A Coast Guard HH-52A helicopter that will be exhibited in the Air and Space Museum was used to rescue people from a fiery collision of two Liberian ships, an oil tanker and a freighter, near Galveston, Tex., in 1979. (Chris Kilgore/Family photo)

Even before the Coast Guard helicopter got airborne that morning, the crew could see the glow from the fire on the horizon, 40 miles away.

Two ships, one of them a fully loaded oil tanker, had collided in the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston, Tex. Both were ablaze, and one was steaming in circles out of control. Dozens were dead, and more than 20 survivors were trapped on board.

Three men — a battle-tested Vietnam War aviator, a veteran Coast Guard pilot on his last duty watch and a young crewman who took his Bible on every flight — scrambled into the orange-and-white helicopter and prepared for takeoff.

They radioed that they were “Rescue 1426.” The “rescue” designation gave them air priority, and 1426 was the chopper’s tail number. In the pre-dawn darkness, they removed the wheel chocks and ran up the engine. The ungainly aircraft, top speed 100 mph, got ready to lift off.

It was shortly after 5 a.m., Nov. 1, 1979.

On April 14, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the nation’s premier steward of aviation heritage, plans to unveil its first aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard — the old Sikorsky HH-52A helicopter, tail number 1426.

Thirty-six years after it flew into the inferno outside Galveston, plucking 22 sailors from the blazing ships, it will hang from the ceiling of the Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center with other famed aircraft of the past.

Until a few years ago, the harrowing story of Rescue 1426 had been mostly forgotten.

The helicopter was discovered in 2012 by retired Coast Guard aviators who found it at a vocational school in California, where it was used to train mechanics.

They had it shipped across the country to a facility in Elizabeth City, N.C., where it was taken apart, refurbished piece by piece, and last month trucked to the Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Va., for reassembly.

The Coast Guard Aviation Association, the fraternal group behind what it calls “Project Phoenix,” had rejected four previous candidates, including one it bought on eBay, before it focused on 1426.

At the time, the association was just seeking a sound, restorable aircraft, suitable for Smithsonian display.

It was unaware, at first, of the helicopter’s history.

“Did I know at the beginning?” said retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Robert L. Johanson, who heads the project. “No. I didn’t know anything about it. . . . But we found out.”

No time to waste

A few minutes after 5 a.m. that Thursday, the search-and-rescue hotline rang at the Coast Guard air station at Ellington Field in Houston.

The on-call rescuers, J.C. Cobb, 38, and Chris Kilgore, 31, and crewman Tom Wynn Jr., 24, were sleeping in the ready area of the hangar.

Their zip-up orange flight suits and black zip-up boots were placed by their beds, where they could dress in seconds.

The Coast Guard station in Galveston was calling to report a ship collision just outside the entrance to Galveston Bay.

An outbound Liberian freighter, the Mimosa, empty except for its wooden packing “dunnage,” had collided with a Liberian tanker, the Burmah Agate, loaded with more than 300,000 barrels of Ni­ger­ian crude.

The collision ignited the Burmah Agate’s oil, spilling into the Mimosa. Both ships were ablaze, and flaming oil was spilling onto the surface. Sailors were dying on the ships and in the burning water.

Cobb, Kilgore and Wynn bolted from bed, dressed and got the “ready helicopter” out of the hangar.

Cobb, a lieutenant commander and 20-year Coast Guard veteran, took the right-hand, pilot’s seat.

He had almost 4,000 hours of flying under his belt. He had flown to seven plane crashes, innumerable sinkings, floods and fires. “The only thing I haven’t been to is a train wreck,” he said.

Kilgore, a lieutenant junior grade who had flown Army ­helicopters in Vietnam and had been shot down twice and wounded once, was in the left-hand, co-pilot’s seat. He had flown his first combat mission in Vietnam when he was 19.

Wynn, a petty officer and aviation electrician’s mate second class, was the son of a Coast Guardsman and had grown up with the service. He was wearing a “gunner’s belt” that tethered him to the ceiling.

The cargo door, through which he could hoist survivors with a metal rescue basket, was open.

As they got ready to take off, Cobb and Kilgore noticed that the helicopter’s radar altimeter wasn’t working. This was a crucial instrument that helped tell how far off the surface they were.

It was against Coast Guard regulations to fly over water at night without it, Cobb said in a telephone interview last month.

He and Kilgore paused. “Both of us knew the regs,” Cobb said. “Both of us knew what was going on. I made the decision.”

They took off and headed for Galveston.

A Coast Guard relic

The old helicopter had been sitting outside at the North Valley Occupational Center’s aviation facility in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles for about five years when Bob Johanson first saw it.

Its paint had faded in the sun. And there were wooden steps and a railing leading up to the cargo door.

The facility, which trains aircraft mechanics, had acquired the HH-52A after the model was phased out by the Coast Guard in 1989. Rescue 1426 had been there ever since.

The HH-52A was a curious helicopter that could land on water to make rescues. It had a boat hull and carried an anchor.

Johanson and the Coast Guard Aviation Association had been searching for a good helicopter since 2005. The Coast Guard is marking the centennial of its aviation service this year, and the Smithsonian had long wanted a Coast Guard aircraft, said museum specialist Roger Connor.

