By Tommy H. Thomason

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Back from Space, But Not Home Yet

Jodie Peeler is my go-to person for the Sikorsky SH-3 (H-3) Sea King. She graciously volunteered to be the guest blogger for this post, distilling the information that she's collected over the past two and a half decades on one notable H-3 assignment:

The Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King as Recovery Helicopter by Jodie Peeler

From Scott Carpenter's Mercury mission in May 1962 to the end of the Apollo lunar program in December 1972, every NASA spacecraft crew retrieved by helicopter was recovered by a Sikorsky Sea King (1). The big, twin-turbine Sea King offered additional interior space, more power, more safety and more versatility than the HUS-1s that recovered Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom after their Mercury flights. Besides, it was natural that the Sea King be pressed into service as a recovery helicopter.

Throughout most of NASA's "expendable era," the prime recovery ships were typically anti-submarine warfare carriers (CVS), with Sea King squadrons already part of their air group. Sending a CVS allowed the Navy to provide NASA a large, capable recovery ship without diverting a scarce "big deck." (2) Although an LPH might be pressed into service with an HS detachment aboard for some missions (3), the CVS became the classic recovery ship, immortalized in countless pictures, film clips, and even model kits.

One particular SH-3 itself became an icon. In particular, an SH-3D with the Bureau Number 152711 became a celebrity for its recovery of the first five Apollo flights to the Moon. You may not know the number 152711, but chances are you've seen pictures of "Old 66," a helicopter so famous it even inspired a love song. (4)

Over the years the saga of "Old 66" has been told time and again, and a certain mythology has built up - as have some misconceptions. What follows is my attempt to assemble some things I've learned, based on what I've found in readings and research.


For an Apollo recovery mission, a prime recovery ship embarked eight SH-3A or SH-3D aircraft and associated personnel from the squadron. This provided plenty of aircraft for the recovery mission, as well as spare aircraft in the event one or more had an issue. The aircraft were maintained in excellent condition and logged many hours in simulation exercises (SIMEX) prior to splashdown day. On a typical recovery, four helicopters participated, with one remaining aboard ship ready to go if needed. Each had a four-person aircrew, plus additional personnel as indicated. This is the deployment for Apollo 11 in July 1969:

 - RECOVERY ONE: The prime recovery helicopter, responsible for picking up the astronauts and bringing them back aboard the ship. RECOVERY also carried a NASA flight surgeon, who would make initial assessments of the astronauts once they were aboard; RECOVERY also carried the leader of the Underwater Demolition Team to the recovery site. On flights that observed quarantine protocol, RECOVERY also carried the Biological Isolation Garments (BIGs) and decontamination equipment to the splashdown site.

- SWIM ONE and SWIM TWO: Each carried three Underwater Demolition Team swimmers to the recovery site. These swimmers would secure the spacecraft and assist the astronauts during recovery, then stay with the spacecraft until it was retrieved. On Apollo 11, SWIM TWO deployed its swimmers, while SWIM ONE hovered nearby with its swimmers as a waiting backup. After the astronauts were aboard RECOVERY, SWIM ONE flew wing with RECOVERY back to the recovery ship as a precaution, while SWIM TWO "babysat" the spacecraft and swimmers until the PRS arrived. (5)

- PHOTO ONE: Carried two cameramen to capture still and motion picture images of the recovery operation. Live television capability became possible starting with Apollo 13 in April 1970. (6)

- In addition, SWIM THREE, with a crew of four plus a UDT swimmer, stood by aboard the recovery ship ready to go if needed. - Recovery ships with fixed-wing capability also launched two Grumman E-1 Tracers, one to serve as on-scene commander (call sign AIR BOSS) while another (call sign RELAY) relayed on-scene communications back to the task force headquarters in Hawaii. (7)


In spite of what has been written elsewhere, none of the SH-3s used by HS units for spacecraft recovery were purpose-built rescue helicopters. They were on temporary duty from their normal ASW/SAR mission, and none of the aircraft were specialized rescue aircraft. (This changed starting with Apollo 15, when recovery duty became the task of HC-1 and its SH-3Gs.) (8)

Instead, temporary modifications were made to the SH-3A/SH-3D aircraft used in recovery operations. It became typical to remove the AN/AQS-13 sonar equipment in most of the embarked helicopters and cover the top of the sonar well. (9) This opened up space in the cabin for crewmembers to move around, room for recovery gear, and to provide space for the astronauts and the NASA physician to move around aboard the recovery helicopter.

