The US Navy helicopter known as “Helo 66” recovering the Apollo 11 crew. (credit: US Navy)
One of the most iconic helicopters of all time is resting on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego. It’s time to bring it back home.
Sitting on the deck of the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum in San Diego is a white painted helicopter with the number “66” painted on its side. Nearly 700 kilometers to the northwest, at the former Alameda Naval Air Station on San Francisco Bay, the hangar deck of the carrier USS Hornet holds another white helicopter, also painted with the number “66.” In contrast to these two ships, all the way across the country, near Charleston, South Carolina, the USS Yorktown has a blue-painted Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King on its flight deck with the number “61” on its side. Like the other two ships, the Yorktown could have had a white painted Sea King with “66,” and in fact has a better claim to that helicopter than the Midway. The Yorktown served as the Apollo 8 recovery ship, and was the first to fly a Sea King from Helicopter Squadron-4 with the markings that soon became famous during the Apollo program.
But none of the helicopters sporting this paint scheme is the original. The original lies in pieces at the bottom of the Pacific somewhere off the coast of San Diego where it broke up in 1976 and sank during a night training flight. The pilot died of his injuries, but three other crewmembers survived.
By the time the Sea King crashed and sank in the ocean, it no longer carried the number “66.” But it was still famous, because the helicopter had recovered the crews of five Apollo missions—Apollos 8, 10, 11, 12, and 13. The helicopter, with the airframe number BuNo 152711, had been specifically groomed to be famous. Helicopter Squadron 4 had other helicopters that could have flown those recoveries, but the fact that the same one was selected five times demonstrates that the squadron commander wanted to create an iconic aircraft. And he did: Helo 66 appeared in numerous photos and television coverage of those missions, carrying the astronauts to their prime recovery ships: Yorktown, Hornet and USS Iwo Jima.
The first flight of Helo 66
The USS Yorktown was the prime recovery ship for the Apollo 8 mission that carried Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders around the Moon in December 1968 and returned them to Earth on December 27. The Yorktown is the oldest aircraft carrier museum in the United States, established in the mid-1970s when the World War II-era carrier was saved from the scrappers and towed to Patriot’s Point across the bay from Charleston. The museum is open to the public seven days a week, and recently served as a prime viewing site for the August 21 eclipse. Whereas the USS Hornet museum has Helo 66 as well as several major displays devoted to its role in the recovery of the Apollo 11 and 12 crews, including spacecraft mockups, a Lunar Quarantine Facility and a mini-museum, the Yorktown has a relatively small display on its hangar deck. It features a mockup Mercury spacecraft and an exhibit in the shape of an Apollo spacecraft that visitors can climb into and listen to audio of the mission. The nearby display signage is rather minimalist. Below the hangar deck is a compartment featuring a set of photos from the Apollo 8 recovery effort, many of them faded and in need of replacement. One photo shows the spacecraft onboard the Yorktown’s side elevator after being lifted from the water, with Helo 65 (not 66) from HS-4 hovering nearby.
Yorktown, like the Hornet, finished up her career as an anti-submarine carrier, supporting a mix of small propeller-driven sub-hunting aircraft like the S-2E Tracker, as well as a bunch of Sea Kings equipped with sonar that could be lowered out of the hull of the helicopter and sonobuoys that could be dropped out of tubes in the floor. HS-4 squadron specially trained for the Apollo recovery effort, which is why the squadron and Helo 66 moved from Yorktown to Hornet and to other ships that were designated prime recovery ships.
As for Helo 66, the story of the number designation is a bit complicated. The “66” was assigned for the Apollo recovery operations but, after Apollo 11, the Navy adopted a three-digit system for its helicopters and BuNo 152711 was repainted with a new number. It was repainted with “66” for the recovery of Apollo 12 in November 1969 and again for Apollo 13 in April 1970.
