It was a warm, sunny Sunday morning on the cusp of spring when Teresa Ferguson set out from her home in Indian Harbor Beach, Fla. for the shopping mall nearby. Terry, 21, stepdaughter of the local police captain, was an attractive woman with long, dark hair who worked in a factory that specialized in silk-screened T-shirts while she waited for the fulfillment of her life’s ambition: to become a model. That morning at the mall she met a man with the promises she wanted to hear.
Two days later, on March 20, 300 miles northwest in Tallahassee, a blond, 19-year-old Florida State student disappeared from a shopping mall near the campus with a man who offered her a modeling assignment. When she demurred, he forced her into his car, beat her, bound and gagged her and forced her into a sleeping bag, which he stuffed into the trunk of his car. At some point during the agony of sexual sadism that followed, the man tried to seal her eyes shut with glue. Next morning outside Bainbridge, Ga. the woman, identified only as “Jane Doe,” managed to escape and contact authorities.
Terry Ferguson was not so lucky. It was in the middle of the night, the day after Jane Doe told her harrowing story to the FBI, that Capt. Don Ferguson’s dispatcher informed him that a body had been discovered in a swamp about 100 miles to the east. They had found Terry. She was the first confirmed victim.
It was the most intensive FBI manhunt since the 1968 dragnet for Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, and by the time Christopher Wilder, 39, was killed with his own gun in a Colebrook, N.H. gas station on April 13, he had murdered at least four women—and probably four others whose bodies had yet to be found—in a six-week rampage that stretched from Florida to California to New England. All of his victims were pretty, young women, most of them modeling hopefuls lured by his pitch that he was a photographer with a job just for them. Most of them were sexually assaulted and tortured. There were some 500 FBI agents on the Wilder case by its end, and the portrait they drew of their quarry was eerily familiar—not unlike John Wayne Gacy of Chicago, under whose house authorities found 27 bodies of young men and boys in 1979; not unlike the Hillside Strangler or the Boston Strangler; and very similar indeed to the smooth-talking ex-law student Ted Bundy, who is believed to have killed and sexually tortured some 36 young women in the 1970s.
Like Bundy, Wilder had a most credible exterior. An affluent builder, sportsman and man-about-town, he seemed to be a character out of a John D. MacDonald novel. At his home in the eastern Florida coastal town of Boynton Beach, there was a speedboat at his dock, several cars in the driveway, including a customized Porsche and an Eldorado, and a sauna next to his bed. His screened-in swimming pool had a map of his native Australia on the bottom, and the surrounding tiles sported pictures of koala bears. An animal lover, he shared his house with three show-quality English setters, made donations to Save the Whales and the Seal Rescue Fund and was known to brake for turtles crossing the road. His neighbors, shocked at the charges against him, described him as unfailingly polite. They thought it only a little curious that he had so many girlfriends and that the drapes in his house were always closed.
A sometime race-car driver, he competed at the Miami Grand Prix not long before his killing spree began, and some thought that his 17th-place finish could have set him off. But what drove Wilder to murder must have been festering in him for years. He had a long history of violent sex offenses—one that, by the law of common sense, should have taken him out of circulation years ago. In that too Wilder’s is a familiar story.
The FBI has drawn the veil on the most graphic details of his assaults. “Unfortunately,” says Assistant Director O.B. “Buck” Revell, “the more bizarre the act the more likely you are to find copycats. And inevitably there are going to be more Wilders out there.” But the FBI and others who worked on the case consider it a classic cautionary tale of how, after all the advice about never getting into cars with strangers, our dreams make us vulnerable to a nightmare like Christopher Wilder—and how, despite the long arm of the law, which had Wilder in its grasp a half-dozen times before the murders began, justice can be so tragically confounded.
The day after Terry Ferguson’s body was found and more than 800 miles west in Beaumont, Texas, Terry Diane Walden, 24, packed her 4-year-old daughter, Mindy, into the family’s newly purchased 1981 Cougar and headed for a local day-care center. A nursing student, she planned to do some studying with a friend, maybe pick up a few things at the shopping mall and be home by 1:30. At 5 p.m. the day-care center called her husband, John David, a machine operator on the night shift at the Goodyear’s Chemical Plant, to say Terry hadn’t picked up Mindy. And indeed no one had seen her since she left Mindy that morning.
