At 0550 local time on July 24th 1969, Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean south of Johnston Atoll and 920 miles southwest of Honolulu in Hawaii. Assigned as the primary recovery ship for Apollo 11, the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CVS-12) had recently returned from her final WestPac deployment with Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Group FIVE SEVEN (CVSG-57) embarked. During that deployment, CVSG-57 consisted of Air Anti-Submarine Squadron THREE FIVE (VS-35) Boomerangers and VS-37 Sawbucks flying the Grumman S-2E Tracker, Airborne Early Warning Squadron ONE ONE ONE (VAW-111) Grey Berets Detachment 12 flying the Grumman E-1B Tracer, and Helicopter Anti-submarine Warfare Squadron TWO (HS-2) Golden Falcons flying the Sikorsky SH-3A Sea King helicopter.
When Hornet put into Pearl, she traded some of the squadrons from CVSG-57 for a more specialized group. Aboard the Hornet for the Apollo 11 recovery from CVSG-59 were HS-4 Black Knights flying the SH-3D variant of the Sea King, along with a detachment from VAW-111 Grey Berets still flying their Grumman E-1B Tracers, and a detachment from Fleet Logistics Support Squadron THREE ZERO (VR-30) Providers flying the Grumman C-1A Trader. Also embarked were Underwater Demolition Teams Eleven (UDT-11) and Twelve (UDT-12). Aboard the Hornet when she pulled out of Pearl and headed southwest toward the recovery area was one particular SH-3D Sea King helicopter- one that would become perhaps the most famous Sea King ever.
Apollo 11 had blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida eight days earlier. The famous transmissions from the moon had thrilled the world; the landing on the moon in the lunar module and the iconic “Houston, Tranquility Base here – the Eagle has landed” call crackling over the airwaves. Then the first steps on the dusty surface and Neil Armstrong’s famous line: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was an awesome time to be alive and recognize the accomplishments of Armstrong, Aldwin, and Collins that summer. But if they couldn’t be expediently fished out of the Pacific then the story would certainly not have ended anywhere near as well as it did!
They got a good start by splashing down only 13 miles from the Hornet. Nearly 20 practice recoveries were made during the days leading up to the splashdown of Columbia, as the command module was named. Weather concerns forced the Hornet to relocate 250 miles eastward. President Richard M. Nixon, Admiral John S. McCain (CINCPAC), and several other VIPs arrived and were aboard the Hornet that day. But a helicopter would upstage them all. Sikorsky SH-3D Sea King, Bureau Number (BuNo) 152711 and side number 66 (Old 66), assigned to HS-4 Black Knights, would become the most famous and photographed SH-3D ever.
There were actually four HS-4 helos in the air that morning. One SH-3D was stationed a few miles astern of the carrier; another would remain on station the same distance ahead of the ship. The primary recovery helo and a photography helo circled the ship at a distance of about a mile. Word was passed that the Hornet had detected the descending Columbia on radar. The primary and photo helos set out toward the splashdown area. When they arrived just before dawn, Columbia was floating upside down in calm seas. The astronauts inflated the three large flotation balloons, which righted the command module. Then the recovery began in earnest.
Old 66, piloted by Commander Don Jones, dropped a location marker close to the bobbing Columbia. UDT-11, led by Lieutenant Clancy Hatleberg, arrived on another HS-4 rotorcraft. Hatleberg and two other swimmers jumped into the ocean along with a couple of life rafts and the floatation collar for Columbia. Another HS-4 rotorcraft delivered the biological isolation suits the astronauts would wear. After he donned his own isolation suit, LT Hatleberg quickly opened up the hatch and delivered three suits to the astronauts before closing the hatch again. Because space germs! Anyway, once the astronauts had made their way into their suits (and masks) they exited the command module and went aboard an orange life raft lashed to the Columbia.
BuNo 152711 had been delivered to the Navy in 1967 and had participated in the recoveries of two other Apollo missions: Apollo 8 and Apollo 10. The rotorcraft had been reconfigured for the recovery. This required the removal of the AN/AQS-13 dipping sonar equipment normally found inside the hull of the helo and replacing it with the Search Rescue and Homing (SARAH) homing beacon localizer- a system designed to find lost space capsules floating on the vast Pacific. Helo #66 also had several cameras installed on her starboard side.
Old 66 moved in and hovered while the crew hoisted the three astronauts into the rotorcraft without incident. The Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Hornet 37 minutes after Columbia’s hatch had first been opened. After landing on the Hornet the helo was towed to the deck edge elevator and lowered to the hangar deck where the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) awaited their arrival. From there you know the rest of the Apollo 11 story. The story of Old 66 continued…
BuNo 152711 wore different side numbers from time to time, but for the two additional Apollo recovery missions she always wore the side number 66. Before too long Old 66 had five Apollo command modules stenciled on her hull- Apollos 8, 10, 11, 12, and 13. A recovery ace. After starring on film and TV the world over not once but five times, Old 66 went back to work with HS-4. No matter where the rotorcraft was assigned, whether as side number 401 on the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) or as side number 740 aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), those five stenciled Apollo mission markings remained intact. Unfortunately the most recognizable Sea King helo in the world was lost off the coast of Southern California on June 4th 1975 while flying a dipping sonar practice mission. Old 66 lies about 800 fathoms down today. But Old 66’s legacy remains. Several other Sea King helicopters, some actual former recovery rotorcraft themselves, wear the famous side number 66 markings- one of them aboard the museum ship Hornet at Alameda.
Enjoy this footage from the Hornet of the Apollo 11 recovery…including shots of Old 66 uploaded to YouTube by orbitcreativefilm.