons,” said Barnes. “We also show inform the public on what the Academy offers to possible applicants. We want the Academy to continue to have the best people coming here and the best way to do that is to go out and tell them about it.”

Barnes said that being able to speak in front of thousands of people has helped him grow as a leader and future Air Force officer.

“There’s a flow of confidence that overcomes you as you work with your bird and overcome the nerve-wracking challenges of Falconry,” said Barnes. “That confidence bleeds into the classroom, your squadron and you as a person.”

Cadets aren’t allowed to have pets during their stay, but Barnes sees the program as an opportunity to decompress after a long day of classes and briefings.

Since we aren’t allowed to have pets, I went and got a falcon!” Barnes joked. “I look forward to this every day. The Academy is a difficult school and your time is limited. Every time I get to train with Ziva, I really don’t have to think about school or other projects I have going on. All I think of is being with her and my Falconry family.”

Barnes still has a few years at the Academy until he graduates, but already has a mindset of setting up his fellow cadets for success with the program.

“I want to show them how much work it can take, but also the benefits and travelling they get out of this program,” said Barnes. “With the incoming freshmen coming in, I hope to leave behind my passion of taking care of our birds and small family.”

Barnes said earlier that his dream job was to become a pilot and reflected about how he trains Ziva to fly.

“I want to be a pilot in the Air Force someday,” said Barnes. “I’ll be up in the air just like Ziva, and when I do, I’ll think of all the training we’ve done and how successful we’ve become together.”

Learn more about the falconry program and meet our falcons!