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Gone but not forgotten: 77th FS honors Airman with missing man formation

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Michael Cossaboom
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
A bugle player stands alone among a field of white headstones, all engraved with the names of fallen U.S. service members who have passed away after dedicating their lives to their nation.

He raises his bugle and begins to play taps, signifying the loss of an American hero. The echoing sound of the horn is slowly drowned out by the roar of four F-16CM Fighting Falcons as they fly in a formation overhead. One jet breaks off from the rest, and flies high into the sky and out of sight.

The sound of the engines slowly fade, and a fallen hero has been laid to rest.

Pilots assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron, ShawAFB performed a missing man formation flight over Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, Feb. 24, for retired Air Force Col. Thomas Schaefer, who passed away May 31, 2016.

Schaefer, a bomber pilot during the Vietnam War, dedicated 30 years of honorable service to his country.

Late in his career, Schaefer served as a Defense Attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Iran. After several months of working there, Schaefer – along with 51 others – were taken hostage by protestors Nov. 4, 1979.

Schaefer would go on to spend 444 days in captivity, three and a half months of which he spent in solitary confinement.

During his time in captivity, a rescue attempt named Operation Eagle Claw was made but was aborted and resulted in the death of eight U.S. service members.

“My family is grateful that your wing will be able to conduct the flyover,” said Mark Schaefer, Thomas Schaefer’s son. “We requested that my dad be intered next to the Iran Rescue Mission Monument where three Airmen who died during the attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980 are buried. We will be remembering my father and the five Airmen and three Marines who lost their lives in that mission.”

The missing man formation is an aerial salute performed at funerals or memorial events, typically in memory of a fallen pilot. This tribute signifies that while Schaefer may no longer be on this Earth, he will not be forgotten.

“It was an incredible opportunity to have the privilege to flyover in memory of an American hero and his family,” said Capt. Kent North, 77th FS pilot.

Airmen assigned to the 20th Fighter Wing train daily on the suppression of enemy air defenses, ensuring they are ready to answer their nation’s call at any time, but when opportunities like this come up, the 20th FW will answer, ready to honor those who paved the way for them to serve.