Coast Guard’s first black aviator passes away

Capt. Bobby C. Wilks, USCG (Ret). Family photo.

The Coast Guard’s first black aviator, Captain Bobby C. Wilks, passed away last month in Woodbridge, Virginia, at the age of 78.

Captain Wilks joined the Coast Guard in 1955, got his wings in 57, and accrued some 6,000 hours of flight time in 18 different types of airframe (both fixed and rotary-wing).    He also became the first black person to command a Coast Guard station.

The Washington Post has an interesting anecdote in their obituary:

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.

— Joe Holley.  “Bobby C. Wilks, 78, Coast Guard’s First Black Aviator“, Washington Post, July 24th, 2009.  [Hyperlinks in article are mine]

If that doesn’t sound too amazing to you, let me explain.

It’s a common misunderstanding that amphibians or flying boats can just put down wherever there is a thimble of water, including the open ocean, and it’s all very routine.  Not so.  These aircraft generally require sheltered water away from ocean swells—although they have boat-like hulls, they are not as hardy as boats of the non-flying variety.  Large swells (not to mention surface debris) can take an amphibian hull apart.  Remember that the plane’s own skin is smacking the surface of the waves at about 200mph when it touches down—like landing on bricks.  So one generally wants the bricks to be as small and pleasant as possible.

I have to give the man credit.  His flying boat shows up, but it’s too choppy to land.  Instead of turning around and going home, he has the destroyer captain drive at high speed and lands in the ship’s wake.  Takes on his critically ill passenger, and takes off in the destroyer’s wake.

That takes some guts and “outside the box” thinking.

I also love that he had a silver DeLorean, like Emmet Brown.

So long Captain, I wish I had heard about you while you were still alive.

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