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Medal of Honor, Captain Hilliard Almond Wilbanks, United States Air Force.

Captain Hilliard Almond Wilbanks, United States Air Force (26 July 1933–24 February 1967)
Captain Hilliard Almond Wilbanks, United States Air Force.



The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1896, in the name of Congress, has awarded in the name of The Congress, the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to CAPTAIN HILLIARD A. WILBANKS, UNITED STATES AIR FORCE, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:

As a forward air controller near Dalat, Republic of Vietnam, on 24 February 1967, Captain Wilbanks was pilot of an unarmed, light aircraft flying visual reconnaissance ahead of a South Vietnam Army Ranger Battalion. His intensive search revealed a well-concealed and numerically superior hostile force poised to ambush the advancing rangers. The Viet Cong, realizing that Captain Wilbanks’ discovery had compromised their position and ability to launch a surprise attack, immediately fired on the small aircraft with all available firepower. The enemy then began advancing against the exposed forward elements of the Ranger force which were pinned down by devastating fire. Captain Wilbanks recognized that close support aircraft could not arrive in time to enable the Rangers to withstand the advancing enemy onslaught. With full knowledge of the limitations of his unarmed, unarmored, light reconnaissance aircraft, and the great danger imposed by the enemy’s vast firepower, he unhesitatingly assumed a covering, close support role. Flying through a hail of withering fire at treetop level, Captain Wilbanks passed directly over the advancing enemy and inflicted many casualties by firing his rifle out of the side window of his aircraft. Despite increasingly intense anti-aircraft fire, Captain Wilbanks continued to completely disregard his own safety and made repeated low passes over the enemy to divert their fire away from the Rangers. His daring tactics successfully interrupted the enemy advance, allowing the Rangers to withdraw to safety from their perilous position. During his final courageous attack to protect the withdrawing forces, Captain Wilbanks was mortally wounded and his bullet-riddled aircraft crashed between the opposing forces. Captain Wilbanks’ magnificent action saved numerous friendly personnel from certain injury or death. His unparalleled concern for his fellowman and his extraordinary heroism were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

General Orders: GB-50, February 8, 1968

Action Date: 24-Feb-67

Service: Air Force Reserve

Rank: Captain

Company: 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron

Regiment: 21st Tactical Air Support Group

Division: Nha Trang Air Force Base, Vietnam

Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks' widow was present this Medal of Honor. It is on display at the Museum of Aviation, Robins Air Force Base, Warner Robins, Georgia.
Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks’ widow was presented this Medal of Honor. It is on display at the Museum of Aviation, Robins Air Force Base, Warner Robins, Georgia.

Hilliard Almond Wilbanks was born at Cornelia, Georgia, 26 July 1933. He was the first of four children of Travis O’Neal Wilbanks, a farm equipment salesman, and Ruby Lea Wilkinson Wilbanks. He attended Cornelia High School, graduating in 1950

On 8 August 1950, Wilbanks enlisted in the United States Air Force. He served as an air policeman. In 1954, Airman 1st Class Wilbanks was selected for Air Cadet–Officer Candidate School. He was a Distinguished Graduate, and on 15 June 1955, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and awarded his pilot’s wings.

He was then assigned as a flight instructor in the Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star. Wilbanks was promoted to first lieutenant, 15 December 1956.

Also in 1956, Lieutenant Wilbanks married Miss Rosemary Arnold at Greenville, Mississippi. They would have four children.

Lieutenant Wilbanks attended the Maintenance Officer School at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois, and was then assigned as a maintenance test pilot for the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre at Eielson Air Force Base, Anchorage, Alaska. He was promoted the rank of  captain in 1961.

Captain Wilbanks was next assigned to Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nevada, where he was a maintenance officer for the Republic F-105 Thunderchief.

In 1966, Captain Wilbanks attended the Forward Air Controller school at Hurlburt Field, Florida. He deployed to the Republic of South Vietnam in March 1966. He was assigned to the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron. He used the call sign, “Walt 51,” and flew 487 combat missions before his final flight, 24 February 1967.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Captain Hilliard Almond Wilbanks, United States Air Force Reserve, had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Air Medal with nineteen oak leaf clusters (twenty awards), the Air Force Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal with bronze star (for service during the Korean War and Vietnam War), the Vietnam Service Medal, and the Air Force Reserve Medal. The Republic of Vietnam awarded him its Anh Dũng Bội Tinh (the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross) with silver star, and Chiến Dịch Bội Tinh (Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal).

Captain Wilbanks’ remains were recovered and returned to the United States. He was buried at the Fayette Cemetery, Fayette, Mississippi.