Three days later, on March 26, Terry’s body was found floating face-down in a canal in Beaumont. She had been bruised, knifed and bound; there were rope burns on her ankles and wrists.
Later the same day, 620 miles north, the body of Suzanne Logan, 20, was found by fishermen in a waterside park in Milford Lake, Kans. She had been beaten, knifed and bound with duct tape and nylon cord. She had disappeared the day before from a shopping mall in Oklahoma City. Three years before Logan had put together a portfolio of photographs in the hope of beginning a career as a model.
“My brother was a loner,” Stephen Wilder said last week. “This problem has been in his life for many, many years.”
So it seems. He was born on March 13, 1945, the son of a U.S. serviceman who had emigrated to Australia and gone into the construction business. Christopher, one of four sons, moved to the U.S. in 1970 at the age of 24—an avid surfer who became, in time, an equally avid businessman. With partner L.K. Kimbrell, he formed Sawtel Electric and Sawtel Construction five years ago, and he invested well in Florida real estate. Courthouse records in Florida suggest he was well-versed in relatively sophisticated land transactions, using balloon notes and quitclaim deeds to buy and sell property since the late 1970s. But according to partner Kimbrell, Wilder wasn’t much of a contractor. “I did the work,” he says. “Chris screwed around all day. Chris was no contractor. The s.o.b. didn’t know how to change a light bulb.”
Wilder’s first known sexual assault occurred in 1976. His victim was a 16-year-old girl whose parents had hired him as subcontractor on their Boca Raton home. What did she want to be after high school? he asked her that day. A secretary, she said. Would she like an interview for a job right now? Yes. She got into his truck and drove off with him, and when she got scared he slapped her around. To fend him off, she told him she had venereal disease, hoping her lie would save her life. She survived to press charges, but not before being sexually violated.
Before the trial Wilder was diagnosed as being psychotic and dangerous. “At this time,” Dr. D.G. Boozer told the court, “Wilder is not safe except in a structured environment and should be in a resident program geared to his needs. When left to his own resources and under stress, he disintegrates.” Another psychiatric expert, who thought institutionalization was unnecessary, recommended “structured and supervised treatment.” But the jury acquitted him, apparently discounting the girl’s story, and Wilder received no treatment.
Three years later he was caught again, charged with attempted rape of a 17-year-old girl after asking her to pose for a pizza ad. She was a vacationer from Tennessee to whom he introduced himself as “David Pierce,” agent for a Barbizon modeling school. He had her try on shorts and spike heels he got from a department store, then told her to act sexy while he evaluated her poses. He gave her a piece of pizza, which he had apparently laced with drugs, and told her to take a bite while he held it. “He told her to chew it real slowly so that he could see what it would be like,” Palm Beach Sheriff’s Det. Arthur Newcombe testified, adding that he told her, “My eyes are the camera.” Then Wilder took the girl into his pickup truck and forced her to have sex with him. “She kept asking why she had to do this,” said Newcombe, “and he would answer, ‘You want to be a Barbizon model, don’t you?’ ” Newcombe said Wilder admitted having “sexual problems [and said he] was seeing a psychiatrist. He told me his job was his whole life and when he was working he had no problem, but when the weekends rolled around something came over him….”
After pleading guilty to a lesser offense—attempted sexual battery—Wilder was sentenced to five years’ probation and required to see a sex-therapist twice a month, which he continued to do until his disappearance last month. “He wasn’t much different from a lot of other fellows I see every day,” says his probation officer, Kim Lalonde. “I never had the vaguest idea he would do anything like this. I’m not so sure there isn’t someone else out there just like him, and no one has any idea who he is.”
On March 29, four days after Suzanne Logan’s body was found, and more than 800 miles to the west, Sheryl Bonaventura, 18, of Grand Junction, Colo. packed her bags for a car trip to Aspen and dressed up for the long-awaited occasion: faded jeans, rust-colored, gold-toed cowboy boots, gold rings, gold bracelets and a white sweatshirt, which read “Cherokee” on the front. To her mother’s admonitions about careful driving, she replied with a breezy “Mom, you worry too much” and rushed off for a quick stop at the nearby shopping mall before meeting her traveling companion, best friend Kristal Cesario. Wilder was there that day asking for a “cowgirl type” for a modeling assignment. Kristal thinks Sheryl may have fallen for his pitch. “We were always dreaming of someone coming up and saying, ‘You’re found. You’re Vogue material.’ I would have done it.”
