I had typed this up as a response in a thread previously, but when talking about it earlier today, I decided they need their own thread. The mission
the Test Group performed was extraordinary, and not well known.
The 6594th Test Group was stood up in 1958 to support Air Force Systems Command missile and space development operations in the Pacific. In 1995
large portions of their real mission were declassified (for those that didn't live and work around them, it was an open secret on base with them).
Beginning in 1960, the unit, flying JC-119 Boxcars and H-21 helicopters would attempt to recover film canisters falling from Corona program
satellites, the first US spy satellites. The first successful in flight recovery occurred August 19, 1960. The mission was flown by a number of
JC-119, H-21s to recover the capsule if it landed in the water, and RC-121 aircraft to try to track the capsule on radar to guide the JC-119s in to
the area to catch it.
The capsule was captured in flight by flying over the top of the parachute, with several poles extended out the back of the aircraft through the cargo
door. The poles had as many as 8 hooks attached to them, and would snag on the parachute. The capsule would then be retrieved into the aircraft, and
flown back to Hickam. Once at Hickam the film was flown back to New York where it was developed and analyzed at the Eastman Kodak Hawkeye facility.
Each film canister cost between $7 and $25 million, and was filled initially with 8,000 feet of film for each camera (16,000 feet total), and later
with 16,000 feet of film for each camera (32,000 feet total).
The mission proved so successful that Test Group received brand new JC-130B Hercules aircraft to replace their JC-119s, along with six SH-3
helicopters. The helicopters would be supported by two WWII Era Liberty Ships modified with landing pads and hangars. In 1967 they received an
additional three JC-130H to support Senior Bown (D-21) missions.
When on a recovery, as many as seven C-130s would fly to the target area, where they would wait for the transponder to activate on the capsule. The
aircraft closest would move into position, and attempt to make the recovery. If they failed, and the capsule landed in the water, one of the
helicopters would move in, and recover it from the ocean, using a rescue swimmer and hoist.
In 1974 the last aircraft upgrade occurred when they received six HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopters with refueling probes, and three HC-130P
Hercules modified to refuel helicopters in flight. These replaced the two ships, and the SH-3s. The HH-53s carried rescue swimmers on their missions
to send them into the water to hook the capsules if they landed in the water, which meant that when they weren't recovering satellites, they were
available to help the Coast Guard with rescue missions.
This led to tragedy in 1985 however. On January 15th 1985, Test Group received a call from the Coast Guard that a ship located 540 miles North of
Oahu, well out of helicopter range for anyone else, had a sailor in trouble. The Asian Beauty had a 27 year old British sailor with apparent internal
bleeding, who needed to be airlifted.
Capt. David Mason, Capt.Steve Pindzola, 2nd LT. Russel Ohl, Ssgt. Kyle Marshall, Ssgt. Daniel Reihman, Ssgt. John R. Gilbert, and Ssgt. Robert Jermyn
boarded HH-53 tail number 355. Aircraft 357 would accompany them on the mission, with an HC-130P tanker aircraft, due to the range. Their callsign
for the mission was Arris 01. Upon arriving over the Asian Beauty, 355 moved into position and began to lower one of the rescue swimmers to the deck.
During the deployment, the tail of the aircraft suffered a catastrophic failure, and broke off, taking the tail rotor with it. The aircraft
instantly went out of control, and slammed into the deck of the ship, where it exploded, killing all 7 crew members. Capt. Mason had been on his
honeymoon at the time of the accident, and returned early as a volunteer specifically for this mission.
The 6594th Test Group operated from 1958 until 1986, and completed 40,000 successful "catches" during that time, including 200 film canisters, as
well as supporting dozens of missile and weather balloon operations. More than 60 people were rescued, in one of the best records in the entire Air
Force for open water rescues. They were the only unit in the free world that performed this mission, and all recoveries took place near Hawaii.
During one of their recovery missions a Soviet sub was detected under the recovery area. After that, a method was developed to allow the satellite to
develop the film in orbit, and electronically scan the images down to earth, ending the mission of the 6594th Test Group.
At the time of deactivation, the unit had 7 JC-130Bs, 3 JC-130Hs, 5 HH-53s (355 was never replaced), and 3 HC-130P tanker aircraft.