AFMC Command News

Obenland Memorial Award commemorates engineer, hero

  • Published
  • By Chris Hanke
  • Air Force Materiel Command

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- An engineering officer at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, is the recipient of the 2018 Roland R. Obenland Memorial Award.


Capt. Nicholas Tankersley, an armament sustainment system engineer in the B-2 Program Office, was presented the award at a ceremony at Tinker, officiated by Col. William Patrick, B-2 Program Director, and Fred “Fearless” Abrams, a former pilot who flew in the same squadron with Obenland. 


On May 18, 1968, Capt. Roland Robert “Obe” Obenland made the supreme sacrifice for his country. During a close-air support mission in an F-100 aircraft in Vietnam, Obenland was killed in action.


In memory of Obenland’s sacrifice, his parents established the Roland R. Obenland Memorial Award in 1972, which they still support today. The award honors a company grade engineering officer with less than seven years of total active commissioned service who exhibits exemplary dedication and contribution to the Air Force through advancements in technology development, or significant improvement through re-engineering projects. It is part of the Science, Engineering and Technical Management Awards sponsored by the Air Force Materiel Command Engineering Directorate.


Obenland’s Story


Born October 10, 1935, Obenland was the son of the late Robert and Violette. He became a distinguished graduate of the United States Naval Academy in 1959, and one of only 47 graduates out of 798 to come to the Air Force to become a pilot. After pilot training, Obenland became a test pilot instructor before attending the Air Force Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a Master of Science degree in Astronautical Engineering in 1965.


In August 1967, Obenland volunteered for a two year tour of Vietnam, but he never returned home.


At the award ceremony, Abrams shared that he flew a total of 11 combat missions in formation with Obenland in Vietnam as part of the 531st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing, 7th Air Force. According to Abrams, Obenland demonstrated extraordinary skill and bravery as a pilot. He recalled that on March 13, 1968, they flew three missions together from the alert pad at Bien Hoa. On the third mission of the day, just after sunset and while supporting troops in contact, a 50 caliber site opened up on Abrams with deadly accuracy. He had resigned himself to being dead in the next few seconds. However, through skilled maneuvering and a bit of luck, he was able to avoid the shots.


Noticing where the ground fire originated, Obenland approached the site and took three hits during a face-to-face confrontation with the enemy. Together, Abrams and Obenland were able to silence the site and return to Bien Hoa relatively unscathed. Abrams recalled that it was the kind of experience that creates a lifelong bond between fellow pilots.


On May 18, 1968, Abrams and Obenland had an early breakfast together before going on separate combat missions. Obenland was flying a close-air support mission a few miles from his home base at Bien Hoa. During a mission drop, his jet received automatic weapons fire and crashed before he could eject. It was his 238th combat mission.


Obenland received many medals and awards during his career, including the Silver Stars, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. In addition to his pilot service, Obenland also worked as a project officer on the development of the Martin X-23A PRIME re-entry vehicle, setting the foundation for space vehicle development today. The last remaining PRIME re-entry vehicle is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.


He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and he is honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, on Panel 62E, Line 21.