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Coast Guard's First Black Aviator

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Write
Friday, July 24, 2009

Bobby C. Wilks, 78, the first African American Coast Guard aviator and the first African American to reach the rank of Coast Guard captain, died July 13 at Emeritus at Lake Ridge, an assisted living community in Woodbridge, of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was a Fairfax County resident.

Capt. Wilks, who also was the first African American to command a Coast Guard air station, pulled off a number of daring sea rescues around the world. He received the Air Medal for the initiative, foresight and aeronautical skill he exhibited on the night of Dec. 9, 1971, while piloting his helicopter over the Pacific. Battling gale-force winds and heavy seas, he was able to rendezvous with a Russian vessel 116 miles east of Hilo, Hawaii, and evacuate the ship's critically ill master.

"He was right at the limit of where you can take a helicopter," recalled Dallas Schmidt, a friend and fellow Coast Guard helicopter pilot at the time.

Capt. Wilks was Schmidt's "air daddy," his flight instructor. "Even though he was a commander and I was just an ensign, you never had the feeling that he was pulling rank on you," Schmidt recalled. "He was just a nice, nice man."

John "Bear" Moseley, who was in flight school with Capt. Wilks, remembered him as "a heck of a good stick" (a good pilot).

Moseley recalled another near-miraculous open-sea landing that Capt. Wilks executed during summer 1963, when he was dispatched to evacuate a critically ill seaman from the destroyer USS Mills near Cay Sal Bank off Cuba. Capt. Wilks directed the Mills captain to increase his speed to 27 knots as a way of smoothing out the choppy waters so he could land his HU-16 Albatross, an amphibious flying boat, while taking care not to smash into the destroyer.

He brought the plane down in the wake, got the patient aboard and took off, despite being unable to use jet boosters to help lift the plane out of the water. He basically "ballooned the aircraft into the air . . . smacked the top of the next wave and then was airborne," Moseley said, noting that then-Lt. Wilks immediately had to worry about banking the plane without stalling, so he wouldn't hit the destroyer.

"He pushed the envelope to its very limit, and his skill brought men and machine home," Moseley said.

Moseley also recalled that in all the years he knew Capt. Wilks, he never talked about his pioneering role in the Coast Guard. "I do not know, of course, what was in his mind, but outwardly our goals were the same -- to get our wings and be part of the best damn rescue service in the world," Moseley said.

Bobby Charles Wilks was born in St. Louis. After attending Stowe Teachers College (now Harris-Stowe State University) in St. Louis for two years, he was accepted into the Naval Academy. He attended in 1950-51 before returning to Stowe, where he received his undergraduate degree. He also received a master's in education from St. Louis University in 1954.

Capt. Wilks began his Coast Guard career in 1956. After receiving his commission at Officer Candidate School in New London, Conn., he was accepted to flight school and subsequently served in San Francisco, the Philippines, Brooklyn, N.Y., and other duty stations.

He accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours in 18 types of aircraft. He also was the project officer for the Sikorsky HH-3 helicopter when the craft was first delivered in the 1960s.

In addition, he was involved with minority recruiting for the Coast Guard Academy and was the Coast Guard liaison to the Federal Aviation Administration. He made captain in 1977 and was commanding officer of the Coast Guard air station in Brooklyn. He also served as the executive officer of the support center on Governors Island in New York Harbor.

His retirement in 1986 allowed him to devote more time and attention to his cherished silver DeLorean automobile. He also served on the board of his Fairfax neighborhood association, played golf and was active with the Coast Guard Aviation Association, which calls itself the Ancient Order of Pterodactyls ("Flying Since the Earth Was Flat"). In addition, he worked as an FAA consultant.

Survivors include his wife of 42 years, the former Aida Azores of Fairfax; and a son, Bobby Sean Wilks of Los Angeles.

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