JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
For more than 40 years, the “Chargin’ Cheetahs” of the 560th
Flying Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph have annually paid
tribute to the heroism of the Air Force pilots who endured the horrors of North
Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps with their Freedom Flyer Reunion and
For 20 years, the Chargin’ Cheetahs have also lifted the
spirits of children with chronic illnesses through their “Pilot for a Day”
program, an initiative that other Air Force bases have adopted.
Last month, the Air Force Association honored the 560th FTS
for furthering the legacy of the former POWs and providing a special day for
children with its Citation of Honor, an award that was presented to four Air
Force organizations this year.
“We feel very honored to receive this award,” Lt. Col. Joel
DeBoer, 560th FTS commander, said. “This award is for all Cheetahs, past and
present, for all the hard work they have done to honor those prisoners of war
for their sacrifices and for giving those children a day to remember. You look
at all the squadron has been doing here at Randolph since 1973. This
recognition is the icing on the cake for all that hard work.”
Scott Van Cleef, AFA chairman of the board, informed DeBoer
of the honor in a letter dated June 25.
“We applaud the distinguished service and selfless sacrifice
that these Airmen, the Charging Cheetahs, have shown to their nation as well as
to the future fighter pilots that will follow in their paths,” he wrote.
Van Cleef presented the award to the 560th FTS Sept. 14
during the AFA’s 2015 Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition in
National Harbor, Md. Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, Air Education and Training
Command commander, accompanied DeBoer and 560th FTS flight commanders Capt.
John McCann and Maj. Brent Cox to the ceremony, which also honored the 67th Cyberspace
Operations Group at JBSA-Lackland.
The Air Force Association is a national organization that
promotes a dominant Air Force and strong national defense, and honors Airmen
and the Air Force heritage.
Col. Debbie Landry, an active-duty member at JBSA-Randolph
who serves as AFA Alamo Chapter vice president, said she learned of the
squadron’s programs when she talked to the father of a former 560th FTS member
during a conference last year. DeBoer later provided her with a tour of the
squadron’s headquarters in Hangar 12.
“I was very impressed with the tradition of honor and
contacted national AFA to see what the appropriate recognition would be,” she
said. “The chapter executive committee then decided to pursue a citation of
honor and I worked with Lt. Col. DeBoer on the write-up.”
Landry said she felt the squadron “deserved recognition for
their sustained mission of freedom flights for former POWs and the Pilot for a
“Although many in the Randolph community may know what they
do, their work impacts the entire Air Force community,” she said. “The Alamo
Chapter wanted to highlight the significance of their commitment that extends
beyond their primary mission of preparing pilots to be instructors.”
The 560th FTS’ ties with Vietnam War POW pilots date back to
1973, when all repatriated pilots physically able to return to active flying –
more than 150 of them – came to the squadron for requalification training and
were given ceremonial “freedom flights.”
Since then, the squadron has continued to provide freedom
flights for those POW pilots who did not attend requalification training and
has paid homage yearly to all the POW pilots with its Freedom Flyer Reunion and
DeBoer said the symposium in the Fleenor Auditorium, which
allows the former prisoners of war to present their stories in their own words,
is the highlight of the reunion.
“The symposium is an
opportunity to hear these guys and their stories,” he said. “To be able to pass
those lessons on to the next generation makes it a memorable and invaluable
Pilot for a Day, which was started in 1995 by Capt. Rory
Blackburn, a 560th FTS instructor pilot, gives children with chronic illnesses
an opportunity to experience a typical day as an Air Force pilot, complete with
a flight suit, squadron patches, simulator flights, tours of the tower and fire
station, and a look inside T-38C, T-6A and T-1A aircraft.
“It's an incredible event,” DeBoer said. “These children are
going through one of the hardest times in their lives, and Pilot for a Day
gives them a chance to forget about that for a day. We're able to make it a
special day they'll always remember.”
The 560th FTS, which produced 96 instructor pilots in fiscal
2015, “also serves as the guardian of Freedom Hall, an Air Force-sanctioned
museum containing memorabilia, articles and uniforms from the Vietnam War, most
donated by former POW themselves,” Landry said.
The hallways of the 560th FTS’ headquarters are also adorned
with photos of the 195 Freedom Flyers and 94 Pilots for a Day who are part of
the squadron’s own legacy.