African American Transportation History: Bobby Charles Wilks, U.S. Coast Guard

Bobby Charles Wilks, who was born in St. Louis in 1931, achieved several key “firsts” as an African American aviator. In 1956, he graduated with a commission of ensign from the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Reserve Officers’ Candidate School in New London, Connecticut. Not long after receiving this commission, Wilks was assigned as a flight student first at the Naval Air Basic Training Command in Pensacola, Florida, and then at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. He graduated from the latter facility in 1957 and was designated Coast Guard Aviator Number 735, making him the USCG’s first African American aviator. 

Wilks built on his flight experience in 1959 when he completed helicopter training in Pensacola and became Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot Number 343. The following year, Wilks transferred to the Regular USCG with the permanent rank of lieutenant. He served at a number of USCG air stations both within the United States and overseas. Wilks established another record in 1977 as the first African American coast guardsman to attain the rank of captain. When he assumed command of the USCG air station in Brooklyn, New York, two years later, he became the first African American coast guardsman to superintend one of those facilities. 

Wilks’ career was further distinguished by numerous air-sea rescues. An especially high-risk mission took place one night in December 1971. While piloting an HH-52A helicopter over the Pacific Ocean, Wilks and his crew braved gale-force winds and high seas to reach a Russian ship more than 116 miles (186.7 kilometers) east of Hilo, Hawaii, and safely evacuate the vessel’s heart attack-stricken sailing master. Wilks’ initiative and aeronautical skills in carrying out that lifesaving rescue earned him the Air Medal. 

Wilks retired from the USCG in 1986 with more than 6,000 flight hours in 21 different types of aircraft. He died in the Virginia community of Woodbridge in 2009 at the age of 78.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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