Dive after a 50-year-old mystery: Was a helicopter wreck found off San Diego, the famous Helo 66?

A Royal Navy Sea King helicopter takes off from HMS Albion during Exercise Auriga July 14, 2010, near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. astronauts from their capsules after the lunar mission splash. (Christopher Furlong, Getty Images / TNS)

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) – Scuba divers Brett Eldridge and Tyler Stalter enjoy exploring the wrecks of ships and planes laid by fate on the ocean floor – sunk in stormy weather, torn apart by war, assaulted by a mechanical accident.

They also share a passion for historic undiscovered carcasses, these time-lost ships and quicksand. They know the waters off Southern California are home to dozens of them. So they look at sonar cards and video footage taken by remote-controlled submersibles looking for signs of ghostly ruins, then dive in to see what’s there.

Last year, about four miles from Pacific Beach, Stalter located a World War II Dauntless bomber. He fell during training from the North Island, killing two airmen whose bodies have never been found.

This summer, divers found what they believed to be the holy grail of lost helicopters, a Navy Sea King famous for ripping Apollo astronauts from their capsules after the lunar mission landings.

Informally known as Helo 66, for the number painted on its side, the Sea King crashed west of Coronado during a night training mission on June 4, 1975. Four crew members were rescued, but one died a few weeks later from his injuries.

Although an accident report says the helicopter sank in water about 4,800 feet deep, there have been rumors in military and diving circles that it has been spotted over the years. in a much shallower sea, about 200 feet deep. Some of the reports claimed the fuselage was still intact – unlikely, due to the way helicopters typically fall apart in crashes, but tantalizing.

So when Stalter was on the internet one day and saw underwater video footage of what looked like helicopter wreckage in local waters – and at a depth that matched rumors – he and Eldridge got excited. They chartered a dive boat, Marissa, in July.

Such a deep dive is beyond the reach of recreational compressed air cylinders. Trained as technical divers, the two have instead used mixed gas, a technique that allows for deeper dives but shortens the length of time they can stay below as it requires decompression stops on the way up.

They had about 20 minutes to explore, and what they found was promising. A main rotor and a motor. Pieces of a fuselage and part of a tail with some letters on it. A tail rotor and two-wheeled landing gear. Diving sonar, used to hunt submarines.

“Definitely a Sea King,” Eldridge said.

But which one?

Stalter, a 35-year-old firefighter in San Diego, and Eldridge, a 54-year-old cybersecurity consultant from Newport Beach, have met in a roundabout way over COVID-19.

Eldridge takes a diving vacation to famous wrecks – the Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia, for example, a kind of underwater Disneyland as it is home to over 100 ships, planes and submarines sunk during WWII. But when the coronavirus pandemic curtailed international travel, it turned to more local waters. This led him to Stalter.

Both are interested in the story and solving mysteries that could bring comfort, if not closure, to those who still wonder about loved ones lost at sea.

It is now a problem for the families of the five Navy sailors killed when their MH-60S Seahawk helicopter crashed while trying to land on an aircraft carrier off San Diego on August 31. The wreckage is believed to be in waters 4,000 to 6,000 feet deep. . An underwater search and rescue operation began last week.

“There are a lot of missing crews in the waters off Southern California,” Stalter said. “Most of them don’t appear in official MIA databases. It is important to seek them out and have their stories told.

Telling the story of the Sea King ultimately took around 100 combined detective hours.

They returned from the first dive still believing that the helicopter could be the legendary Helo 66, but could not find any part with an office number or tail number that would allow positive identification.

And they were hampered by something: the location of the diving sonar. Helo 66 crashed while deploying the sonar in the water, attached to a cable. The sonar would in all likelihood be some distance from the rest of the wreckage on the ocean floor. But it was found next to part of the main fuselage, with what appeared to be all of the cable coiled onto a spool.

Did the helicopter crew wrap the cable to avoid crashing? Or had Eldridge and Stalter located a different bird?

They did more research and learned that another helicopter had crashed in the area in October 1964, 11 years before Helo 66. It was during a night training mission when it entered the area. water with four people on board. All were saved.

It was also a Sea King, but a different model. One of the differences was the length of the sonar cable. Helo 66 carried a 500-foot cable; the 1964 helicopter would have had a 250-foot one.

