by Tommy H. Thomason

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sikorsky SH-3D BuNo 152711 "Old 66"

Jodie Peeler is my go-to person on the Sikorsky SH-3. It turns out that she probably knows more about the iconic “Old 66” than anyone else on the planet and helped with the development of a set of decals for it.

For background on the SH-3’s spacecraft crew recovery mission in general and Old 66’s career in particular, see: Back from Space but Not Home Yet


BuNo 152711 was an SH-3D delivered to the Navy by Sikorsky in March 1967 and served for much if not all of its career with HS-4, a deployable ASW helicopter squadron. 152711 initially wore the overall Engine Gray SH-3 livery but was repainted into the white/gull gray scheme the Navy directed for the SH-3 in mid-1967. This repaint probably happened during the aircraft's first major overhaul in 1968. In any event, the repaint had long been done by the Apollo 8 recovery in December 1968. (1)

When required for spacecraft crew recovery, SH-3s were temporarily reconfigured to provide more room in the cabin for rescue equipment and personnel. The major change was the removal of the AN/AQS-13 sonar equipment in most of the embarked helicopters. The hole in the cabin floor would be covered, but the sonar well would not be plugged.

Removing the sonar also made room for the installation of SARAH (Search and Rescue and Homing) equipment. This system provided the helicopter pilots with the ability to home in on the spacecraft’s radio beacon. It used Yagi-type antennas mounted at the top of the port and starboard sponson struts; the first recovery helicopter to utilize SARAH was the Gemini 12 recovery helicopter in November 1966. (2)

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.

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.

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 camera power cables were taped to the starboard fuselage and ran up to the starboard cabin window; on Apollo 8 they hung loosely, but starting with Apollo 10 they were more securely fastened along most of their length with speed tape.


During the Apollo 8 recovery 152711 wore no special markings except for the tail code NU, the side number 66, and squadron designation HS-4. It doesn't appear to have had the recovery ship's name stenciled on anywhere.
This began to change by the Apollo 10 recovery in May 1969, when HS-4 again got the recovery assignment. USS PRINCETON was stenciled on the sponsons of each aircraft, and since HS-4 had been reassigned to CVSG-59 after the disestablishment of CVSG-55, the air group code on the tail changed from NU to NT. (3)
Just before the Apollo 10 recovery, a special "welcome home" greeting was applied to the belly, below the main cabin door. As the Apollo 10 astronauts looked up at "Old 66," they would see a giant pair of Snoopy eyes staring back, and the words "Hello Dere Charlie Brown." (This was a reference to the Command Module call sign "Charlie Brown" and the Lunar Module call sign "Snoopy.") As it happened, in all the post-splashdown activity, the astronauts probably didn't see it.

Three months later, Apollo 11 made its historic voyage to the Moon, and HS-4 was conducting its third spacecraft recovery. 152711 had no changes to its markings except for a stenciled USS HORNET replacing USS PRINCETON on the sponsons, and two tiny Apollo spacecraft applied to either side of the nose, commemorating the Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 recoveries.

 In fact, 152711 still had the "Charlie Brown" greeting on the belly until just before the Apollo 11 splashdown. It was very quickly removed and replaced with "Hail Columbia" in time for the recovery on July 24. Upon landing aboard Hornet with the astronauts aboard, a petty officer ran up to the helicopter and placed a third spacecraft decal on the nose to signify the Apollo 11 recovery as shown in the following profile and picture. (4)

For a gallery of pictures of the Apollo 11 recovery on the USS Hornet website, see
Between July and November 1969 HS-4 switched to three-digit side numbers in the 3XX range. For most aircraft this was done by painting over just the old number and applying the newer and smaller one as shown here on NT315.

However, for the Apollo 12 recovery 152711 had its new number painted out and replaced with a smaller "66" on both sides; a "66" was also added to the top of the fuselage just behind the main rotor. The area where the old number was painted out on each side is obvious in some photos.

The CVSG-59 designation was added below USS HORNET on each sponson. A fourth Apollo spacecraft emblem was placed on the nose before recovery and then covered up; that cover was removed as the helicopter landed with the astronauts aboard, and a sign reading "THREE MORE LIKE BEFORE" was taped below the cockpit.