Two days after Sheryl’s disappearance there was a beauty contest at the Meadows Mall in Las Vegas sponsored by Seventeen magazine. Wilder was there—an amateur photographer snapped him standing in the background—and he was seen leaving with one of the finalists, Michelle Korfman, 17, the daughter of a casino chief executive officer. Michelle aspired to be a model, among other things. Says her mother, Linda: “She wanted to be President of the United States at 35.”
As of last week both she and Sheryl Bonaventura were still missing.
Wilder’s probation apparently did not hinder his social life at all. He rarely stopped in at his company’s office, spending his days instead at a health club or at the beach, and his nights at pickup bars. A stream of women came and went from his house—some of them “street-type” girls, some of them looking like models, a few of them walking in with suitcases and staying for a week or two. By then his photography studio was fully equipped for fashion work, with special lighting, backdrops and cosmetics supplies, and his “fashion photographer” come-on appeared to work. “He often brought beautiful broads in here,” says the bartender at one of his hangouts. “But I was very surprised to hear about him. He was always well-behaved. And he was a great tipper—never left less than $1 a drink.”
Lisa Maxwell, 19, met him at the Banana Boat. “He sat down and started buying us drinks,” she recalls. “He was tan and good-looking and talked about the cars he raced and showed off his Rolex and the big gold chain he wore around his neck. The next thing I knew, my friend Lori left with him.”
Lori Barth, 21, remembers it well. “We enjoyed the afternoon, so I saw no reason not to [go with him],” she says. “He drove his Porsche 80 mph down the street. I was nervous, but I loved the interior of his car because it smelled like leather.” At his home, however, “it was weird,” she says. “He tried to impress me with material items”—the sauna, the pool, the cars, the speedboat. As they stood near the bed, Wilder made a pass. “He grabbed me and kissed me,” she says, “but I backed off and didn’t respond. None of them were French kisses.”
Lori Barth was lucky. An employee of the Boynton Beach Kmart’s photo department once mistakenly opened a package of the photos Wilder had brought in for developing and found pornographic pictures of women and prepubescent children—many of whom may have been rendered compliant by a fast-acting hypnotic drug that Wilder had admitted to using in the 1980 case.
In December 1982 Wilder violated his probation by flying to Australia. While in Sydney, he was charged with the kidnapping and indecent assault of two 15-year-old girls, whom he blindfolded and forced to pose for nude pictures. Arrested the day after the offense, he was released on $376,000 bail and later won a postponement of his trial, pleading “pressing business” in the U.S. “I didn’t really know the man,” says partner Kimbrell, “but we did talk about the rape charges. He told me he didn’t know the girls were only 15, he thought they were 20. I told him to throw the camera away and be more careful. I could relate to his wanting sex—after all, he was single.”
On his flight from the assault charges in Australia, he carried back with him gifts of koala bear place mats and napkins for Mrs. Dolores Kenyon, the mother of the one woman with whom he seemed to have a sincere relationship. “He always was a gentleman,” Mrs. Kenyon says. “Courteous, soft-spoken, polite, always rose when a lady came into the room.” Her daughter Beth, 23, was a real beauty: Once an Orange Bowl queen, she was a finalist in the 1982 Miss Florida contest. Wilder met her at that event. A serious young woman, she was a student teacher at a Coral Gables school for gifted children last year, and this year was teaching the mentally disturbed.
It was around the time of the Miami Grand Prix races that Beth Kenyon told Wilder firmly that she would not marry him, in part because of their 16-year age difference. Her parents believe that rejection sparked his killing rage. Whatever its cause, it apparently began at the Grand Prix that last weekend in February with the disappearance of Rosario Gonzalez, a 20-year-old would-be model who had come to the event to make a quick $400 passing out free samples of a new aspirin. Witnesses last saw her at the raceway in the uniform of the day—red short shorts and white T-shirt—with a man who looked like Wilder. She had met Wilder before. He had taken her picture in October 1982 “for the cover of a romance book,” her fiancé recalls, “but she had never seen the picture and had never heard from him again.” As of last week she had not been found.
