The Recovery of Apollo 7

A Navy pilot on the 50th anniversary of the recovery mission.

Heavy rain slapped the cockpit windows of the SH-3A Sea King helicopter, adding another element to an already tricky mission. Strapped into their flight seats, Commander Edward Skube and Lieutenant Don Broderick filtered out the thwack-thwack-thwack of the windshield wipers and focused on their instruments. The pilots were used to foul weather. Only last year, they had deployed to the choppy North Atlantic in search of Soviet submarines. This flight was different. They were looking for the Apollo 7 command module, a spacecraft the size of a truck, which had only just fallen from Earth’s upper atmosphere to the sea below. They knew it would land in an area plus or minus 25 miles, but not its exact location.

The United States Armed Forces and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had enjoyed a prosperous relationship since the early days of the Mercury program. The military’s contributions to manned spaceflight did not come merely from a pool of combat and test pilots who volunteered for the adventure of a lifetime. The U.S. Department of Defense provided rocket technology, communications, training, and legions of personnel to augment NASA operations. Some of the U.S. Navy’s greatest contributions to these endeavors came in the form of major recovery efforts at sea, to track and recover both spacecraft and spaceman after a “splash down” in the ocean.

NASA capsules were initially retrieved by Navy destroyers, but it was the helicopter, which specialized in search and rescue (SAR), that offered some of the best results for spacecraft recovery. The helicopter could reach a landing area faster than a surface ship, and with winch, hook, and cable, lift a capsule right out of the drink. This was demonstrated multiple times with considerable success. It was not a perfect performance, of course. After a water landing on 21 July 1961, the hatch on Virgil “Gus” Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 opened prematurely, and the ocean rushed into the capsule’s tiny interior. Grissom was forced to abandon ship. The Marine UH-34 Seahorse sent to retrieve the capsule could not lift the waterlogged vehicle. The air crew was forced to cut loose its valuable cargo before it pulled down the aircraft. Gus Grissom treaded water in his silver spacesuit with difficulty—his garment was rapidly collecting seawater through an intake hose—but was rescued by a Navy SH-34 Seabat.

NASA improved equipment and procedures to protect astronauts and spacecraft on the open sea. Inflation bags helped to right a command module if it capsized, while rigged flotation collars kept everything in a stable position. Pararescuemen—Navy divers—could deploy to tend to the crew. Meanwhile, carrier-based helicopters would continue in their recovery role throughout the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Seven years later, NASA was preparing Apollo 7 for an orbital evaluation of the command service module (CSM), a vital part of the spacecraft that would one day support three astronauts in a lunar mission. When the orbital phase of the mission was complete, the Apollo 7 command module (CM) would detach from the CSM and enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The U.S. Navy would be called to recovery the crew and module somewhere in the South Atlantic. The government asked for their best helicopter squadron, and Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron Five (HS-5) was tapped for the job.

The “Night-Dippers” of HS-5 were top-notch pilots and air crews trained in anti-submarine warfare (ASW), but they also had a track record for SAR operations. An assignment to the vaunted squadron, based at Naval Air Station Quonset Point in Rhode Island, was like a trip to the big leagues. The unit had received Sikorsky’s Safety Award and the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Battle Efficiency “E” award. Their SH-3A Sea Kings were some of the best multipurpose helicopters in the world. HS-5 shared the base at Quonset Point with the other ASW squadrons of Carrier Antisubmarine Air Group Fifty-Four (CVSG-54).

Apollo 7 would not launch until October 1968. HS-5 would begin training for the recovery mission in August. Their mobile base of operations would be USS Essex (CVS-9), the 41,000-ton aircraft carrier in Quonset Point. Essex had launched a year after Pearl Harbor and survived the maelstrom of the War in the Pacific, even absorbing the blast of a Japanese kamikaze in November 1944. Extensively modified in the 1950s, she was now assigned to a mission of peace with the Apollo 7 recovery.

As a lieutenant junior-grade (LTJG) with the Night-Dippers in 1968, Don J. Broderick felt lucky and honored to be selected for the mission. The pilot had flown the Sea King for about a year and learned to appreciate its power and abilities. Broderick also had a good track record. He served as the assistant weapons officer and helped supervise the squadron’s arsenal of torpedoes and depth charges. The HS-5 commanding officer, CDR Edward Skube, selected him and a handful of officers out of a complement of twenty-one pilots.

