JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - RANDOLPH, Texas —
Members of the 560th Flying Training Squadron hosted the 45th annual Freedom Flyer Reunion and 21st annual POW/MIA Symposium March 22-23 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
The event included a wreath-laying ceremony at the base of JBSA-Randolph’s Missing Man Formation Monument to honor all prisoners of war and missing in action service members from the Vietnam War. During the ceremony Col. Joel Carey, 12th Flying Training Wing commander, and retired U.S. Air Force Reserve Col. Robert Certain, Freedom Flyer #200, were featured as guest speakers.
“Thank you all for taking time out of your days to come out, support and be part of what we think is a very important event to the 12th Flying Training Wing and the United States Air Force,” Carey said. “It’s good to just take a moment and remember. The 12th Flying Training Wing is proud to be a part of this as the source of America’s air power. We stand on the shoulders of many who have served and shed their blood, sweat and tears through the years to give us what we have today. We take the role of carrying that torch on very seriously.”
During the Vietnam War it was tradition for the pilot’s last flight in Southeast Asia to be their ‘”champagne” flight, where they would be met by their peers and celebrated for their safe return. For POWs this flight was never accomplished.
After the Vietnam War ended, the 560th FTS hosted a pilot requalification program for those POWs who wanted to return to flying.
“Some of them were captive for many years and all they wanted when they returned was to get back in the air and flying again, so the Air Force put together this program to get them flying again,” said Maj. William Harris, 45th Freedom Flyer Reunion director. “It’s a celebration of tradition and what it meant to have those folks back home and returned with honor.”
The first flight with the 560th was designed to resemble what their freedom or “champagne” flight was supposed to be like.
Since May 21, 1973, the 560th FTS has flown 201 former POWs so they could finally have their much-deserved welcome home.
“The freedom flights are my favorite part,” Harris said. “Once you’ve tasted flight pretty much all you want to do is continue to fly, so it’s really awesome to give these individuals the opportunity to get back in the skies.”
Following the wreath-laying ceremony, the 21st annual POW/MIA Symposium was held in the JBSA-Randolph Fleenor Auditorium. This gave former POWs the opportunity to share their stories and experiences with all attendees.
“It’s always a special present for me to be with the men who kept their honor as we lived in the hardships of incarceration in Vietnam,” Certain said. “Forty-five years ago, most of the Vietnam POWs left Vietnam and returned after many years of captivity. All of us brought home memories of those who fought with us in the air, the sea, on land, those who were with us in prison and especially those who had fallen in battle in that foreign and hostile place. Today we remember all those who did not return from battle, in this and subsequent conflicts against the enemy of freedom and human dignity. The virtues by which they and we lived and fought are core values of the U.S. Airmen, integrity above all, service before self and excellence in all we do.
“We owe a debt of gratitude for the past and a debt of commitment to the future. On this day we give thanks to God for those men and women who answered our nation’s call to rise above their own doubts and fears to step into the chaos of war, to battle with evil, to restore the peace, safeguard civilization and when necessary to lay down their lives for us.”