A few days later, on March 3, Beth Kenyon also disappeared. A gas station attendant was the last to see her, and he told the Kenyons Wilder had been with her. When she didn’t turn up at home, a distraught William Kenyon called Wilder to account. “I would never do anything to hurt any of you,” Wilder told him, but Kenyon hired a $1,000-a-day private detective to check up on him. The family offered to pay for FBI surveillance of Wilder but the agency refused, the police said they had nothing to go on and, when the Kenyons’ detective confronted Wilder and suggested they go to the police together, he bolted. “We couldn’t understand why a man who broke probation four times couldn’t be tailed,” says Dolores Kenyon. “In our justice system the criminal has all the rights and that is why my daughter isn’t here tonight. If the system was different, all eight girls would be alive.”
Tina Marie Risico, a pretty but troubled 16-year-old, met Wilder on April 4 when she visited a dress shop in a mall near her Torrance, Calif. home to apply for a job. For the next three days he kept her bound and gagged, raped her and tortured her with the same 110-volt prod he had used on the others. By then he was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, and he made Tina watch all the TV coverage to show her how dangerous he was. Somehow, though, he could not bring himself to commit the final assault on Tina, and he made her his accomplice as he looped back across the country.
Within the week they made Merrillville, Ind., where Tina approached Dawnette Sue Wilt, 16, in a shopping mall and asked her if she wanted to be a model. When she went to Wilder’s car to sign a consent form he pulled a gun. Bound and gagged, she rode in the back seat while Wilder drove toward upstate New York.
On April 12 near Barrington, N. Y. he apparently tired of Dawnette. He stabbed her repeatedly and dumped her in the woods, thinking she was dead. But she managed to work her way free of the tape, then tied clothes around her chest to stanch the flow of blood and stumbled to a road where a farmer picked her up in his truck and drove her to the hospital. In the emergency room she gave the police enough information to set them hot on Wilder’s path. After surgery she described in grotesque detail what she had been through. Last weekend police stood guard over Dawnette to keep away the media and the curious. At her bedside was a Cabbage Patch doll, bought with donations from the sheriff’s deputies.
Risico stayed with Wilder until the day before his savage journey ended, even procuring his last victim—Beth Dodge, a 33-year-old working mother whom he killed for her car. She had stopped off at the mall in Victor, N.Y. on her lunch hour. “He had Tina approach Beth Dodge and bring her to his car,” says a source close to the investigation. “He had told [Tina] he would kill her if she did anything unusual. He drove the hostage’s car with the hostage and Tina followed in her car. For her to try to escape then would have been foolish. He had told her he was a race-car driver and could easily catch her.”
Wilder shot Beth Dodge at a gravel pit close by the mall—no torture, no tape or cord. Says Capt. H. Gerald Willower of the New York State Police: “Beth was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
That evening Wilder dropped Tina Risico at Boston’s Logan Airport, where she bought a ticket for Los Angeles with some of the money he had given her, a going-away present from the man whose horrors she had shared. Torrance police said later he had released Tina because “he didn’t want her to see him die.”
Once in L.A. she went first to Hermosa Beach, a strip of tourist shops, where she used the wad of cash in her pocket to buy several new sets of lingerie. Then she went to the house of a friend who later accompanied her to the police station to tell her tale.
A reporter who visited her house the next day was told by her mother, a pretty blonde in her 30s with a scorpion tattoo on her forearm and a silver ring on one toe, “Tina’s out partyin’. I’m going out partyin’ too.” A lawyer reportedly was trying to sell the rights to her story, but it was not clear whether Tina knew anything of that.
After dropping Risico off, Wilder headed north for the Canadian border. At mid-afternoon on Friday the 13th he arrived in Colebrook, N.H., a tiny place bordered in every direction by miles of forest. Either for gas or just for directions, he stopped at Vic Stanton’s Getty station. There he was spotted by State Police Det. Leo C. “Chuck” Jellison, who remembered a description he had heard of the latest car, Beth Dodge’s 1982 Firebird, being driven by that madman who was crisscrossing the country killing women. He pulled up behind Wilder’s car, jumped out and called, “Hold on, we want to talk to you.” Wilder scurried back to the driver’s seat, lunged for the glove compartment and Jellison went in after him. The 250-pound trooper had his quarry locked in a bear hug when the .357 Magnum went off, sending a bullet through Wilder’s chest that ripped out his heart and went through Jellison’s diaphragm. A second shot rang out, but by then Wilder was probably already dead.