Removing the sonar also made room for the SARAH (Search and Rescue and Homing) equipment. This system provided a radio-detection system for locating the spacecraft. It used Yagi-type antennas mounted at the top of the port and starboard sponson struts; the first recovery helicopter to sport these antenna was the Gemini 12 recovery helicopter in November 1966. The signals were fed to receivers in the helicopter's cabin, and crewmen could use the signals to direct the pilots toward the spacecraft's location. (10)

Not every aircraft embarked aboard a recovery ship would be modified. Of the eight SH-3Ds embarked aboard USS Yorktown for the Apollo 8 recovery in 1968, six aircraft had their sonar equipment removed, and five of those had SARAH equipment installed. These modifications were performed aboard ship by squadron personnel, using parts supplied to the squadron. (11)

Starting with Apollo 10, the recovery helicopter was equipped with an uprighting sling made of half-inch nylon line. One end of the sling was attached to a weapons shackle; the other end was taped in place below the starboard cabin door. If the command module was apex-down (Stable II) after splashdown, a helicopter crewman could lower the free end of the sling to a swimmer in the water, who would attach the sling to the spacecraft. The helicopter could then pull the spacecraft over to upright (Stable I) position. (12)

Other modifications to the prime recovery helicopter included installation of photo and film cameras on the starboard side. Two 70mm motion picture cameras and a 35mm still camera were carried on a specially-made mount on the starboard aft weapons position, and at least one camera was mounted on the starboard side between the sponson and the fuselage that was used to take this picture of Apollo 13 Astronaut Jack Swigert.
These cameras were pointed down to capture images of the recovery operation that could be analyzed after the mission. These supplemented the still photos and motion pictures captured by the PHOTO helicopter.

The cameras mounted on recovery helicopters had no capability to transmit live television pictures. Television audiences were limited to what the cameras aboard the recovery ship could see. Live television direct from the recovery scene did not happen until Apollo 13 in 1970, when a live television relay from the PHOTO helicopter finally became a reality. (13)


Bureau Number 152711 (Sikorsky serial number 61-377) was constructed as an SH-3D and completed on March 4, 1967. It appears to have spent its entire career with the "Black Knights" of HS-4.

At this point I have not found out why 152711 was selected as prime recovery helicopter for Apollo 8; perhaps it was the aircraft in best condition, the squadron CO's preferred aircraft, that its side number—66—had a certain something, or just luck of the draw. Regardless, it was 152711 that brought the astronauts aboard Yorktown on December 27, 1968, as live television from the recovery ship presented the historic moment to a worldwide audience.

As it happened, 152711 was also used for the Apollo 10, 11, 12, and 13 recoveries. By late 1969, even though it had received a different, three-digit side number, for the Apollo 12 mission that was painted out and replaced with "66"!

For a online gallery of pictures from the Apollo 11 recovery at the USS Hornet Museum web site, see

The USS Hornet Museum staff has also posted a gallery for the Apollo 12 recovery:

Although 152711 was repainted and renumbered a few times after its last spacecraft recovery mission, it always bore five Apollo spacecraft symbols on both sides of the nose.

Old 66 was reportedly slated to be presented to the Smithsonian Institution when after it was no longer needed by the Navy. Unfortunately, it did not survive to be so honored for its prominent role in the Apollo program. On 4 June 1975, during a night training mission using its dipping sonar, 152711 crashed into the ocean off NALF Imperial Beach, California and sank. All four crewmen were rescued although the pilot subsequently died of his injuries.

At the time of the accident, 152711 had logged 3,245.2 flight hours and flown from at least seven aircraft carriers and helicopter landing craft. Although there has been interest in locating and raising it for restoration, the effort and expense of doing so from 800 fathoms deep have so far been prohibitive.

