In the Spring of 1988 I had the honor, and privilege of flying with Col. Fred V. Cherry.
Col. Cherry had been a POW in North Vietnam from October 1965 to January 1973. He had been a member of my father-in-law’s unit and I had heard many stories of him from Dad. One the things Dad told me about Col. Cherry was how ‘smooth’ he was on the (flight) controls. A ‘natural’ pilot, if you will.
Our squadron, the 560th FTS, had the honor of re-qualifying the returning pilots from North Vietnam; if they were physically and mentally fit, and wanted to return to flying. Their first flight in the requal program was called a “Champagne Flight.” In addition, we used the calling “Freedom” for their first requal flights. Each POW was given his own “Freedom” number, sequentially in the order they flew.
There was a tradition in Southeast Asia (SEA) wherein a pilot’s last flight upon completing 100 combat missions was considered his Champagne Flight. The pilot would typically be greeted by members of his squadron, then hosed down on the ramp and given a bottle of champagne. The pilots who had been shot down never received their ‘Champagne Flights.’ So, we took care of that on their first flight in their T-38 requal.
Colonel Cherry did not return to flying upon release. The injuries he sustained during his ejection and the subsequent mistreatment from his captors resulted in permanent damage to his arm and shoulder.
Every year the 560th holds an annual Dining In, a formal dinner, in late March to honor these POWs. As the years rolled along we began to invite other POWs who had not requaled upon return. If they wished, we would give them a ride in the ’38, and hose them down upon landing. Then we would present them with their bottle of champagne…
I had shared Col. Cherry’s story with several friends over the years; one of them being (callsign) Rat. Earlier in 1988, Rat had been at Maxwell AFB, AL and happened to come across Col. Cherry. He mentioned my name, and Bobby’s (my father-in-law), and asked him if he had ever attended our Dining In. Col. Cherry responded that he had not been to any of our functions, and expressed an interest in attending. Rat then asked him if he might have a desire to fly again. Col. Cherry responded in the affirmative, and the wheels were set in motion.
Unbeknownst to me, Rat sent a request to our wing commander, explaining my connection to Col. Cherry. Then one day a copy of Rat’s letter showed up on my desk with the commander’s comment: “Make it happen Bob.” Cool; the wheels were then set in motion.
On 25 March 1988 Col. Cherry and I flew for 1.1 hrs. Freedom 165. It was a delightful flight, and truly an honor. I think Col. Cherry had told me it had been quite a while since he had flown a high performance jet – maybe 19 – 20 years; but you wouldn’t have known it. He was smooth as glass! I gave him the jet just after takeoff, right after cleaning it up, and he flew for the majority of the ride. I just sat up front and admired ‘the artistry.’ I have likened his flying to the flowing ribbons of color you see in taffy being made… smooth, gentle, brilliant!
In all too soon the the ride was over and we landed. As we taxied up to parking we were met by several other former POWs, the ‘brass” and my father-in-law, Colonel Bobby J. Mead. It was fun to see these two former warriors reunite there on the ramp. My words just can not describe the passion of their embrace…
Then Col. Cherry and I had our ‘photo op:’