The trooper, rightly acclaimed a hero, will recover. The death of Wilder, though, does not close the case. FBI agent Revell believes Wilder probably killed several, perhaps many, other women. “There may be some who lived alone who haven’t even been reported missing yet,” he says. “I’m satisfied he’s off the streets, but we would have liked to capture him to find out more about his motivation.” Captain Ferguson, Terry’s father, says bluntly: “I was extremely pleased that they killed him. With our judicial system today, I wasn’t looking forward to his being caught alive and watching him on TV smiling and grinning and enjoying life while he got all the notoriety and publicity. The only bad feelings I had were for the parents of those who will never know, those whose girls are still missing. He was the only one who had the answers, and they will go through living hell forever.”
Meanwhile, Captain Ferguson has taken to stopping young hitchhikers whenever he sees them. “These girls don’t understand what’s going on today,” he says. “This mass-murder type of thing is becoming an epidemic. All you have to do is look at TV—every night they’re picking up these crazies.”
Gerald Hickey spent 17 years as a civilian in Vietnam, both before and during the U.S.-led war. While working as an ethnographer for the RAND Corporation, Hickey often rode in Army Huey helicopters, accompanying Green Berets on visits to remote villages.
“I hated choppers,” Hickey recalled in 2006, “the way they banked in the turns, flew toward treetops, and jumped up at the last minute. I had to sit in the seat and cover my eyes with my hands.”
But he appreciated the Army fliers more during a visit to the remote Green Beret camp Nam Dong in 1964. On July 5, hundreds of enemy soldiers attacked after midnight. The defenders held the perimeter through the night, but in the morning, enemy machine guns drove off six Marine Choctaw helicopters attempting to deliver reinforcements. Hickey recalled a wave of fear and disappointment among the survivors. But then a single Huey swooped over the treetops, door guns blazing. The Army crew cleared a path for the relief helicopters to return. “Fearless, those kids,” Hickey said.
“We were all young and crazy then,” says Jim Messinger, who flew Hueys in Vietnam. “My first job as an adult was to fly around in a helicopter and let people shoot at me. I was 20 years old in flight school.” That school was the Primary Helicopter Center at Fort Wolters, Texas. Of all the helicopter pilots who flew in Vietnam, 95 percent passed through the center at Wolters. Located in north-central Texas, the school, which ran from 1956 until the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, was an essential part of the pressure cooker process that transformed anybody who qualified—from teenagers to grizzled combat officers—into world-class helicopter pilots.
“There was a huge range of experience,” recalls A. Wayne Brown, who worked at Wolters as a flight instructor for contractor Southern Airways. “Some had never been in a plane, and some were fixed-wing pilots. I had to show some of them how to buckle a seat belt—they were that green.”
Wolters relied on three models of small training helicopters, all powered by gasoline-fueled piston engines. These were cheaper to operate than the Hueys and in many respects were trickier to fly—hence good trainers. None of them came with instruments for flying in clouds—such advanced training happened elsewhere, such as Fort Rucker, Alabama. Wolters was all about learning to control flighty machines under “contact,” or visual, conditions. Students—mostly warrant officer candidates, but commissioned officers too—flew day and night. Flight school had two phases of instruction, each eight weeks long: Primary I and Primary II.
“Primary I taught ’em how to fly a helicopter. Primary II, how to use it,” says Brown. “Our workday was about 6 a.m. to noon, or noon to 6 p.m. It was probably the best flying job I’ve ever had.” Given Brown’s long flying career, that’s saying a lot: After the war he flew offshore helicopters, taught military pilots in Iran, then operated a variety of helicopters in the South, before becoming assistant chief instructor at Bell Helicopter’s training academy in Texas. When actor Harrison Ford bought a Bell 407 and needed a world-class instructor, Brown got the assignment.
Southern Airways pilots like Brown taught basic skills in Primary I, and military pilots just back from the war typically handled Primary II. During my visit to Wolters, Brown introduced me to Dwayne “Willy” Williams, a combat veteran who added wartime lessons to the Wolters curriculum. Williams came to Wolters as a Warrant Officer Candidate, then flew UH-1B gunships in Vietnam. After the war Williams stayed in the rotary-wing world, including working as chief test pilot for manufacturers like Bell and MD Helicopters. He was copilot on the first test flight of the Bell/Agusta BA609, the first civilian tiltrotor.
