560th FTS honors Vietnam POWs at Freedom Flyer Reunion

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Tyler McQuiston
  • 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The 560th Flying Training Squadron honored three former Vietnam veterans during the 47th Annual Freedom Flyer Reunion at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph March 25-26.

The annual reunion allows Air Force combat pilots who were shot down in the Vietnam War, many suffering long periods in captivity as prisoners of war, to take one last flight.

“An Air Force pilot’s final flight is always a big deal,” said Maj. Mark Jordy, the 560th FTS’ Freedom Flyer Reunion director. “It’s also a big deal to have these pilots, who have been out of the Air Force a long time, back in the air one more time. It’s an honor to be able to give them back some of the joy of flight.”

Held every year since 1973, with the exception of 2020, the Freedom Flyer Reunion at JBSA-Randolph honors repatriated Vietnam War pilots. The event also includes a Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Symposium and a wreath-laying ceremony.

This year, two Vietnam POWs participated, as well as a family member, for the first time.

Richard Bates, a former F-4 Phantom II weapon systems officer; Gregg Hanson, a former F-4 Phantom II pilot; and Janine Sijan, flying for her brother, former Capt. Lance P. Sijan, all flew in the backseat of T-38 Talon training jets.

Sijan, an F-4 backseat pilot and the only U.S. Air Force Academy graduate to receive the Medal of Honor, sustained serious injuries after he was shot down over Laos, but was able to evade capture for more than six weeks.

Sijan was eventually captured, escaped, and re-captured multiple times and never gave up any sensitive information to his captors. He eventually died Jan. 22, 1968, in the Hỏa Lò Prison, infamously known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”

Jordy said Janine has done a lot to continue the legacy her brother started, sharing his story at bases around the world and using it to show Air Force members an example of resiliency.

The three flyers were Freedom Flyer numbers 205, 206, and 207.

“These flights are extremely important to honor the sacrifice and legacy of our Vietnam POWs,” Jordy said. “They link the past to the present and ensure that we continue to hold ourselves to the highest standard.”

During the two-day reunion, the flyers participated in aerospace physiology training, egress training, a freedom flight brief, a final flight, a wreath-laying ceremony and a POW symposium.

“We remember those who have sacrificed their dreams, peaceful lives, and freedom to serve America’s interest, and honor our nation’s commitments to a foreign country,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Williams, 560th FTS commander. “These brave Americans sitting before us embody the courage, character, and commitment that shape who we are as Airmen.”