At least three SH-3s now on display have been repainted to resemble "Old 66".  Two of these aircraft, BuNo 148999 aboard Hornet ( and BuNo 149006 in the Evergreen Aviation Museum(, are themselves actual recovery helicopters, Gemini 4 and 7 respectively. (148999 was repainted for the 1995 motion picture Apollo 13.) The third is BuNo 149711 aboard Midway in San Diego.


1. Several spaceflights ended with the astronauts coming aboard the recovery ship by means other than helicopter. This includes Mercury 6, Mercury 8, Mercury 9, Gemini 6A, Gemini 8, Gemini 9, all three Skylab missions, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This was sometimes due to the spacecraft being retrieved by a smaller backup recovery ship; other times, it was because the spacecraft landed close enough to the carrier. The long duration of the Skylab missions meant keeping the astronauts aboard the spacecraft until it was aboard ship was a safer move.

2. One myth that will not die is that USS John F. Kennedy was to have recovered Apollo 11 in order to honor the late President who sent us to the Moon, but that President Nixon vetoed this plan for political reasons. In reality, diverting JFK from the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific just for the recovery mission would have been a logistical and operational nightmare, impractical for many reasons. Correspondence between CNO Thomas Moorer and NASA Administrator George Mueller details that a CVS was chosen over an LPH because the CVS was a more prestigious ship for such a high-profile mission. Hornet herself was selected because she was readily available; had been training for related missions; was more capable than an LPH; and would not have diverted a larger carrier from duty off Vietnam. The historical record more than justifies Hornet's selection, as ship, crew and squadrons performed magnificently on a challenging mission.

3. Missions recovered by an LPH included Gemini 10 (USS Guadalcanal, with HS-3 detachment), Gemini 11 (USS Guam, with HS-3 detachment), Apollo 9 (USS Guadalcanal, with HS-3 detachment), Apollo 10 (USS Princeton, with HS-4 detachment), Apollo 13 (USS Iwo Jima, with HS-4 detachment), and Apollo 14 (USS New Orleans, with HS-6 detachment). In addition, an HC-1 detachment with SH-3Gs was deployed aboard USS Okinawa for Apollo 15, and aboard USS New Orleans for its three recoveries during the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz era. Gemini 8 would have been retrieved by USS Boxer had the mission gone as planned.

4. The lyrics for "Helicopter U.S. Navy 66" may be read here, among other places:

5. Several accounts tell the story of how SWIM TWO got the call, including Scott Carmichael's "Moon Men Return: USS Hornet and the Recovery of the Apollo 11 Astronauts" (Naval Institute Press, 2011), p. 178-183. Live TV coverage of the Apollo 11 recovery also shows SWIM ONE flying RECOVERY's wing on the way back to Hornet.

6. The live coverage of the Apollo 13 splashdown, with plenty of live video from the photo helicopter, may be seen starting here:

7. Much of this is adapted from Bob Fish, "Hornet Plus Three: The Story of the Apollo 11 Recovery" (Creative Minds Press, 2010), p. 107.

8. Al Adcock's "H-3 Sea King In Action" (Squadron/Signal Publications, 1995) implies that the SH-3s that recovered Apollo astronauts were specialized SAR variants. However, multiple sources from the period confirm the SH-3A and SH-3D aircraft from HS squadrons were fully-capable sub hunters whose primary mission was antisubmarine warfare. Had it not been, there would have been no need to remove the dipping sonar from these aircraft; and had it not been, 152711 would have not crashed during a night ASW training exercise in 1975.

9. Removal of the AN/AQS-13 equipment and installation of the SARAH equipment is mentioned in the HS-4 summary from USS Yorktown's Apollo 8 post-recovery report, provided to the author by the Naval Historical Center.

10. The first mission with Yagi-equipped recovery helicopters was the Gemini 12 recovery in November 1966, as can be seen in contemporary photos and films of the recovery. Details on the SARAH installation aboard the helicopters comes from Fish, p. 79-80.

11. USS Yorktown Apollo 8 post-recovery report.

12. Fish, p. 80.

13. Ben Kocivar's article "Waiting for Apollo 13" in the August 1970 "Popular Science" mentions the live television from the recovery scene:

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