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NEWS | Dec. 31, 2018

Missing Man formation honors Freedom Flyer organizer

By Randy Martin 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

Three T-38C Talons flew over the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, at 1:45 p.m. Dec. 21, 2018. It was a missing man formation and a rare but fitting tribute to the instructor pilot who played a key role welcoming home freed prisoners of war.

In 1973, Air Force retired Lt. Col. Charles E. Huff Sr. was assigned to the 560th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. He was a resident of San Antonio, Texas, and he died Dec. 5, 2018. He received full military honors during his interment ceremony.

During his career, Huff flew more than 600 combat hours in the F-4 Phantom, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross twice. After the Vietnam War, he was credited as the designer of a patch that more than 200 former POWs continue to qualify for each year.

It all started in February 1973, after the first of nearly 600 POWs were released as part of a ceasefire agreement with North Vietnam. Among them were hundreds of Air Force aircrew members.

“Then we got more news…news, which stunned us. The POWs were coming to Randolph,” Huff said according to “Home With Honor,” a 2003 album that chronicles the 560th’s requalification program for former Air Force pilots who had been POWs.  

In the album, Huff described meeting with his wing and squadron commander along with other key staff when they heard that the squadron had the mission.

“The POWs were coming to Randolph to qualify in our T-38 jets. We would serve as instructors for them. This was almost too much to comprehend,” Huff said. They mapped out how to begin training and the “Freedom Flight” program was born. Huff participated in three flights with fellow pilots.

The sky-blue “Three’s In” patch, he designed features the words “God Bless America" and "Operation Homecoming.” The script surrounds a U.S. flag and four aircraft in formation beside the words, “Three’s In.” The formation suggests the return of a missing aircraft to where it belongs.

Today, more than 200 former Air Force pilots and navigators have returned to the skies thanks to the 560th FTS and the Freedom Flyer program. The unit has helped host a reunion for 45 years and it has recently included a symposium to educate young airmen as well as ceremonies to honor the memories of all POWs and service members missing in action.

“We are really honored to get to do the flyover for Col. Huff,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Jackson, an instructor pilot with the 560th FTS assigned to the 39th Flying Training Squadron. “The Freedom Flyers really, really appreciate all the work he did with that program over the years.” 

An American flag was carried aboard one of the planes along with a lineup card featuring Huff’s picture. 

“These will go to his family as a memento from our squadron for his service that we are all so proud of,” Jackson said.