Flying the Freedom Birds: Airlines and the Vietnam War

International Terminal

Sep 28, 2019 - Jun 21, 2020

Flying the Freedom Birds:
Airlines and the Vietnam War

Freedom Bird. For the Vietnam generation of U.S. military veterans, this phrase meant only one thing—the aircraft that brought them home at the end of their tours. However, these were not military aircraft, but commercial airliners under contract by the U.S. Air Force Military Airlift Command (MAC) and served by civilian crews and flight attendants. The airliners were not just used to bring the soldiers home, but to fly them into the war zone as well. During the peak years of the conflict in the late 1960s, thousands of flights crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean. For military personnel, it was a deeply emotional journey in both directions.

These flights were also a powerful and moving experience for a generation of young women who served aboard these aircraft as flight attendants. Few understood the emotional demands they would face. As Flying Tiger Line flight attendant Andee Wright recalled, “There was no special training by the airlines or the military about how to handle it. We relied on each other and the soldiers to manage.” These women tried to comfort and allay the fears of soldiers heading to war, and they offered support and reassurance to those headed home. In addition to the emotional impact, the flight attendants risked physical harm while flying to military bases in active combat zones. 

The trips were long and demanding. A typical MAC flight enplaned soldiers at one of the west coast Air Force bases and then traveled, via Hawai’i or Alaska, across the Pacific Ocean with several layovers. The final leg into Vietnam involved landing at a military air base, deplaning the servicemembers, cleaning the aircraft, and then departing with soldiers returning home. The aircraft spent as little time as possible in the war zone.  From start to finish, the flight attendants and crews were away from home for five to seven days.

Flying the Freedom Birds gave a generation of young women a unique perspective on the American experience in the Vietnam War. In spite of the intensity of the operations, many flight attendants found the military contract flights rewarding and continued to serve on them for years. Judy Meyer, who flew for United Air Lines, remembers, “It was some of the best flying I ever did.” Although these women were an integral part of the Vietnam War experience, their contributions are largely unknown outside of the veteran community. It was a formative experience that shaped their world view for years to come. “It bothers me,” says Pan American veteran Nancy Miller, “when people can’t see the human story beyond the politics.”

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