Instructors took three students at a time and got to know them well. Now, 50 years on, veterans of the program still remember class numbers and hat colors, flying buddies and instructors. “Every eight weeks we threw out the old bunch and took on a new one,” Jim Messinger said as we had lunch in Woody’s, a Quonset-hut diner on the main drag of the nearby town, Mineral Wells. “College courses should be like that, eight weeks long.”
After flying Hueys in Vietnam, Messinger returned to the fort for two years, serving as an instructor and standardization pilot. He spent a second year in Vietnam as a Sikorsky CH-54 heavy-lift cargo pilot.
Now Messinger teaches computer science at nearby Weatherford College. He devotes his spare time to setting up the National Vietnam War Museum, to be located in Mineral Wells, just over the hill from one of the wartime heliports. After filling his garage with memorabilia donated for the future building, he found space in a hangar. When we visited the metal building, he showed me a box with dozens of framed class photos circa 1967: rank upon rank of smiling students hoping to fly in combat. I asked about faces marked out with red grease pencil: Some washed out of the program, Messinger said, and others died in action. “I stopped keeping track of all the students after a while. It was just too hard.”
Messinger recounted his days teaching the basics of hovering and flying a piston-engine helicopter at no-frills facilities called stagefields, spaced well away from the main heliports. Practice at the stagefields helped build the complex skills needed for landings and takeoffs. Instructors threw inflight emergencies at the students without mercy.
“It was intense,” said Brown. “No loose time, no boring holes in the sky.”
Wolters trained pilots for all branches of the armed services and for allied countries, in particular the South Vietnamese army—a total of 41,000 in 17 years of operation. At the peak of activity, just before U.S. forces began a long withdrawal from the war in 1969, Wolters was sending 575 pilots per month for advanced training at Fort Rucker. There they learned instrument flight rules, tactics, formation flying, and how to operate the bigger, turbine-powered Huey. The entire process—from boot camp to Wolters through graduation from Rucker—took less than a year. In that time, a high school graduate was transformed into a UH-1 pilot, holding the rank of warrant officer.
A teenage enlistee at the recruitment center might have had visions of an exciting, all-expenses-paid helicopter career, but he may have missed the part about having to go through not just one but two spit-and-polish phases called boot camp. The second, at Wolters, was called preflight school, and for warrant officer candidates it lasted four miserable weeks, a purgatory ruled by a living terror known as the TAC (Training, Advising, and Counseling) officer, who specialized in finding all levels of imperfections, down to misalignment of socks in the drawer, uniforms in the closet, and notebooks on the desk. An infraction by one WOC could bring down fire upon his entire preflight class.
“It was like OCS [Officer Candidate School], all spit-shine,” said Messinger. “The more you cleaned, the more they looked. If the sink was too clean, they took it apart to find something wrong. They got us up at midnight and turned us into the hallway. But after four weeks it got easier.”
Why the grief? Top-notch flying skills wouldn’t be enough to cope with the chaos and fury of combat. An aircraft commander in Vietnam—even if too young to vote—was going to hold life-and-death power over his copilot, crew, passengers, and many others within range, so he needed a cool and steady temperament. Occasionally a senior pilot was injured, and brand-new copilots had to take command. And they could face such trials very soon after landing in Vietnam. Williams recalled that one of his classmates, having been called into action while on an orientation flight with a veteran aircraft commander just four days into his first tour in Vietnam, was killed in action. Jim Martinson, another student, had been in-country just a month when he was shot down twice in one day. “I can remember the first combat assault I saw like it was yesterday,” Williams said. “It was intense. We were on the second lift, and every time a slick [on the first lift] would get on the radio you could hear the gunfire. There were gunships flying over the targets, [white phosphorous] smoke, and the enemy firing from the treelines. I thought, I don’t know how long I have to live. It was surreal, like: How did I end up in this movie?” Hence the daily harassment of warrant-officer candidates at Wolters. “The first four weeks was like a filter,” Messinger said. “If you can’t take this, you can’t take combat either.” Messinger recalled the rebellion of an experienced non-com with a fine service record. “He said, ‘I’m a staff sergeant and I don’t have to put up with this.’ So he just left and went back to his E-6 rating.”
A few flight instructors carried the tradition of torment past the preflight barracks and into the air, screaming at their students and rapping them on the helmets with a stick. But that was not standard procedure, and as critical tests approached, students who struggled to learn under one instructor’s style could request an alternate.
as we approached a row of two-story dormitory-style buildings, Messinger stopped his Dodge van and pointed to a second floor window at the end of Building 779: his Spartan quarters while a Warrant Officer Candidate.