For a gallery of pictures of the Apollo 12 recovery on the USS Hornet website, see

The last recovery for HS-4 was the Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. The HS-4 side numbers had changed to 4XX by that point, but 152711 had kept her markings from the Apollo 12 recovery. The port side of the helicopter had minimal changes, but the starboard side, which would be seen up close on television and in photos, was given a quick and very non-standard repaint with idiosyncratic stenciling. (5)

A new coat of white paint was applied and the markings were redone; the "66" was painted in a slightly chunkier fashion than the Apollo 12 version, and "Albert the Alleygator," cigar clenched in his teeth and lit stick of dynamite in his paws, was painted on the starboard cabin door just before the recovery itself.(6)

Trim colors on the rotor cap, tail and sponson tips changed from blue to red for Apollo 13, and USS IWO JIMA replaced USS HORNET on the sponsons, although the CVSG-59 lettering remained. The Apollo spacecraft were replaced and reoriented, and again the Apollo 13 emblem was applied prior to recovery and revealed as the helicopter landed aboard Iwo Jima.
 The live coverage of the Apollo 13 splashdown, with plenty of live video from the photo helicopter, may be seen starting here: (7)

Note that the Yagi array had been removed from the sponson strut when this picture was taken.

Following Apollo 13, 152711 went back to its standard mission of anti-submarine warfare. In 1971 while aboard USS Ticonderoga it wore the modex NT-401; two years later, with HS-4 aboard Kitty Hawk, it wore 040 before finally ending up with the modex NH-740 (8). Even after repaints, however, 152711 still wore five Apollo spacecraft symbols on both sides of the nose. The aircraft's history was well known, and anecdotes from HS-4 crewmembers speak of VIPs being given tours of the helicopter or, in some instances, being flown aboard it.

Unfortunately, 152711 crashed into the Pacific off the coast of southern California during a dipping sonar practice mission on the night of June 4, 1975 and sank in 800 fathoms.

At least three preserved SH-3s have been repainted to resemble long-lost "Old 66." Two of these aircraft - BuNo 148999 aboard the now-preserved USS Hornet ( and BuNo 149006 in the Evergreen Aviation Museum ( - are themselves actual recovery helicopters, having recovered Gemini 4 and Gemini 7, respectively. 148999 had been repainted as "66" for the 1995 motion picture "Apollo 13." 149006 carries spurious "ABANDON CHUTE" markings on its belly that were not carried aboard 152711 during the Apollo operation. The third "Old 66" is BuNo 149711 aboard Midway in San Diego.


Revell provides the smallest (1/530th scale) but most complete representation of the Gemini or Apollo recovery missions utilizing the SH-3. It issued its SCB-27A/125 angled-deck Essex-class kit as USS Wasp (Kit H-375) in 1968, complete with a tiny Gemini spacecraft. The same kit was reissued as USS Hornet in the "Hornet + 3" boxing (H-354), with a tiny Apollo spacecraft and an ASW air group, in 1970.

The good news is that building any SH-3 recovery helicopter in the usual modeling scales is also a fairly simple matter, as the modifications for recovery were straightforward enough to be done while deployed. However, it’s better yet if you have a set of "Old 66" decals. These were issued in both 1:72 and 1:48 variants, both for the Apollo 8-12 variants and a newer sheet depicting the Apollo 13 markings (with bonus markings included for the Apollo 12 variant). The instructions packaged with the decal sets from Old 66 Decals provided scale drawings for cameras, the camera mounts, and Yagi antennas, and also provide details on how the aircraft's markings evolved through its brief time in the spotlight.

These decals were based on decades of research and the best information we could find at the time they were designed, and include extensive instructions showing the subtle variations for each recovery. A lot of work went into them, and we believe they're the most accurate decals yet produced for this historic helicopter. And, yes, that's Albert the Alleygator on our Apollo 13 sheet, not a frog.

 The Apollo 8-12 set has long since been sold out in both scales, but an improved reprint is in the works. However, the Apollo 13 decals in both scales and with the conversion instructions are now available through Starfighter Decals (

 Artwork for other recovery helicopters is being prepared and if there's enough interest, those projects may become decals in the near future.

Interior views of any SH-3 in this time period are hard to come by, let alone "Old 66" during the Apollo era. However, the following will get you on the right track.

With the exception of the later seats and aft cabin chutes seen in this picture, the cabin with the sonar removed and the well plated over should look more or less like this aboard a recovery helicopter, but with a four-seat sling:

The period-correct seats for the operator positions and the cockpit will look like these:

Keep the electronics at the operator's station. In scale you can't see that much inside a completed SH-3 model to begin with, but keeping the electronics in the cabin will suggest the SARAH equipment installed on board.

In the aft cabin, make and install a four-place sling seat opposite the starboard door. This provides seating for the three astronauts and one physician.

