With his hands cupped to the sides of his head, the dark-skinned boy pressed his face against the store window. His eyes raced through the store finally resting on several model airplanes hanging by string from the ceiling. “Ring-ding,” the bell overhanging the entrance sung as a young boy walked out holding a detailed model airplane. A sign labeled whites only clamored against the door of the toy store as it shut behind him. The store owner noticing the boy in the window, motioned him to the ally behind the store. “I need the next batch of planes by Friday, can you do that?” asked the man. “Yes sir,” responded the boy. The man reached into this pocket and pulled out a few coins. “Here’s the money for the last batch, don’t be late.” It was 1940 in St. Louis, Mo., and Bobby C. Wilks spent his spare time building model airplanes for the store owner and dreaming of one day becoming a great pilot. Little did he know at the time, he would achieve his dream and so much more.
Summer 1963, Wilks tightly clenches the control stick of a HU-16 Albatross amphibious airplane. Increasing the power, he races towards a naval destroyer. His mission is to rescue a critically-ill sailor needing immediate surgery. Due to heavy seas, the plane is unable to perform a normal landing to rendezvous with the ship. “Tango, this is Seven Two Three Four, from where I sit, the safest place to land is in your wake,” Wilks radioed to the ship. “Hold your position until I set up an approach pattern, then give it all you got!” Flying at minimum air speed, Wilks skimmed along the tops of the waves then chopped the power, dropped in and slammed his plane’s propellers into reverse. Fighting for control, after a few hard bounces, the aircraft slows to a stop just shy of the vessel’s stern.
After getting the crew member aboard, Wilks’ next challenge was getting his plane airborne. Unable to use his jet-fuel thrusters to boost out of the water, Wilks knew desperate action was needed to save this man’s life. Wilks turned to his co-pilot and proposed a radical solution. The co-pilot knew Wilks’ plan was not only against the book, but if his attempt failed, it would send them crashing into the back of the destroyer. “Just do it!” Wilks said. The engines jumped to life and screamed as they reached full power. The aircraft skipped a few times over the frothy ocean as it quickly closed in on the fantail of the destroyer. Just the last second, the aircraft lifted off the crest of a large wave, launching the airplane to safety and Wilks reputation as a pilot willing to put his life on the line to save another.
Coast Guard Capt. Bobby C. Wilks life was not determined by chance, but by his sheer dedication to achieve his dream. In a 1960’s society, rife with segregation and inequality, Wilks found opportunity in the United States Coast Guard. In this opportunity, he became widely known as a renowned pilot, a mentor and a forerunner for minorities in the United States military. Historically, Wilks will be remembered in the Coast Guard as the first African American aviator to reach the rank of captain and the first African American to command an air station. To his family and friends, he will be remembered as an inspiration.
Wilks began his Coast Guard career as a reservist but was immediately accepted into Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. Wilks earned the rank of ensign and was stationed at Coast Guard Group Baltimore, Md. Setting his sights on aviation, Wilks applied for, and was accepted into flight school where he earned his aviator wings and fulfilled his dream of serving his country as a pilot.
Even though Wilks was one of the first African Americans to go though flight school, he was highly regarded by his fellow Coast Guard pilots.
“I do know that there was no one in the group that I know of that did not fully accept him as one of us,” said former Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. John Mosley, Wilks’ friend and fellow flight student. “He was one hell of a great guy!”
Retired Coast Guard Captain and close friend, Dallas Schmidt, added, “He was sharp, extremely likeable and a darn ‘good stick’. I credit him directly for fine tuning my skills that I needed to become an aircraft commander.”
Over the course of the next 22 years, Wilks served at a variety of air stations, both stateside and overseas. Showing exceptionally strong leadership, and by upholding the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty, Wilks continued to earn the respect of those around him.
Retired Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Vince Patton, the first African American to hold this title, said he first saw Wilks on a poster in the recruiter’s office. Patton ran into Wilks a number of times and developed a relationship with him throughout his career.
“Truly, he was someone who was a legacy in the Coast Guard; a trail blazer,” said Patton “Myself, having been the first African American Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, I was definitely on the shoulders of giants, Capt. Bobby C Wilks was that giant.”
“I think people really went out of their way to do things right around him,” said Schmidt. “He was the type of guy you didn’t want to let down.”
On Sept. 1, 1977, Wilks became the first African American aviator captain in the Coast Guard and went on to become the first African American commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn, N.Y
During his career, Wilks dedicated his time to helping other minorities succeed and encouraging them to go futher than he did.
“He did far more than just a job; he touched and changed people’s lives,” said retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Erroll Brown, who after being mentored by Wilks while at the Coast Guard Academy went on to become the first African American admiral in the Coast Guard. “In addition, he did it with a constant focus on integrity. I am proud to stand in the wake of this legend who, 40 years ago, changed my life by instilling these elements of integrity in me. He changed my life forever.”
“I remember what he told me about what he expected of me; what responsibilities I would have to carry out, how I should conduct myself and the responsibilities that I would bear the rest of my life,” said Brown.
Teaching others was top priority to Wilks, who also held a master’s degree in education from St. Louis University.
“It was important to him to instill in people that you have to work to make it,” said Aida Wilks, Wilks’ wife of 42 years.
After making it further than any other African American in the Coast Guard before him, Wilks was determined to share his experiences with others.
Retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon, the current White House Chief Usher in charge of the white house domestic staff, said that when he met Wilks, Wilks reached out and formed a relationship with him.
“I got to know him as a mentor, being the first African American aviator, he was a very bright gentleman, who was able to share a lot of his experiences; maybe with the purpose of trying to help me not go though the same hard knocks of trying to reach for the top,” said Rochon.
Though Wilks was able to mentor others at every station he served, no other job held as much potential as when Wilks became the Assistant Procurement Officer at the Coast Guard Headquarters in Wash., D.C. Wilks was put in charge of recruiting minorities for the Coast Guard. He traveled the country to speak at colleges and find talented individuals from minority backgrounds whom he could encourage to follow their dreams as he had done.
When Wilks retired in 1986, he held more than 6000 accident-free flight hours in 18 different types of aircraft. He had earned the Air Medal, an award given for single acts of merit or heroism while in aerial flight, and was twice awarded the Helicopter Rescue Award for his efforts in air-rescue missions. Additionally, Wilks was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, the Coast Guard Commendation Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign and Vietnam Service Medals.
After his career in the Coast Guard ended, Wilks continued to make an impact in the world of aviation. Wilks became the Coast Guard liaison for the Federal Aviation Administration where he worked to create new procedures for search and rescue.
When Wilks retired from the FAA, he and his wife settled in Fairfax, Va., where Wilks devoted more time to his love of golf, gardening and scale models.
Wilks died Monday, July 13, 2009, at the age of 78; however, his legacy continues today.
“He did leave a legacy,” said Rochon “He was mentor to a lot of people, not just African Americans. I will remember him very fondly as a mentor.”
Through hard work and patient persistence he not only changed the history of the Coast Guard but the lives of others as well, while fulfilling his boyhood dream. Like the many model airplanes Wilks built as a boy, his accomplishments were built the same. These however, glued together with honor, respect and devotion to duty.
“There is a difference between first-timers and legends,” said Brown. “What distinguishes a legend is what you do, how you do it and the impact that it makes.”
“His passing definitely leaves a void in my life and, no doubt, the many others that knew him,” said Schmidt.