He did this, in retrospect, that number one, I had a good flight record. I got the reputation of being a good stick, plus I wanted to become an aircraft commander which I had accomplished before the pickup. I was determined to make aircraft commander while I was a JG. A lot of guys didn’t make it until they were full lieutenants, but I wanted to do it younger than anybody. I finally reached all the goals and flight tests and ASW tests, and I had to go out and direct three aircraft during ASW functions. Those were the kind of things you had to learn to become an aircraft commander. I made it, and I passed my flight test in August of that same year.

The voyage south

USS Essex departed NAS Quonset Point on 8 October with Rear Admiral T.D. Davies, the Commander of Carrier Division 20 (COMCARDIV 20) embarked on the ship. A detachment of seven SH-3As—three for Apollo search and recovery, another as a photography platform, one for the wing commander, and a couple replacements—flew out to meet the carrier. The air crews were far from idle during the voyage. On the next day, the carrier adjusted course and speed to practice recovery operations. Navy divers jumped out of the Sea Kings to reach a bobbing mockup of the Apollo 7 command module.

Broderick and his fellow pilots were careful to maintain precise air speed and altitude. He explained that while their helicopters were hardly moving, “you don’t want to break any of those numbers because the divers are jumping out, and you want to be low enough and slow enough so they don’t get hurt.” These exercises took place during Essex’s transit to the Apollo recovery area.

No sailor wants to sail on an unlucky vessel. Essex was far from that, but susceptible to accidents as any other ship. The CVS-9 log book records a number of mishaps on the trip south: a sailor cut his forehead, another his thumb, and one seaman caught something in his eye. Two crewmen were struck by a big hook in the motor whaleboat. On 17 October, the carrier’s medical staff performed an emergency appendectomy.

On 10 October, Essex was joined by the destroyer USS Putnam (DD-757) and resumed Apollo recovery practice. Essex was still a warship and put through the motions required to keep her in a state of readiness. The crew conducted general quarters, air defense, and fire emergency drills. Later that day, Essex conducted carrier qualifications and maneuvered to refuel the Putnam. C-1A Traders were busy flying personnel and cargo between ship and shore, a vital service known in naval parlance as COD, or carrier onboard delivery. Meanwhile, E-1B Tracers and S-2E Trackers launched each day to provide omnipresent radar and anti-submarine coverage.

One wonders if the Soviet Navy took time to observe the space support mission of their naval counterparts, or if the Essex group took notice of any Russian vessels. The Soviets were always counted on to appear in the vicinity of a naval operation. In January 1968, USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) was tailed by a November-class nuclear submarine in a high-speed race from California to the Hawaiian islands. In April of that year, the ill-fated USS Scorpion (SSN-589) was pestered by a Soviet destroyer that toyed with the American submarine in a series of near collisions.

Apollo 7 lifted off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral on 11 October with the thundering thrust of a Saturn IB engine. It was the first manned test of this powerful machine. Approximately two and a half minutes into flight, the crew reported S-IB cutoff, the first stage was jettisoned, and a second-stage Saturn IVB ignited. The spacecraft had already achieved some fifty miles in altitude and was sixty miles downrange. Five minutes into the flight, Apollo was nearly 250 miles downrange. Ten minutes and nineteen seconds into the flight, the S-IVB cut off, and the spacecraft was carried the rest of the way into elliptical orbit.

As Apollo 7 continued its mission, the Essex was joined by the destroyer Eugene A. Greene (DD-711). The escort took up a rescue position astern of the aircraft carrier and refueled from CVS-9 in the afternoon. The destroyer Putnam was detached for other duties. On 14 October, the carrier deployed a target sled in the water for bombing and rocket practice. Between 15 and 19 October, Essex received fuel from the oiler USS Pawcatuck (AO-108). USS Harold J. Ellison (DD-864), which served in a Project Mercury recovery unit back in 1962, met up with the carrier on 20 October before her relief from USS Stormes (DD-780). The Stormes was also no stranger to the space program, having rescued the space chimp Enos from his Mercury spacecraft in November 1961.

Yet another Navy ship had deployed for mission support. USS Arneb (AKA-56), the battle-seasoned amphibious ship that landed Marines in the island campaigns of World War II, and visited the South Pole, served as a secondary recovery vessel. After the Apollo 7 mission, Arneb would add a Meritorious Unit Commendation to her four battle stars from the Pacific.