My favorite reference for any Sea King Project is "Famous Aircraft of the World No. 15," available from several sources. Although it covers pretty much all Sea King variants worldwide, it has a ton of detail views and is generally indispensable for the serious Sea King modeler. It will provide you with plenty of details for the cockpit and other areas you may want to detail.

1:72 SCALE:

The most accurate kit to date is the Cyber-Hobby SH-3. I recommend getting the SH-3H boxing, which includes a somewhat more accurate interior and some other components that were missing from the SH-3D and SH-3G issue. The SH-3H kit includes both styles of sponsons, the original "teardrop" shaped and the extended one fitted to reworked SH-3Ds and SH-3Hs. Follow the instructions in my build article here (, but do not build or install the AN/AQS-13 array and winch; instead, just put a little piece of plastic over where the sonar well would be in the floor. Install the two crew positions and electronics racks behind the "broom closet," however, and extend the sling seat to a four-person variant.

Here's what Atsushi Tanaka did with the 1/72 Cyber-Hobby kit:
 More images of his excellent build are here: (your results may vary).

As for other 1/72 kits, there’s the Lindberg SH-3...well, it's Lindberg and that was once upon a time. The 1960s Airfix Sea King, while a marvel for its time, has long since been surpassed by better kits. Fujimi's Sea King kits, while an easy build that results in a nice model, are long in the tooth and look a little simple. Revell-Germany's 2000-vintage Sea King kits not only require considerable modification for non-Westland Sea Kings, but suffer from sponsons that are at least 20% too small: the difference is very noticeable. Airfix has a new-tool Westland Sea King reportedly coming in late 2015 or early 2016 that was designed using modern technology and laser measurement of an actual helicopter. It isn't yet known if other Sea King variants will be tooled, again an issue because of very notable differences between Westland and Sikorsky-built Sea Kings.

1:48 SCALE:

The Hasegawa kit, reboxed many times and also offered by Revell-Germany, is the only 1:48 Sea King. Fortunately, it's a beautiful kit, and some versions come with the shorter teardrop sponsons (although if you can't find a boxing with those sponsons, a very nice set is available in resin from Belcher Bits: Unfortunately, Hasegawa molded the starboard door shut. Opening it not only requires delicate surgery, but means you're on your own in scratchbuilding the entire cabin aft of the cockpit. These are pictures of my build.

I recommend getting inspiration from David Weeks' exquisite Apollo 9 splashdown diorama, which used the Hasegawa kit as its basis; this article ( includes a link to a Powerpoint show David put together showing in-progress views.

Hasegawa released an SH-3D issue of its Sea King kit that included decals for 152711 in the builder's choice of NT-66 on Apollo 12 or NT-401 from Ticonderoga.

And that's the knowledge I've collected from two and a half decades of being interested in spacecraft recovery, and the ships and aircraft that made it all possible. I always welcome additional information and (gentle) corrections; feel free to send them to Tommy and he'll pass them along to me.


1. A tiny picture purporting to be of 152711 in Engine Gray circulated a few years ago on the Internet but was too distant a view to verify. 152711's original appearance is perhaps better illustrated by this picture of 152713: .The repaint was directed by MIL-C-18263E(AS) Amendment I of 26 July 1967; see p. 86 of Doll/Jackson/Riley, "Navy Air Colors, Vol. II" (Squadron/Signal, 1985).

2. Details on the SARAH installation aboard the helicopters are described by Bob Fish, "Hornet Plus Three: The Story of the Apollo 11 Recovery" (Creative Minds Press, 2010), p. 79-80.

(3) HS-4 as part of CVSG-55 had been with USS Yorktown roughly since the group's establishment in 1960. The air group was disestablished in September 1968, but an eight-aircraft HS-4 detachment remained with Yorktown for the Apollo 8 recovery that December. See, among others, the CVSG-55 summary at:

4. Correspondent Ron Nessen, who represented NBC in the three-correspondent television pool aboard Hornet, told this story on the air while the recovery was underway. See

5. The author's belief that 152711 received a starboard-only repaint is substantiated by a picture posted to the KPRC History Facebook page, showing station personnel (embarked to provide pool TV coverage of the splashdown) posing against the port side of 152711 aboard Iwo Jima. The markings on the helicopter are identical to its Apollo 12 markings.

6. A popular misconception is that the green critter on the door during the Apollo 13 recovery is an angry UDT frog mascot. This has been perpetuated in decal sheets and museum recreations, among other places. That green critter on the door during Apollo 13 was Albert the Alleygator, from Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comic strip. He wasn't on the door during the run-up to the recovery, and appears to have been applied just before the recovery itself.