In August, Eldridge came down for a second examination of the wreckage with fellow diver, Ben Lair. (Stalter was out of town.) They took measurements of the cable reel to calculate an approximate cable length. They came with 250 feet.

Mystery solved. It wasn’t Helo 66 – a disappointment, Eldridge said – but perhaps the Sea King that had crashed 11 years earlier.

Except when Eldridge shared his findings with a military aviation expert, the expert raised doubts. If the wreckage was from 1964, the helicopter would be all gray in color, the expert noted. The one at the bottom of the ocean had white lumps. The Navy changed the color scheme from all gray to gray and white in 1967.

Unsolved mystery.

Digging deeper into his research, Stalter found newspaper clippings mentioning a third Sea King crash off the coast of San Diego. It crashed on September 3, 1968, during a test flight. The helicopter had just undergone a major overhaul at North Island. Two crew members were rescued by a nearby fishing boat. A third aviator has never been found.

The location of the crash, about 10 miles off Imperial Beach, made it a possible match for the wreckage. The date also matches the gray and white color scheme.

When Eldridge made his second dive to the helicopter, he took a scrub brush to remove mud from the debris. On the tail, he found black tail code letters identifying which group of aircraft carriers the helicopter was part of.

One of the letters was clearly an “N”. The second letter was only partially visible due to the damage caused by the accident. But it didn’t look like an “E”, which Helo 66 would have had, and it didn’t look like a “U”, which would have matched the 1964 Sea King.

It could be an “S”, however, and it corresponds to the helicopter that crashed in 1968. The aircraft carrier Kearsage was then between deployments and stationed in San Diego. One of its anti-submarine helicopter squadrons, the HS-6, flew Sea Kings with the tail code “NS”.

For Stalter and Eldridge, all the pieces fit together. They are now almost 100% sure that the wreckage they found was from the helicopter that crashed in 1968.

“It’s like a puzzle,” Eldridge said. “You get some satisfaction when you put it all together. “

They informed the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC, which has underwater archaeologists overseeing the identification and preservation of sunken military craft. In general, the agency leaves wrecks in place and considers sites associated with loss of life sacred.

Eldridge wrote an article on his diving blog about the discovery and apparently positive identification. Stalter shared the link on social media, including a Facebook page for the HS-6 helicopter squadron.

Several veterans responded, reinforcing the belief of divers that solving these mysteries can impact the lives of those directly affected. One of the veterans was a close friend of Gustav Herrmann, the co-pilot whose body was never found after the crash.

“If it turns out it’s his helicopter,” the veteran wrote, “treat it like holy ground.”

The divers also tracked down Don Sanborn, the helicopter pilot. He is 79, a retired real estate executive who divides his time between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.

“Even though this happened 53 years ago,” Sanborn said in a telephone interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, “I’m amazed at the specific things I remember.”

As the squadron’s lead pilot that afternoon in September 1968, Sanborn, a 26-year-old lieutenant, was assigned to test the helicopter after its overhaul. He and Herrmann, 25, had flown together about 20 times. The third crew member was Robert May, 27, a journeyman electrician.

They picked it up on the North Island and did some hover tests over land, then headed out to sea. They were testing equipment that allows pilots to drain fuel in the event of a crash. emergency, about 200 feet above the ocean surface, when both engines shut down. The malfunction was believed to have been caused by improperly installing an electrical connection to the fuel pumps, Sanborn said.

He passed out from the impact and came back under the water, still strapped to his seat. As he had been trained to do, he reached out to release the side window, but the side window was not there. Somehow, his seat had separated from the helicopter with him still in it.

Sanborn undid the seat belt and swam to the surface, inadvertently gulping fuel. His boots and helmet had been ripped off in the crash. His life jacket had torn.

May surfaced nearby, but Herrmann never did. He left behind a wife, Jan, who was pregnant.

A small fishing boat picked up the survivors. Sanborn said he spent about two weeks in the hospital.

Two months after the accident, Sanborn retired from active service. He spent another 15 years in the Reserve, piloting Sea Kings from San Diego and San Francisco.

Now he would like to revisit his past, or at least the part awakened by the apparent discovery of the helicopter. He plans to get on a boat with the divers, get to a place above the wreckage, and lay a wreath on the side.

“Closure,” he said. “It’s closure.”

For him. For the Herrmann family. For a solved mystery.

© 2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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