By comparison, commissioned officers who came to Wolters for identical flight training enjoyed the good life. They avoided the first month of hell and received a stipend to live off-base, so they usually had enough cash for amenities and weekend misadventures.
“The pay was good,” recalls Hugh Mills, who was a lieutenant when he arrived at Wolters in 1968. To stretch his salary he shared an apartment in Weatherford, a half-hour east, with other officers. They commuted in style. “One officer I knew had a Dodge Charger, one a Corvette. Mustangs were popular,” Mills says. “Mine was a 1968 GT350 Mustang, four-speed, two plus two, with a Pony package.”
Whether a privileged officer or lowly WOC, all students faced the risk of failure. There were constant tests and emergency drills. The most hair-raising of the flight maneuvers required trainees to cope with complete engine failure: They had to take their hurtling, unpowered machines all the way to a screeching stop on the ground. It’s called a touchdown autorotation. After the instructor pulled off the power and left the main rotor to windmill, students had only seconds to adjust the controls and find a safe landing spot—which could be out of sight behind them. This taught them to scan instruments constantly, and be aware of traffic, terrain, and wind direction at all times. Over his career of flying and instructing, Brown practiced the maneuver more than 80,000 times.
Mistakes during autorotation practice at Wolters caused aircraft damage, injuries, and a handful of fatal crashes. “But after 200 flight hours,” Messinger says of the whole trial by fire, from Fort Wolters through Fort Rucker, “we were super-highly trained by civilian standards.” Williams recalls that his training at Rucker ended with a few days at a forward helicopter base that simulated conditions students would find in Vietnam, during which students were awakened at night with big firecrackers and alert horns that ordered them to their ships at a flat run.
If the students failed a key test along the way, they washed out of helicopter school. During the peak enrollment years, 1968 and 1969, about 15 percent failed to graduate from Wolters. While noncoms and officers could go back to work they had been doing, a newly arrived Warrant Officer Candidate who failed had no such fallback, and likely would end up slogging through rice paddies in Vietnam.
For those who graduated as warrant officer pilots and went to Vietnam, “you were automatically looked upon as a leper by the grizzled old combat veterans—anywhere from 19 to 21 years old,” Williams recalls of his days as a new pilot. “[But the training] worked because the majority of helicopter pilots made it home, and it’s hard to put a figure on how many thousands of lives were saved as a result of the Huey, and the brave young men who flew them.”
Of all the Stateside tests to earn that ticket, the most critical and memorable was the solo flight and the check ride leading up to it. Some students never developed the hand-eye coordination to keep the aggravating machines steady in a low hover, and so never got a chance to fly solo around the field three times and move on. The strict timetable at Wolters required students to qualify for soloing after 10 to 15 hours of dual instruction.
Students who survived the solo saw immediate and happy changes. One happened on the bus ride at the end of the day: The vehicle pulled over at a Holiday Inn, and fellow students dragged the new soloist out and threw him into the swimming pool, regardless of weather. He also got a wings emblem to sew on his cap. Soloing brought great improvements to the social life of the warrant officer candidate who, unlike officers in the same training, had been confined to base and subject to TAC officers’ harassment. Students with the big “W” emblem on their caps could finally get leaves, and many sought companionship in female-rich places such as the American Airlines stewardess school in Dallas, or Texas Women’s College in Denton.
Fear of failure also eased (slightly). With each successive week, the Army became more invested in fledgling pilots, so flunking a test was more likely to lead to remedial instruction than to being tossed out.
wolters began with a single heliport and four stagefields for daily practice. In 1965, with Vietnam demanding more helicopter pilots, the fort added two big heliports and 21 stagefields.
The Army gets credit for starting the pilot pipeline as early as it did: When the program started, no war was under way, nobody had worked out the cavalry-like tactics, and the gasoline-powered helicopters then in use were barely adequate even for war games. The year Wolters opened, Bell’s UH-1 had just entered flight testing as a prototype, and was still four years from the assembly lines.
Students in the small, piston-engine helicopters learned to cope with marginal performance: In summertime, the OH-13 models could barely get off the ground. “With two students on board on a hot day, using the skids for a running takeoff was the only way to get in the air,” says Brown.