In 2005, the association had found three HH-52As languishing in the weeds at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

The hope was that one of them, using parts from the others, would be restorable, Johanson said in a telephone interview last month.

But the work was going to cost a lot of money and take a lot of time, and the plan foundered.

In 2009, the association discovered an old HH-52A for sale on eBay and purchased it for about $9,000, Johanson said. But restoring that turned out to require time, and space, and that plan didn’t work out either, he said.

In 2012, Johanson, who lives outside Annapolis, learned about another one in California and went to take a look.

Aside from the weathering, it was in excellent shape. Its tail number was 1426.

Johanson asked if the school would part with it so it could go to the Smithsonian. The school was amenable but didn’t want to lose such a good training tool.

So a trade was arranged.

The Coast Guard was then getting rid of a fleet of small Falcon jets, and a deal was made to swap one of the jets for the school’s HH-52A.

By then, Johanson said, the association had uncovered the helicopter’s history.

‘A sea of fire’

As Rescue 1426 neared the collision site, the three Coast Guardsmen could see the fire raging on the tanker.

“There was a sea of fire around it, so it’s got a fire footprint much larger than the tanker itself,” Kilgore, 67, of Rowlett, Tex., said in a telephone interview last month.

As the helicopter hovered near the tanker, Wynn, 61, spotted a burned body, covered in oil, face down in the water, he said in a telephone interview last month.

He dropped a data marker buoy with a radio transmitter so the body could be recovered later.

Then he spotted more bodies. These were on the deck of the ship, and they were blackened and on fire.

“There’s men burning on the fantail,” he told the cockpit.

“How many?” he said Kilgore asked.

“I see at least two, maybe more,” Wynn said he replied.

“We couldn’t save them,” he recalled. “There was just no way.”

The helicopter resumed its search for survivors.

Suddenly, as Wynn remembers the sequence of events, there was a huge explosion aboard the tanker, and a mushroom of fire erupted.

A blast of heat blew into the helicopter and hit him in the face. “I could feel that hot, hot air,” he said. The aircraft was tossed, but Cobb quickly regained control, Wynn said.

“It was intense,” Cobb, 74, of Ingram, Tex., recalled. “I wasn’t frightened. Maybe I should have been.”

Moments later, Wynn said, he saw two people perched on a railing under an overhang at the back of the tanker. They were there because the deck was too hot, they said later, and were getting ready to jump.

Wynn lowered the rescue basket, directing Cobb over the intercom — right a few feet, up a few feet, down a few feet.

Because of the overhang, Wynn could only swing the basket toward them. He tried a few times. Finally he got it close enough that the men leaped off the railing, grabbed the basket and climbed in.

“They would have died if they’d missed,’’ Wynn said.

He hauled them in.

Finding no more survivors on the tanker, the helicopter flew to the Mimosa, some distance away, where a group was clustered together on the ship’s bridge.

The Mimosa was out of control, steaming in circles around its dropped anchor.

Plus, it had a forest of cargo cranes on its deck that made rescuing the sailors even more hazardous.

As Wynn lowered the basket, several men grabbed it and jumped in. He pulled them up and lowered it again. More piled in, and he retrieved them.

The chopper began to fill up. As space ran low, Wynn had the sailors sit on one another’s laps.

Cobb and Kilgore, meanwhile, struggled to keep the helicopter over the burning ship.

They were worried about the stress on the aircraft’s transmission and kept a close eye on its weight and balance.

Finally, there was no more room inside, and it was time to go. Rescue 1426 was crammed with 12 survivors and the three Coast Guardsmen.

“There was 15 of us!” Wynn said.

Cobb now had to transition from a hover to forward flight, which required the helicopter to head toward the surface to gain speed, Cobb recalled.

“We were in a really high hover,” Cobb said. “We’re at maximum power. We kind of rolled off the side of the ship . . . [to] lower the nose and try to pick up forward air speed.”

“We descended toward the water, and we’re picking up speed, we want to stop our descent at, you know, 15 feet, and kind of skim along the water,” he said. “And . . . the helicopter wouldn’t climb. We’re just blasting along the water.”

“It was interesting,” he said. “What we did was we just kind of milked it up. We’d pull up a little bit, get a little bit higher. . . . We milked it all the way up to 300 feet. I thought I was in hog heaven when I got to 300 feet.”

Cobb made for a nearby oil rig and dropped off the survivors.

The aircraft made two more trips to the Mimosa that morning, rescuing six sailors on one run and four on another, Kilgore recalled.

By then, another helicopter had arrived to help. Rescue 1426 was low on fuel, and it headed back to Houston.

More than 30 men, most of them Taiwanese sailors from the Burmah Agate, died in the collision, according to an official report. Twenty-five of the Mimosa’s 26-man crew were saved. The Burmah Agate burned for two months.

The three men from the 1426 went separate ways after the Coast Guard. Kilgore became a lawyer. Cobb became a registered nurse. Wynn went into business, taught in a Florida prison and served as a missionary.

All three plan to attend the Smithsonian unveiling next month.

“It has been 35-plus years since I have seen Chris and Tom and the 1426,” Cobb wrote in an email. “I trusted my life to the men I served with. . . . That bond survives.”