A Forward Air Controller Cessna O-1G Bird Dog, serial number 51-12824. This is the same type airplane as Captain Wilbanks’ O-1G, 51-5078. (U.S. Air Force)

Captain Wilbank’s airplane was an O-1G Bird Dog, serial number 51-5078 (c/n 21983). It was manufactured as an L-19A by the Cessna Aircraft Company, Inc., at Wichita, Kansas, in 1951. The airplane was later upgraded to the O-1G configuration. It is a single-engine, tandem-seat light airplane which was developed from the company’s 4-place Model 170. The prototype, Cessna Model 305, N41694, made its first flight on 14 December 1949.

The O-1G is 25 feet, 9.5 inches (7.861 meters) long, with a wingspan of 36 feet, 0 inches (10.973 meters), overall height in 3-point position of 9.1 feet (2.8 feet). The airplane has typical empty weight of 1,716 pounds (778 kilograms), depending on installed equipment, and a maximum gross weight of 2,800 pounds (1,270 kilograms).

The O-1G Bird Dog was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 471.239-cubic-inch-displacement (7.772 liter) Continental O-470-11 six-cylinder horizontally-opposed direct-drive engine with a compression ratio of 7:1. The O-470-11 was rated at 190 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., at Sea Level, and 213 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. for take off (5 minute limit). 80/87 octane aviation gasoline was required. The engine had a dry weight of 391 pounds (177 kilograms). The airplane was equipped with a fixed pitch two-blade McCauley propeller with a diameter of 7 feet, 6 inches (2.286 meters).

The O-1G had a maximum cruise speed of 85 knots (98 miles per hour/157 kilometers per hour), and never exceed speed (VNE ) of 165 knots (190 miles per hour/306 kilometers per hour). Its service ceiling was 20,300 feet (6,187 meters).

Cessna built 3,431 Bird Dogs between 1949 and 1959. Only about 300 are believed to remain airworthy today.

A U.S. Air force )-1 Bird Dog Forward Air Controller rolls in on a target. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

3 February 1959: “The Day the Music Died”

Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly

3 February 1959: In the late 1950s, “rock and roll” music was becoming increasingly popular in America. Buddy Holly (Charles Hardin Holley) was among the most famous rock and roll singers.

While on a concert tour, Holly, formerly of the band The Crickets, chartered a small airplane from Dwyer Flying Service to fly himself and two other performers to Fargo, North Dakota, for the following night’s event.

After the performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, ended, Holly, Ritchie Valens (Richard Steven Valenzuela) and “The Big Bopper,” (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) were driven to the nearby Mason City Municipal Airport (MCW), arriving at 12:40 a.m., Central Standard Time (0640 UTC). They were met by their assigned pilot, Roger Arthur Peterson, and boarded the chartered airplane. They took off at 12:55 a.m. CST (0655 UTC).

Richard Steven Valenzuela. (Unattributed)
Richard Steven Valenzuela. (Unattributed)

During the previous eight hours, Roger Peterson had telephoned the Air Traffic Communications Service three times for the weather forecast along his planned route. He was informed that weather was VFR, with ceilings of 4,200 feet (1,280 meters) or higher and visibility 10 miles (16 kilometers) or more.

ATCS did NOT inform Peterson of a “Flash Advisory” of a 100-mile-wide (160 kilometers) band of snow moving into the area at 25 knots (13 meters per second). Moderate to heavy icing conditions were present along with winds of 30 to 50 knots (15 to 26 feet per second).

"The Big Bopper," Jiles P. Richardson, Jr. (Unattributed)
“The Big Bopper,” Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr. (Unattributed)

While taxiing to the runway, the pilot once again radioed ATCS for the weather. It was now reported as: ceiling 3,000 feet (914 meters), sky obscured, visibility 6 miles (10 kilometers) in light snow, and wind gusting 20 to 30 knots (10 to 15 meters per second).

After a normal takeoff, the airplane climbed to approximately 800 feet (244 meters) and made a left 180° turn. It passed the airport heading northwest.

The charter service’s owner, Hubert Dwyer, watched the departure from the airport’s tower. He was able to see the airplane’s navigation lights until it was about five miles (8 kilometers) away, then it slowly descended out of sight.

When Peterson activated his flight plan by radio after taking off, as was expected, Dwyer asked the ATCS to try to contact him. No contact was established. The airplane and its passengers never arrived at the destination.

After sunrise, Dwyer began an air search for the missing airplane. At 09:35 a.m., he located the crashed airplane in a farm field approximately 5 miles northwest of the airport. The airplane was destroyed and all four occupants were dead. There was about 4 inches (10 centimeters) of snow on the ground.

