Lyons man flew helicopter that picked up astronaut Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard, the first American in space, speaks with Wayne Koons and George Cox.
Alan Shepard, the first American in space, speaks with Wayne Koons and George Cox. Courtesy photo

On May 5, 1961, as the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7 splashed down, then bobbed in the Atlantic, a Kansas farm boy hovered nearby in the U.S. Marine Corps helicopter he was piloting. That was the day Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American in space.

And, as the helicopter flew into place for the rescue of that precious cargo, there was only one thing Wayne Koons remembers thinking:

"Don't screw it up," Koons said Thursday, 50 years later to the date.

He didn't.

Now 76 and retired, Koons lives in his boyhood hometown of Lyons.

He remembers the spacecraft landed pretty much where it was supposed to. Shepard got out and got into the helicopter. They flew to the rescue ship and everybody — Shepard, Koons and helicopter co-pilot George Cox — all got out safely.

It was big news.

Pictures of the rescue were splashed on the cover of Life magazine and daily newspapers across the nation.

So how did a Kansas farm boy end up working for the space program?

In some ways, it was luck and determination.

After high school, he went to Kansas' Ottawa University where he received degrees in physics and mathematics before serving in the Marines.

He remembers the day he was chosen for the program.

Koons was stationed in New River, N.C., and had been there three or four months, hoping to qualify as a co-pilot. A squadron clerk came running up to him, shouting:

"'Lt. Koons, come quick, the commander wants to see you.' So, I went to the commander and he says, 'Lieutenant, the skipper wants to see you in a hurry, grab your cover,' meaning my hat. I thought I had really got myself into a pickle."

Koons said he kept wondering what he'd done wrong.

"I was literally apprehensive as I went over to the hangar. The skipper told me they had an inquiry about using helicopters to retrieve astronauts and space craft from the ocean. And I kept thinking, 'What do you mean, astronauts?' "

Indeed, it was new lingo back then.

He was chosen because he was the only pilot among 250 who had a technical degree.

Helicopters were wanted for quick retrievals, Koons said, because engineers were not confident on the seaworthiness of the spacecrafts; and flight surgeons weren't confident as to what physical shape the astronauts would be in after their flights.

His assignment was to be the project officer. The year was 1959 and the Space Task Group (later NASA) had asked the Marine Corps to develop recovery procedures for the yet-unbuilt Mercury spacecraft.

Koons' squadron developed a special hook attached to the spacecraft that allowed the helicopter co-pilot to use a long pole and snag the floating capsule.

In order to get it right, countless tests flights were conducted.

The helicopter normally had four crew members, Koons said on Thursday. But because of the weight of the spacecraft, the crews were reduced to two — the pilot and co-pilot.

Koons became the 87th NASA employee in 1961 and officially joined the space program in Houston in April 1962.

He retired in 1987 from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel, after serving 31 years in both active and reserve status.

The mission was the only one where the astronaut and spacecraft were picked up by the same helicopter.

In an article written by Koons' daughter Deb Koons last year for a Wichita State University communications class, Koons said:

"Shepard got out just fine and he got inside (the helicopter). He popped up through the (spacecraft) hatch, patted my leg and said, 'Good boy,' and back down he went."

After Gus Grissom's mission — where the hatch prematurely opened on the capsule and Grissom nearly drowned as the spacecraft sank to the bottom of the ocean — separate helicopters were used to pick up the astronauts and spacecraft.

"I was the aircraft commander but (co-pilot) George had every bit as much to do with that successful retrieval," Koons said.

Not long after Shepard's successful mission, Koons and Cox appeared on the TV show "I've Got a Secret" with their wives.

In all the media hoopla, Koons said, he always made sure reporters knew one thing:

"I always made sure the people knew my hometown was Lyons."