The big day

In the wee hours of 22 October, the ship’s company on Essex “Manned all Apollo recovery stations”, and LTJG Broderick and his fellow pilots gathered in their ready room for their mission briefing. The pilots asked the NASA folks where they could expect Apollo to land in the recovery area. The response was unexpected: the command module (CM) could land in a grid 25 by 25 miles in size, but the experts could not pinpoint its exact point of landing. Broderick compared the ambiguity to a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Three SH-3As and one radar-equipped E-1 launched off the carrier by 0600. Broderick flew out in the Recovery Three helicopter with CDR Skube. Two crewmen, Chief Petty Officer Charles “Chief” Eddins and Third Class Petty Officer Dale Everett, rode along in the after-cabin with a team of Navy UDT divers and a NASA doctor. A flotation collar designed to keep the CM in an upright position was neatly secured in the rear of the compartment. NASA and the Navy made the whole operation look like clockwork. “It was a quick evolution,” Broderick recalled from that morning. “We were so excited and so busy.”

Some astronaut recovery missions were conducted in simply gorgeous weather. This was not the case in the South Atlantic. A heavy downpour reduced visibility and concealed Apollo parachute-assisted descent to the sea. The spacecraft did not show up on Essex radar. Foul weather also pushed into the big carrier, forcing it out of the recovery area. The airborne Sea Kings were ordered to stay out of the zone to avoid interference with the descending spaceship.

The situation worsened when Apollo 7 splashed into the ocean and flipped over, submerging its radio antennae and preventing communication with the carrier. Luckily, NASA engineers had planned for this contingency, and a set of inflatable balloons righted the CM from a Stable Two to Stable One position. Moments later, Broderick heard an astronaut’s voice over the radio: “USS Essex, Apollo 7 here. We are now in Stable One position.”

The CM was roughly seven nautical miles from the carrier. Essex and its helicopters swung around to intercept the spacecraft. With a general heading, Skube and Broderick began to look through the rainstorm for a five-ton metallic object, but that was no easy task. Once more, NASA came up with a trick to make things easier.

Chief Eddins came up between us in the cockpit, and he was holding it. It was a very simple device. Once you get the signal, you turn to the left. It fades out. You turn to the right. It fades out. Once you get a strong signal, it’s on your nose. And we would follow that heading and stay on that signal. It gave you an inbound heading to datum, and that made it a lot simpler. We didn’t have to set up a search pattern in this lousy weather. It made all the difference in the world. Now with our confidence improved we instantly increased power and airspeed to hasten our closure rate. Fortunately the rain started to let up a little, and bingo! There she was. . . a triangular metal speck in the cloudy, white-capped, gray distance, with three large white, inflatable devices on top!

Weather had somewhat improved with light rain, three-foot waves, and a sixteen-knot wind. It was a delightful seventy-four degrees outside, and for the benefit of the divers, the water was a comfortable eighty-one degrees. The Recovery Three helicopter dropped to ten feet and slowed to ten knots. The side door was opened and the flotation gear was tossed out the cabin. The divers sat on the edge of the deck and waited.

Apollo_7_recovery_with_SH-3_Sea_King_1968
A Navy SH-3A Sea King (BuNo 149918), piloted by CDR Skube and LTJG Broderick, with a lowered “Billy Pugh” rescue basket over the Apollo 7 command module. CPO Eddins is likely the man seen in the open doorway of the after-cabin. Note the inflated balloons atop the spacecraft and the flotation collar at its base. This snapshot was probably taken from another HS-5 helicopter that served as a photography platform. (Photo: NASA)

When the Sea King was in position, Skube gave the order. “Swimmers away. . . jump, jump, jump!”

Chief Eddins slapped each man three times on the shoulder, and one by one, the swimmers jumped into the sea. Eddins announced, “The after-cabin is secure, all divers are out.”

Skube climbed and slid off to keep the SH-3A’s powerful rotor blast and turboshaft noise from interfering with the operation. Down below, the divers rigged the flotation collar around the CM, climbed up the side of the ship, and knocked three times on the hatch. From the window, an astronaut made a “thumbs up” signal that all was well. The hatch was released and the crew of Apollo 7 came out—Captain Walter Marty “Wally” Schirra, Jr., Major Donn Fulton “Whatshisname” Eisele, and Ronnie Walter “Walt” Cunningham.

