Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 24, 2019: Splashdown!
On this special edition of Warship Weds, you know we had to cover this. Although technically out of our time frame, Hornet was a WWII steam-powered flattop that was in her 26th year of service during this memorable occasion, so this is WWeds territory all day:
Here we see Sikorsky SH-3D Sea King No. 66 (BuNo 152711) from Helicopter Squadron Four (HS-4), piloted by CDR Don Jones, operating from the primary recovery ship USS Hornet (CVS-12) which is 12 miles over the horizon and coming fast at 22 knots. Old 66 is moving to retrieve the crew of Apollo 11 from their Columbia command module in the Pacific Ocean. The date is 24 July 1969, some 50 years ago today.
Hornet, an early “short-hulled” Essex-class fleet carrier built during the darkest days of World War II, had originally been laid down as the third USS Kearsarge, 3 August 1942, at Newport News but her name was switched to honor the lost USS Hornet (CV-8), which had been sunk in the Battle of Santa Cruz on 26 October 1942. Commissioning on 29 November 1943 (try to get a 40,000-ton carrier built in just 15 months today!) she went on to fight her way across the Pacific and earned seven battle stars along with a Presidential Unit Citation for her service in WWII.
Following a 1950s SCB-27A conversion, Hornet reentered the fleet as an attack carrier (CVA-12) too late for Korea and by 1959, following a subsequent SCB-125 conversion, was pulling down regular anti-sub duty as an ASW carrier (CVS-12) from San Diego to Japan. She clocked in on Yankee Station off Vietnam following an SCB-144 upgrade and did her part in supporting NASA operations.
Which brings us to the moment she brought the Apollo 11 crew home.
On 16 July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins were launched from Cape Kennedy atop a massive Saturn V rocket with the first two aforementioned space travelers descended to the surface of the Moon on four days later on the Lunar Command Module Eagle before rejoining the Columbia Command Module for the trip back home. Of the 6.5-million-pound Saturn, just the 9,130-pound Columbia capsule was destined to return to Earth via splashdown at sea, and Hornet was tasked to take it from there.
Named primary recovery ship on 1 June, after six weeks of prep work, our vintage carrier staged to Pearl from San Diego and sailed out for the Mid-Pacific Line at 1600 on 12 July, she initiated some 600 Hornet and civilian (NASA and press) personnel into the Realm of Neptunus Rex along the way. While waiting for Columbia’s splashdown some 800 miles southwest of Hawaii, she conducted training from Apollo boilerplates and received RADM (later ADM) Donald C. Davis, Commander, Task Force 130, on 22 July and CINCPAC ADM John S. McCain Jr. on 23 July.
The Black Knights of HS-4, having previously recovered both Apollo 8 and Apollo 10, was tasked with executing the recovery mission. Five SH-3 Sea Kings (dubbed RECOVERY) would deploy to the splashdown area: one to recover the astronauts, two to deploy swim teams, one to photograph the mission, and one as an escort and standby for the primary recovery aircraft.
Three E-1B Tracers (Stoofs with a roof, dubbed RELAY for the operation) were launched from Hornet for support. Two HC-130s SAR Herks flying out of Hawaii were overhead for support, dubbed RESCUE.
Four specially equipped swimmers of UDT-11 (John Wolfram, Clancy Hatleberg, Mike Mallory and Wes Chesser, fresh from Vietnam combat rotations and veterans of the Apollo 10 recovery) were prepped for the waterborne portion in two teams (Swim One and Two). The swimmers’ first task was to stabilize the command module by attaching and inflating a custom-made flotation collar around the blunt end of the spacecraft. The next task was to attach a large, seven-man raft to the flotation collar into which the astronauts, after donning special Biological Isolation Garments (BIG) exited from the Command Module. After further decontamination, the astronauts were to be flown to Hornet while the swimmers would prepare Columbia for recovery by the carrier via crane.
RADM (later ADM) Donald Cooke Davis, Commander, Task Force 130, arrived aboard Hornet on July 22. President Nixon, who had notably been a naval officer in the Pacific in WWII and only moved to the retired list in 1966, was inbound.
From Hornet’s cruise book, the events on 24 July:
(All times listed are GMT, local time was XRAY +11)
1518- LAUNCHED AIRCRAFT~ FIVE SH-3Ds and three E-1Bs
1600 MARINE ONE 12 miles from HORNET
1603 1MC Announcement · “United States arriving”
1604 Hawaii Rescue ONE (HC-130) on station
1605 Hawaii Rescue TWO (HC-130) on station
1612 President arrived in MARINE ONE
1613 President greeted by CINCPAC, CTF 130 and Commanding Officer
1614 President entered Hangar Bay TWO
1617 President inspected MQF (Mobile Quarantine Facility)
1618 President inspected BIG (Biological Isolation Garments)
1619 President departed Hanger Bay TWO
1633 All aircraft on station; ship speed 14 knots, steering north by northeast.
1635 Apollo 11 entry
1636 Begin blackout
1639 End blackout
Rescue ONE and Rescue TWO reported S-band contact
Rescue ONE reported visual fireball
1640 Rescue TWO reported visual fireball
HORNET radar contact 230 degrees true 130NM
HORNET Lookouts reported visual fireball 210 degrees true
1642 HORNET radar contact 65NM. Drogue chutes open.
1644 Double sonic boom reported by lookouts
1645 Main chutes open
1646 RELAY reported Command Module three main chutes and flashing light
HORNET established communications with Apollo 11 Crew reported “in good shape”
