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Freedom Flyer tradition reaches 44 years with annual reunion

By Robert Goetz | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | March 16, 2017

A 44-year tradition continues this month when the 560th Flying Training Squadron hosts a band of brothers who endured the horrors of prisoner-of-war camps during the Vietnam War.

The Freedom Flyer Reunion and Symposium, March 31 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, honors the sacrifices of the Air Force pilots who were shot down and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese but were subsequently retrained by the 560th FTS to fly again in the Air Force or given the opportunity to experience their fini flight.

“The 560th Chargin’ Cheetahs have been truly blessed to have the honor of hosting this unique and longstanding Air Force tradition that has meant so much to so many people over the past 44 years,” said Maj. Erik Lugo-Escobar, 560th FTS assistant director of operations and 44th annual Freedom Flyer Reunion director. “We pour the heart and soul of our squadron into the planning and execution of all the Freedom Flyer Reunion events every year because these American heroes deserve to be celebrated.”

Highlights of the reunion are two events that are open to the public.

A wreath-laying ceremony is planned from 10:15-11 a.m. March 31 at the JBSA-Randolph Missing Man Monument in Washington Circle. This event will feature a flyover involving a V-22 Osprey, an F-16 and four trainer aircraft.

In case of inclement weather, the ceremony will be relocated to Fleenor Auditorium in the Taj, building 100.

Stories of hope and survival will be told by five former prisoners-of-war during the 20th annual POW Symposium from 1-4 p.m. that same day. Those that are unable to attend can view the symposium live at the following link, JBSA Live Streaming.  

The Freedom Flyer program, which was born in 1973, initially involved the retraining of former POWs to fly again as Air Force pilots. Over the last 37 years, the 560th FTS has returned 196 ex-POWs to the skies on their freedom flight, ensuring their last flight in an Air Force aircraft would not be the one that ended in their capture.

“The Freedom Flyer Reunion is part of our squadron identity, heritage and legacy,” Lugo-Escobar said. “We hope to continue this tradition even after these heroes have been long gone so we will never forget their tremendous sacrifice.”