7. Dana McCarthy, the co-pilot of 152711 during the Apollo 13 recovery operation, has an incredible Flickr album with lots of pictures from the recovery deployment, and some very helpful pictures of 152711: Among other scenes, McCarthy has a sequence showing the "reveal" of the fifth spacecraft emblem as 152711 landed. Also, see the Popular Science article in Note 14 for more details. Also, in addition to the link in the text, Ben Kocivar’s article “Waiting for Apollo 13” in the August 1970 issue of Popular Science mentions the live television from the recovery scene:

8. See, respectively: (for NT401) and (for NH040), and "H-3 Sea King," p. 23, for 152711 as NH740.


  1. Nice to meet you!
    My name is Atsushi Tanaka.
    I made a OLD66, In reference to your article.
    It is a Japanese character page, but please see my build report.
    Best regards!

    Cyber hobby 1/72 SH-3D Sea King "Old 66" HS-4 DET. 1970

    1. Tanaka-san,

      Very, very impressive build. I took the liberty of adding one of your pictures of it to the post itself along with a link to your build report since Jodie hasn't finished her 1/72 build yet. Thanks for calling my attention to it.

  2. What a fantastic reference and great model-making from you both. Well Done!
    I hope the re-print isn't too far away as I'd like to do the Apollo12 recovery now.

  3. Greetings from Germany!

    My compliments to both the information on this page and the beautiful model. In a way I have become a modeller myself and was looking for information about this particular helicopter.

    I fly RC helicopters and stumbled over a kit for a Seaking fuselage. Currently I*m mostly work on the mechanical parts, which have to work before I can complete the model fuselage around it. There will have to be some compromises as the mechanical parts will really have to work.

    I use an older Airfix 1:72 Model kit as reference for the fuselage, which is at 1:24 scale. The fuselage is made of only eight vacuum formed parts, very much like a plastic bottle. As far as details are concerned, I'm on my own and I would lke to ask a few questions. The small Airfix model kit is not very accurate.

    And I can post some pictures of what I have so far, if there is interest. Anyway, I want to see Old 66 in the air again.

  4. Just wanted to drop you a line how much I admire and appreciate all the effort you've put into this page. Excellent reference material & drawings! I have two of the Fujimi kits & plan on turning at least the one into a recovery variant. Got my hands on a set of the 'Starfighter' sheets already & we'll see how it goes... Thanks for making all this information available to everybody - the Internet at its best :-) Keep it up & best regards, Alex

    1. All the credit for this post goes to Jodie Peeler, of course.

  5. Jodie, I admire and appreciate the care and consideration you have given to Buno 152711. I was a member of HS-4 from 1971 to 1974. I was the Logs and Records Clerk for that squadron, and I stood so many hanger watches over that bird. I knew that helicopter, I knew that her destiny was the Smithsonian... yet she did not survive. Thank you for caring so much for her, she is, and will always be, the most famous helicopter of all time.

  6. Jodie,

    Thank you very much for such an informative article. I know "Old 66" will always be "Old 66" but, for the cold record, does anyone know what was its side number at the time of Apollo 12 recovery? HS-4 had been assigned numbers in the 300 range.

  7. I realize this post is now 7 years old but....
    Tailspin wrote:
    "6. A popular misconception is that the green critter on the door during the Apollo 13 recovery is an angry UDT frog mascot. This has been perpetuated in decal sheets and museum recreations, among other places. That green critter on the door during Apollo 13 was Albert the Alligator, from Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comic strip. He wasn't on the door during the run-up to the recovery, and appears to have been applied just before the recovery itself"

    Where did you get the idea that the green character on the side of the 66 Helo on April 7, 1970 was " Albert the Alligator"? It IS Freddy The Frog, painted on BUNO 152711, the night o April 6, 1970 in the Iwo Jima's Hanger bay, by artist extraordinaire and UDT 13 recovery team swimmer that opened the door, UDT/SEAL Pete "The Pirate" Carolan. He also painted the duplicate on SH-3 used in the Ron Howard "Apollo 13" movie. I knew Pete, he passed in August 2022. If in doubt, Google his name.

    I do remember seeing a SH-3 with an alligator on the side but I dont think it was 152711, also later in the Apollo program UDT 11 got the recovery duties back, and and another SH-3 had Freddy the Frog and Underwater Demolition Team 11 painted on the side,