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Diving after a 50-year-old mystery: Was helicopter wreckage found off San Diego the famed Helo 66?

John Wilkens, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

But which one?

Stalter, a 35-year-old firefighter in San Diego, and Eldridge, a 54-year-old cyber security adviser from Newport Beach, met in a roundabout way because of COVID-19.

Eldridge takes diving vacations to famous wrecks — Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia, for example, a kind of underwater Disneyland because it’s home to more than 100 sunken World War II ships, planes and submarines. But when the coronavirus pandemic curtailed international travel, he turned his eyes to more local waters. That led him to Stalter.

Both have an interest in history, and in solving mysteries that might bring comfort, if not closure, to people forever wondering about loved ones lost at sea.

It’s an issue now 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 Aug. 31. The wreckage is believed to be in waters 4,000 to 6,000 feet deep. An underwater search and salvage operation began last week.

“There are a lot of air crews missing in the waters off Southern California,” Stalter said. “Most of them don’t show up in official MIA databases. It’s important to research them and get their stories told.”


Telling the story of the Sea King eventually involved about 100 hours of combined sleuthing.

They came back from the first dive still believing that the copter might be the fabled Helo 66, but they hadn’t found any pieces with a bureau number or tail number that would allow a positive identification.

And they were bothered by something: the location of the dipping sonar. Helo 66 crashed while it had the sonar deployed in the water, attached to a cable. The sonar in all likelihood would be some distance away 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 the cable rolled up on a spool.

Had the helicopter crew reeled in the cable in an effort to avoid crashing? Or had Eldridge and Stalter located a different bird?


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