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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

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

To Stalter and Eldridge, all the pieces fit. They are now almost 100% certain that the wreckage they found is from the helicopter that crashed in 1968.

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

They’ve notified the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., which has underwater archaeologists who oversee the identification and preservation of sunken military craft. In general, the agency leaves wreckage in place and considers hallowed those sites associated with a loss of life.

Eldridge wrote a post on his diving blog about the discovery and apparent 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 the divers have that solving these mysteries can ripple through the lives of those directly affected. One of the veterans was close friends with Gustav Herrmann, the co-pilot whose body was never recovered after the crash.

“If this proves to be his helicopter,” the veteran wrote, “treat it as sacred ground.”

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

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

As the squadron’s senior pilot on that September afternoon in 1968, Sanborn, a 26-year-old lieutenant, got the assignment to test out the copter after its overhaul. He and Herrmann, 25, had flown together before, a couple of dozen times. The third crew member was Robert May, 27, an electrician’s mate.

 

They picked it up at North Island and did hover testing over land, then headed out to sea. They were testing equipment that lets pilots dump fuel in an emergency, about 200 feet over the ocean surface, when both engines flamed out. The malfunction is believed to have been caused by faulty installation of an electrical connection to the fuel pumps, Sanborn said.

He blacked out from the impact and came to underwater, still belted to his seat. As he had been trained to do, he reached over to release the side window, but the side window wasn’t there. Somehow his seat had become separated from the copter with him still in it.

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

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 crash, Sanborn retired from active duty. He spent another 15 years in the reserves, flying Sea Kings out of San Diego and San Francisco.

Now he’d like to revisit his past, or at least the part reawakened by the apparent discovery of the helicopter. He’s planning to get on a boat with the divers, go out to a spot above the wreckage, and drop a wreath over the side.

“Closure,” he said. “It’s closure.”

For him. For Herrmann’s family. For a mystery solved.

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