Roger Arthur Peterson

The pilot, Roger A. Peterson, was 21 years old and had been issued a commercial pilot’s certificate with an airplane–single-engine land rating, in April 1958. He was also a certified flight instructor. He had flown 711 flight hours during the nearly five years he had been flying. He had worked for Dwyer for a year.

Peterson had acquired 52 hours of instrument flight training and had passed the written test for the rating, but had failed an instrument flight check the previous year. He had 128 hours in the airplane type, but none of his instrument flight training had been in this aircraft.

Peterson was born at Alta, Iowa, 24 May 1937. He was the first of four children of Arthur Erland Peterson, a farmer, and Pearl I. Kraemer Peterson. He attended Fairview Consolidated School and graduated in 1954. Peterson married Miss DeAnn Lenz, a former classmate, at the Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Alta, 14 September 1958.

Roger Arthur Peterson is buried at the Buena Vista Memorial Cemetery, Storm Lake, Iowa.

N3794N was well-equipped for instrument flight. The attitude indicator, a Sperry Gyroscope Company, Inc., F-3 Attitude Gyro, however, displayed pitch attitude in a way that was different than the indicators used in the airplanes in which Peterson had taken instrument flight instruction.

This magazine advertisement depicts the Sperry F-3 Attitude Gyro. (Vintage Ad Service)
This contemporary magazine advertisement depicts the Sperry F-3 Attitude Gyro. (Vintage Ad Service)

The Civil Aeronautics Board (predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration) investigated the accident. There was no indication of an engine malfunction or of structural failure of the aircraft.

Investigators concluded that as Peterson flew away from the airport he entered an area of total darkness, unable to see anything which would give him a visual cue of the airplane’s flight attitude. The unfamiliar attitude indicator may have confused him. He quickly became spatially disoriented and lost control of the Bonanza.

N3794N impacted the ground in a 90° right bank with a nose down pitch angle, on a heading of 315°. The right wing broke off and parts of the airplane were scattered as far as 540 feet (165 meters). The three passengers were thrown from the wreckage.

The airspeed indicator needle was stuck between 165 and 170 knots (190–196 miles per hour/306–315 kilometers per hour) and the rate of climb indicator was stuck showing a 3,000 foot-per-minute (15 meters per second) rate of descent. The tachometer was stuck at 2,200 r.p.m.

This Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza, N3851N, is the same type aircraft in which Buddy Hooly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed, 3 February 1959. (Unattributed)
This 1947 Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza, serial number D-1089, N3851N, is the same type aircraft in which Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed, 3 February 1959. (Unattributed)

The airplane was a 1947 Beechcraft 35 Bonanza, civil registration N3794N, serial number D-1019. It was a single-engine, four-place, all-metal light airplane with retractable landing gear. The Model 35 had the distinctive V-tail which combined the functions of a conventional vertical fin and rudder, and horizontal tail plane and elevators.

N3794N was completed at Wichita, Kansas, 17 October 1947 and it had accumulated 2,154 flight hours over the previous twelve years. The airplane’s engine had been overhauled 40 hours before the accident.

The Model 35 was 25 feet, 2 inches (7.671 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 10 inches (10.008 meters) and height of 6 feet, 7 inches (2.007 meters). It had an empty weight of 1,458 pounds (661 kilograms) and gross weight of 2,550 pounds (1,157 kilograms).

N3794N was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 471.24-cubic-inch-displacement (7.72 liter) Continental Motors, Inc., E185-8 horizontally-opposed 6-cylinder engine with a compression ratio of 7:1. This was a direct-drive engine which turned a two-bladed, electrically-controlled, Beechcraft R-203-100 variable-pitch propeller with a diameter of 7 feet, 4 inches (2.235 meters), constructed of laminated birch. The engine had a maximum continuous power rating of 185 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., at Sea Level, and  205 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. (five minute limit) for takeoff. It required 80/87-octane aviation gasoline and had an expected overhaul interval of 1,500 hours. The E-185-8 had a dry weight of 344 pounds (156 kilograms).

The “V-tail Bonanza” had a maximum speed of 184 miles per hour (296 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and a cruise speed of 175 miles per hour ( 282 kilometers per hour)at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Its service ceiling was 18,000 feet (5,486 meters).

With full fuel, 40 gallons (151.4 liters), the airplane had a range of 750 miles (1,207 kilometers).

The Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza was in production from 1947 to 1982. More than 17,000 Model 35s and the similar Model 36 were built.

Destroyed Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza, N3794N, 3 February 1959.
Wreck of Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza N3794N, 3 February 1959.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes