J.C. Cobb was asleep.
It was just after 5 a.m. on Nov. 1, 1979, and Cobb was about to start his last watch as a member of the United States Coast Guard.
Cobb, his co-pilot Chris Kilgore and crew member Tom Wynn Jr., were jolted awake. A call had come in from the Coast Guard station in Galveston, where two ships — one of which was carrying 300,000 gallons of crude oil — were on fire.
The men scrambled awake and took off seven minutes later in Rescue 1426, the Sikorsky HH-52A helicopter named after the aircraft's tail number.
They ultimately saved 22 people from the burning ships.
"What a way to go out," Cobb said of his memorable last day.
Now, 36 years later, the aircraft Cobb piloted that day and had piloted many days before is a part of aviation history. The helicopter is on display at the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., along with other aircraft of historical significance.
Cobb and his fellow crew members were among the 50 in attendance at the museum for the dedication ceremony April 14.
Cobb's road to the ceremony started on a trip. He and his wife, Vicki, love to travel and were seeing some friends in Florida when J.C. Cobb received a phone call from retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Bob Johanson of Project Phoenix, the Coast Guard Aviation Association's group finding a suitable aircraft for the Smithsonian display.
At first, he said, Johanson thought he was speaking with Cobb's son — he had heard erroneous information from the other crew members that Cobb had died of a heart attack years ago — but the confusion was soon cleared up.
Once Kilgore and Wynn learned Cobb was, indeed, very much alive and well, catching up and reconnecting was in order.
"As soon as that happened, we just got bombarded," Cobb said, noting he and Vicki had returned to their Ingram home from Florida and soon went to see Kilgore at his Dallas area home.
But it wasn't until the ceremony itself when all three men were reunited at last.
"It was delightful," Cobb said of the ceremony. "I'm the luckiest man in the world, you know."
Cobb was born and raised in San Antonio and went to school there, but school held little appeal, so he enlisted in the Coast Guard as soon as he could. Seven years later, he was commissioned and sent to flight training through the U.S. Navy, first learning to fly T-28s, then helicopters, which Cobb said didn't come naturally to him.
"Flying a helicopter has been described as like trying to stand on top of a beach ball," Cobb said. "It has zero inherent stability."
But just like riding a bike, something clicked during his training, and he passed.
Four air stations and 12 years later, Cobb's time in the military wound down until it was his last watch. On that last day, he and his crew were airborne and could see the glow from the fire from a good 30 miles away.
The rescue mission itself was dangerous, Cobb said. Upon arriving at the ships — the Mimosa, and the Burmah Agate, loaded with oil, now burning and pouring out of the ship into the water and into the Mimosa — Cobb realized many of the people already in the water were "not recoverable." Still, many men were alive on board.
They needed rescuing. Wth Cobb and Kilgore at the controls and Wynn in the back threading the rescue basket among the cranes and lines, they began bringing men abroad the helicopter from the ships, amid an explosion from the tanker taht momentarily left Cobb fighting to control the craft.
The first load they brought included 12 men — for a total of 15 on board — on a craft designed to hold a total of six or seven people, including the crew. They were overweight, Cobb said, and he kept his eyes on the controls as they carefully maneuvered away from the burning ships and over to a nearby oil rig.
Two times, the crew went back. Twenty-two lives were saved.
Years passed, and the aircraft ended up as a training tool at an aviation maintenance school in California. That's where Johanson found it. He arranged to have the craft refurbished.
The rest, as they say, is history.