According to Bob Fish, author of the book Hornet Plus Three about the Apollo 11 recovery operation, the Helo 66 in the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda was actually used in the movie Apollo 13, which is why it retains its markings from the helicopter carrier Iwo Jima, the Apollo 13 recovery ship. The helicopter was obtained from the Navy and restored off-site before being hoisted aboard the Hornet. The museum has several other helicopters that are painted like the recovery aircraft for the American space program, including a Piesecki HUP-25 Retriever of the type used to ferry John Glenn from the USS Noa to the carrier USS Randolph following his Friendship 7 orbital flight in 1962, and a UH-34 Seahorse of the type used for the Gemini and Apollo recoveries. Fish added that the SH-3 Sea King helicopter on display onboard the Hornet is BuNo 148999.
The last flight of Helo 66
In the summer of 1975 Lieutenant Leo S. Rolek, copilot Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Charles D. Neville, and two crewmen took off in Helo 66—then with squadron number “740” painted on its side—in the early evening from the Naval Auxiliary Air Field at Imperial Beach, California (see “The last flight of Helo 66”, The Space Review, June 25, 2007). They were on an anti-submarine sonar training flight and Rolek flew the helicopter out to a designated training area off the coast from San Diego. They began operations, which involved making approaches to a specified location and dipping their sonar into the water. The Sea King’s sonar lowered through a large hole in the helicopter’s fuselage and when it entered the water it opened up like the spokes of an umbrella and extended its sensors.
The crew reported in to base every half hour that everything was going fine until about 9:30. The helicopter lowered its sonar to about 30 meters below the water’s surface when the aircraft became unstable, apparently because of the sonar being dragged in the water and pulling the helicopter. The sonar operator lowered the sonar deeper, hoping that this would improve stability. But something happened. Something bad. And one of the dangerous aspects about helicopters is that bad goes to worse very quickly.
According to reports, the helicopter was pulled into the ocean. It hit the water, broke up, and began to sink. Because the heaviest part of a helicopter is the engines mounted over the cabin, most helicopters immediately tip over when they hit the water and crews are trained to exit a sinking upside down helicopter. The amazing thing is that all four men managed to escape the helicopter. They were picked up by a Coast Guard HH-3F helicopter just before midnight and were taken to the Naval Hospital in San Diego. Sadly, pilot Leo Rolek suffered a ruptured spleen and died of his injuries three weeks later.
Exactly how the accident happened remains unclear from the heavily censored official accident report. Unfortunately, overly zealous Navy censors deleted substantial parts of the report, making it difficult to determine what happened and why—all it says is that “aircraft impacted water in rearward flight from hover at 40 feet.” The censors even deleted the names of the four men aboard the helicopter, despite the fact that they have been known for decades. But according to a former Sea King pilot, it was notoriously easy to accidentally back the Sea King into the water while in a hover, especially at night.
The recovery of Helo 66
In 2004, there was discussion among some of the surviving members of HS-4 to start a recovery effort for the helicopter, but that effort stalled out. According to one of the people involved, the effort stalled for several reasons, including the discovery that the aircraft was not in shallow water, as rumored, but much deeper water. That deep water makes locating and recovering the wreck expensive.
But since that time several billionaires have demonstrated an interest and capability for deep sea exploration. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sponsored a series of expeditions between 2010 and 2013 to find and raise the F-1 engines from several Apollo missions that were on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Just last month, an expedition sponsored by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced that they located the wreck of the US Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis on the bottom of the Pacific. It should not be difficult for a privately funded expedition to locate and raise Helo 66. There is precedent: in 1999 an expedition funded by the Discovery Channel and led by Curtis Newport located and raised Liberty Bell 7.
There are legal challenges—the US Navy still owns the helicopter and would not cede ownership. But Newport successfully negotiated with NASA, and Bezos also navigated the legal issues over the F-1 engines. The US Navy is a different bureaucracy, but the people interested in doing these searches are not doing so to own what they find, but to preserve what they find, so having the Navy take ownership of the recovered Helo 66 should not be an impediment to the people likely to fund such an operation.
Next to the equipment still left on the lunar surface, Helo 66 is the most famous piece of hardware associated with the Apollo program currently not preserved and on display in a museum. If it is recovered it is unlikely to end up on one of the aircraft carrier museums, but it could rightfully take its place in the Smithsonian. It’s time to bring Helo 66 back home.