It took time to get all three astronauts aboard the helicopter. Each man was assisted into an inflatable raft on the side of the flotation collar. The Sea King returned to hover over the spaceship, and a “Billy Pugh”, or rescue basket, was lowered to the CM. An astronaut climbed in, was hoisted up, and pulled inside the after-cabin. Skube swung away once again to keep the rotorwash and noise of his aircraft from bothering the crew and divers. He returned another two times to get the other astronauts. Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra was the last to come aboard.

Broderick recounted that little time was wasted once all three astronauts were secure in his helicopter.

After Wally Schirra came aboard and the after-cabin was reported as all secure and “ready for forward flight,” that’s our cue to put the pedal to the metal. We didn’t waste one second. The other two rescue helos moved in to finish the job. We had to get back to the carrier ASAP. All the news media and everybody and their uncle, all the NASA guys, were on the flight deck.

1017px-RECOVERY_-_APOLLO_7_DVIDS728411
Astronauts Schirra, Eisle, and Cunningham pose for pictures in the after-cabin doorway of the SH-3A Sea King after landing on USS Essex (CVS-9)(Photo: Glenn Research Center)

They touched down on a landing spot forward of the Essex‘s island superstructure. The officer of the bridge watch noted the following in the ship’s log.

Underway as before. 0806 Recovered one (1) SH3A A/C. 0808 recovered one (1) SH3A A/C with the three Apollo Seven (7) astronauts aboard. 0810 Astronauts Captain W.M. Schirra Jr., 447891, U.S.N., Major D.F. Eisele, 223323, U.S.A.F., and Walt Cunningham, Civilian, reported aboard.

Cunningham and Eisle came up to the cockpit to thank the pilots for the pickup. Schirra was still back in the after-cabin. The spacecraft commander wasn’t being rude. Since there were so many reporters waiting for them on the flight deck, the man was in urgent need of a comb.

He asked my second crewman Dale if he had a comb because they did not have any ball caps. He wanted his hair to be neat, because he was a very handsome man, and a very handsome astronaut. Believe it or not, Petty Officer Dale had kind of a full head of hair and he always carried a comb. He passed his comb to Schirra. Walt Cunningham had a crew cut. Donn Eisele had good hair.

2048px-RECOVERY_-_APOLLO_7_DVIDS681742
Astronauts Schirra, Eisle, and Cunningham exit the SH-3A Sea King after landing on USS Essex (CVS-9). Note the cable rescue hoist mounted above the after-cabin door used to bring the three astronauts into the aircraft. (Photo: Glenn Research Center)

Fanfare was a bit of an understatement. The astronauts emerged from the Sea King to a big white staircase set before a red carpet and a crowd of Navy officers, NASA officials, and reporters. The astronauts received Essex ball caps, paused for photographs, and headed down to sickbay for a checkup. There was a subsequent ceremony in the hangar deck followed by a banquet and a big cake.

CDR Skube got in on the action, but LTJG Broderick and their crewmen were not invited. Broderick did go up again later that day to check out a repaired Sea King. He returned to learn that he had conducted the 22,000th helicopter landing on USS Essex. The carrier and its air wing returned to NAS Quonset point on 28 October.

In the month after the mission, Broderick got the chance to visit Sikorsky’s helicopter plant in Stratford, Connecticut and meet a man who was very pleased to see his aircraft had functioned well: Igor Sikorsky himself. They attended a lunch, and later, Broderick flew to the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts where the Sea King’s T-58 turboshaft engines were manufactured. He even posed for photographs with his father, Dr. Hugh Broderick, who happened to be physician in the plant dispensary.

The Apollo 7 mission was a major stepping stone in manned spaceflight and the prelude to the greatest adventure of them all, a manned lunar landing. It can also be said that the success of these missions relied upon the safe recovery of both astronauts and spacecraft, which is greatly attributed to the United States Navy.

Additional Sources

Evans and Grossnick. United States Naval Aviation: 1910-2010. (History.navy.mil)

Krantz, Gene. Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

NASA. Apollo Program Summary Report (JSC-09423). April 1975. (History.nasa.gov)

NASA. Mercury Project Summary (NASA SP-45). (History.nasa.gov/SP-45)

Deck Log Book of the USS Essex (CVS-9). 1-31 October 1968. (Archives.gov)

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