Bumping and scraping the skids along the pavement was a skill all students at Wolters learned, no matter which model they flew. For one, it was a simple but effective safety precaution at the crowded heliport. Because so many helicopters were parked on the apron, and because beginners find precise hovering so difficult, the school feared collisions during taxiing, so instructors had their novices skid down the traffic lanes on the way to takeoff, applying just enough power to be light on the landing gear but not so much as to rise off the ground.
That noisy practice would come in handy later: “Many times in Vietnam,” Williams says, “flying a loaded gunship on a hot day, you’d have to skid down the runway until you achieved translational lift.”
Wolters’ original, or Main, heliport is barely visible now, because of changes that followed after the Army handed most of the fort over to Mineral Wells for business redevelopment. Most of the concrete expanse, once home to 550 helicopters, is covered by rusty fences and heaps of even rustier oilfield equipment. Thanks to a cadre of veterans and volunteers, though, a restored main entry looks as good as ever: Visitors to what is now an industrial park drive under a helicopter-theme archway. On the left side of the orange, steel-frame archway sits a restored Hiller OH-23-D. A sturdy and powerful 1950s helicopter, it’s still used for light cargo and cropdusting around the world. On the other side of the arch sits the TH-55A Osage, a light two-seater originally developed in the 1950s by the Hughes Tool Company’s Aircraft Division for sale to police departments. A similar version is still sold today by the Schweizer division of Sikorsky Aircraft.
The third helicopter type used at Wolters was the H-13, the military version of the bubble-canopy Bell 47 civilian models made famous by old movies and television shows. At the peak, the fort had swept up nearly 1,300 helicopters for its trainees. A tornado in April 1967 damaged 179 of them.
By the end of 1968, the three heliports were handling at least 2,000 takeoffs and landings daily, five days a week. “It was like Oshkosh every day, twice a day,” said Williams as we toured the outskirts of Mineral Wells in Wayne Brown’s SUV. “The most exciting part of the day was the recovery, when there were 600 or 700 helicopters all coming in about 11 a.m. We did have a couple of midair collisions—I’m not sure I’d do it that way now.”
We set out with hopes of getting into the now-abandoned Dempsey Heliport on U.S. Highway 180; I’d heard that it had a well-preserved aerial map in one of its briefing rooms, showing the training areas in great detail.
Seeing Dempsey Heliport’s red-and-white water tower, Brown turned down an access road and stopped at the gate. There was no sign of activity. The only suggestion of something valuable was a padlock on the gate and a sign reading Junco Inc.
As we stood at the gate, Williams said, “Darn! We need a helicopter to get in there.”
Fortunately, no helicopter was necessary to get a good look at remnants of the stagefield known as Bien Hoa, two miles north. Like all the stagefields, it had a small control tower, paved strips and pads for landing practice, and a building for students to study in between flights.
Seeing the rusty steel frame of an air traffic control tower from the county road, Brown and I climbed a gate and then the rusty stairs to get a bird’s-eye view. Brown pointed to remnants of an asphalt strip nearby, where helicopters pulled up for refueling. Other long strips and pads to the east were for practicing approaches and autorotations.
The close attention to off-airport skills at Wolters, and later at Rucker, makes sense in light of what the new armada of gas-turbine helicopters offered to U.S. forces in Vietnam: the ability to land, or at least hover over, any place in the war zone. This agility compensated for helicopters’ drawbacks relative to fixed-wing aircraft: slowness, expense, vulnerability to small arms, and shrimpy payload. By 1965, swarms of Hueys proved able to shift hundreds of troops in cavalry fashion, accompanied by gunships firing on enemy forces who’d be untouchable by any other weapons platform. They retrieved wounded soldiers and restocked ammunition. Larger helicopters hauled artillery tubes and bulldozers.
But fully exploiting these virtues required extraordinary flying skills. Often success depended on the ability to hug the terrain in nap-of-earth fashion, then plunge into tiny clearings among the trees. Some of those clearings were barely bigger than the helicopter itself. And taking off was even chancier. Given high air temperatures and heavy payloads—such as a load of rescued troopers—pilots had to know how to use every foot of the space available, and every pound of lift.
While taking off may sound easy—Don’t helicopters just rise straight up?—a helicopter climbing vertically can’t develop nearly as much lift as a helicopter that climbs out diagonally, with forward airspeed. In the confined areas around Wolters, which were marked by tires of different colors to note their difficulty, students learned how to get out of very tight spots. It was a lesson they’d use often.
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