AF Academy cadet’s journey on America’s Got Talent

  • Published
  • By Leslie Finstein
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
For the 15 members of the singing group, In the Stairwell, a journey that began in fall 2016, culminates at the Dolby Theater on America’s Got Talent Sept. 13, 2017.

Formed in 2004 by a group of freshmen at the U.S. Air Force Academy who--due to the discipline and rigors of their freshmen year--sang together in the only place they could, they became "In the Stairwell." More than a decade later, this official cadet singing club is the Academy's premier all-male a cappella group, and has made it to the semi-final of America’s Got Talent on NBC.

Awaiting results from the performance on Sept. 12, the group hopes they used their new platform -- nearly 16 million people watch the show weekly -- to honor the service and sacrifice of military members around the globe.

“When we are on the stage, we realize that it’s not just about us. Our uniform represents everyone who serves,” said 2nd Lt. Ryan Douglas. “That is not something we take lightly.”

On the stage Sept. 12, the group sang “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran and received a standing ovation from the judges.

“We felt that this song chose us because of the message that we wanted to send,” said 2nd Lt. Ben Hightower. “The group does not always agree 100 percent on a song, but for this one it was unanimous. We were excited to sing this one.”

Voting took place overnight and on Sept. 13, the group finds out its fate during the live show airing at 8 p.m. EDT. If In the Stairwell continues onward, at least one member will no longer be with them. The newly commissioned Douglas, stationed at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, departs Sept. 14, to prepare for initial flight training in Pueblo, Colorado.

The remaining members would stay in Los Angeles to prepare for their final performance together. After the show, the cadets return to school at the Academy and the lieutenants will move on to graduate school or their new assignments at Columbus AFB, and Vance AFB, Oklahoma. The club will continue to perform and recruit when they return to the Academy but without its graduated members.

If they win, the prize of $1 million will not go to the members of the group. Instead, it will go to the cadet club funds for In the Stairwell.

“That money would fund years of travel and opportunity for cadets like us at the Academy,” said Cadet 2nd Class Thompson Knox, the cadet in charge of the group. “We would ensure that a cappella remains an outlet for cadets for years to come.”

The AGT Journey

The current members of the group began their America’s Got Talent journey when a producer approached them about auditioning for the show.
The Air Force Academy worked closely with Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs to work out the logistics of participation and ensure that the cadet members of the group could fulfill their military and academic duties while competing on the show.

In March 2017, the group appeared for the first time in front of judges Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Mel B. and Heidi Klum. Wearing their mess dress, they danced to and sang One Direction’s “Drag Me Down” earning a spot in the next round, but not without critics.

“Judge Howie Mandel gave us an X that round,” said Knox “We were stunned but that X was a moment of clarity for where we were talent wise. From that point forward we tried to make each performance better and prove Howie wrong.”

In the “Judge Cuts” round, filmed in April, the cadets returned to Los Angeles ready to overcome that X. In the Stairwell sang NYSNC’s song “Bye-Bye-Bye” and won over all the judges with what judge Mel B. called their “awkward but adorable” performance.

Next came the live rounds, with “Some Nights” by Fun, earning enough votes from America to get them into the semi-finals and what they felt was an opportunity to bring more meaning to their performance.

“We began to realize the power of our platform,” said Hightower. “Each time we gained more followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and saw the size of the viewing audience, it inspired us. We knew that if we had the chance we wanted to send a message with our music.”

In their prerecorded opening package filmed at March Air Reserve Base, California, the group spoke about what motivates them to serve their country.

“We wanted to send a message to military members around the nation and the world, that we appreciate your service and cannot wait to welcome you home,” Hightower said.


On the night of Sept. 12, friends, family and alumni of In the Stairwell filled the audience to cheer on the group. Though for one cadet, a face missing from the crowd was foremost on his mind. Cadet 2nd Class Kaileb Williamson’s mother, Army Staff Sgt. Chanelle Jackson, deployed overseas.

“When I looked into the audience, I saw everyone’s families and it really brought home how far away my mom really is,” said Williamson. “But then I looked around me on stage and I saw my brothers. I’m so far from home, and my mom’s even further, but this group is like family and being with them feels like home.”

Throughout the last two rounds his mom has been in constant contact from overseas and Williamson said, while she can’t be here he does feel her support.


The group came a long way from singing in stairwells in the Air Force Academy’s Sijan Hall in 2004. Ten years later, and with a proper place to practice, these cadets enjoy singing together each week, performing for official Air Force Academy functions and providing entertainment on-base and in the community.

As Air Force Academy cadets, members of In the Stairwell experience a rigorous academic, military, physical fitness and aviation regimen, in addition to their musical pursuits. Upon graduation, members of In the Stairwell and their fellow cadets will commission as officers in the Air Force.

The mission of the U.S. Air Force Academy is to educate, train and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the Air Force in service to our nation. Part of balancing the demands of life at the Academy is finding time for hobbies and interests. About 75 percent of cadets are involved in at least one of the Academy’s more than 90 active clubs, covering everything from fly fishing to falconry.