On February 24, 1967, Capt. Hiliard A. Wilbanks was killed while serving as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) flying an unarmed Cessna O-1E Bird Dog observation aircraft in support of Rangers of the Army of the Republic of Vietman (ARVN) at Di Linh South Vietnam. Capt. Wilbanks discovered an enemy ambush position, marked it with phosphorous rockets, and alerted the ARVN Rangers to its position by radio. Realizing that air support would not arrive in time, and flying an aircraft with no fixed armament, Capt. Wilbanks attacked the enemy with his remaining phosphorous rockets, then repeatedly flew over the enemy position firing his M-16 rifle from the window of the aircraft. On his third pass, Capt. Wilbanks was mortally wounded and crashed. He was two months away from returning to his family in the United States. For his heroic actions, Capt. Wilbanks received the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 18 oak leaf clusters, and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on January 24, 1968. The Medal of Honor citation reads:
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 Capt. 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 Capt. 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. Capt. 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, Capt. 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 antiaircraft fire, Capt. 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, Capt. Wilbanks was mortally wounded and his bullet-riddled aircraft crashed between the opposing forces. Capt. Wilbanks' magnificent action saved numerous friendly personnel from certain injury or death. His unparalleled concern for his fellow man and his extraordinary heroism were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.
Cessna O-1E Bird Dog