1648 Swim ONE, Swim TWO, Recovery and HORNET reported recovery beacon contact. CM passing 2500 feet
1649 Swim ONE reported visual contact with Apollo 11 as it passed through 800 feet.
Apollo 11 splashdown
1650 Apollo 11 reported in Stable TWO
1651 Dye marker deployed chutes severed
RECOVERY on station
1654 Three helos on scene 11.5 miles to CM, heading SW
1655 Speed 20 knots; CM 11.4 miles dead ahead
1656 Apollo 11 in Stable ONE.
1658 First swimmer in the water
1700 Swim team #2 in water
1701 Astronauts reported their check-off list complete
Three swimmers in water; flotation collar in water, HORNET speed 22 knots
1703 Flotation collar installed and inflated
1704 Raft in water
1705 Raft inflated and tethered to CM
1707 Sea anchor deployed from raft #2. BIG Swimmer in water (Lt Clancy Hatleberg)
1709 Bag of BIGs and decontaminate lowered to raft #2
1711 Astronauts reported, “all of us excellent, take your time.”
1712 BIG swimmer dons garment
1113 Range 7 miles
1715 Range 6.25 miles, report by astronauts to the effect that they are doing fine. Their spacecraft “not as stable as HORNET but stable enough”
1717 Raft 10 feet from CM; range 5.5 miles
1718 BIG swimmer in raft #1, secured it to CM
1719 BIG swimmer placed the bag of BIGs in CM.
1720 BIG swimmer made preparations for CM decontamination
1725 Range 2.75 miles course 244; speed 21 knots
1727 Astronauts open the hatch and commence exit, the first astronaut in the raft
1728 Second astronaut in the raft
1729 Third astronaut in a raft.
1731 BIG swimmer secures hatch. All water wings inflated
1733 Speed 13 knots; BIG swimmer scrubbing lower portion of CM (reportedly with Betadine)
1734 BIG swimmer commenced decontamination of CM
Speed 11 knots, the ship is turning; BIG swimmer completed decontamination of CM
1735 BIG swimmer scrubbing down first astronaut
1736 Speed 8 kts; course 000; decontamination of first astronaut completed
1737 Commence decontamination of the second astronaut, speed 7kts, ship passing through 025.
1738 Decontamination of second astronaut completed
1739 Commenced decontamination of the third astronaut
1742 RECOVERY surgeon states all okay; no breaks in the decontamination procedures
1744 Decontamination process completed, commence decontaminating raft #1
1745 Course 075′; DIW Command Module 950 yds to port. Swimmers taking their positions
1748 RECOVERY making approach for the first astronaut
1749 First astronaut hoisted in sling into RECOVERY
1750 Commence second approach second astronaut in sling hoist
1752 Third astronaut in sling hoist
1757 RECOVERY landed on the flight deck
1801 RECOVERY lowered to Hangar Bay #2 on #2 elevator.
1802 RECOVERY enters Hangar Bay #2,
1804 RECOVERY guided in front of MQF.
1807 Astronauts leave aircraft and enter MQF door of MQF closed behind astronauts; walk area decontaminated
1808 RECOVERY removed.
1839 Mr. Ben James~ NASA spokesman announces doctor has found astronauts fit.
1853 President enters MQF area to sound of ruffles and flourishes
1854 Astronauts draw curtain open.
1855 President addresses astronauts.
1903 President leaves MQF area en route to the flight deck.
1905 President on the flight deck where he greets flight deck crew
1908 President enters Marine ONE.
1911 President departs. Time on board 9 3 hours.
1912 CINCPAC addresses crew over 1MC.
1930 CINCPAC departs.
1931 Commenced approach to CM from a range of 2500 yards
1949 CM out of water
1952 Flotation collar cut from CM
The ship enjoyed a special “Splashdown” Menu
Buzz Aldrin filed the travel voucher to get reimbursed for the trip.
The relics of the Columbia recovery are very well preserved. After touring the country, the module itself was donated to the collection of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum
CDR Don Jones, Black Knights Sea King #66’s pilot, donated his helmet to the U.S. Navy Museum, where it is in their collection.
Helicopter 66 would also be used for the Apollo 12 and 13 recovery, with HS-4 being presented with Meritorious Unit Commendations for their efforts in the program. Tragically, after 3,245.2-hours of service, “Old 66” crashed while on a training mission off Imperial Beach in 1975, sinking to 800 fathoms but at least three replicas exist in aviation museums today wearing the famous chopper’s livery.
As for the Knights themselves, they are still around, dubbed Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Four (HSC-4), flying MH-60S Seahawks with CVW-2.
On the UDT side of the house, Wes Chesser’s duck feet from the Apollo 11 splashdown are in the NHHC collection.
With frogmen being frogmen, there are of course other keepsakes in private hands. In the period they were left alone in the water with Columbia after the Sea Kings had departed, the four UDT divers were able to score small pieces of the aircraft’s gold reentry shield that were flaking off in the water after a 500,000-mile round trip.
“We knew once they got that capsule back to the Hornet, they would guard it like Fort Knox and we wouldn’t get anywhere near it,” Wolfram told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently.
The floatation collars and bag used on Apollo 11 is at the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles displayed on an Apollo program egress trainer command module used by the UDT team prior to the recovery. It was transferred from NASA to the Smithsonian in 1977 and is set up next to the Mobile Quarantine Facility trailer. I made sure to check it out this week as I am in the DC area on business.
And of course, Hornet was decommissioned less than a year after Columbia’s recovery, on 26 June 1970, although she did find the time to recover Apollo 12’s Yankee Clipper as well.
In 1998, she opened to the public as USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, California, where she remains today.
One small step, indeed.
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