Otter 100 was delivered to the United States Army on 12th March 1956 with serial 55-3258 (tail number 53258). It was allocated to the 14th Army Aviation Company, Fort Riley, Kansas. In August '56 the 14th was re-designated the 1st Aviation Company and moved to Fort Benning, Georgia where it continued to fly the Otter until 1961 when it converted to the Caribou, relinquishing its U-1As to other units. 53258 then joined the 57th Aviation Company at Fort Sill, Oklahoma until March 1963. When the 57th converted to the Caribou, 53258 was one of six of the unit's Otters which were assigned to the Panama Canal Zone. In February 1968 it is recorded as assigned to the Intelligence & Security Command and in September '70 joined the 352nd Aviation Company, based at Albrook AFB, Canal Zone. It flew alongside 53255, whose career it was to parallel for the next few years.
One of the 352nd's tasks was to fly missionaries and others who were assisting the native Indian population of Panama in their camps. On 13th January 1972, the Otter was landing at such a camp when it got into difficulties. On landing, the main gear hit soft ground on the left side of the jungle strip and sank into the mud over the wheel. The Army aviator who was flying 53258 that day describes what happened: “We were landing at the strip at Rio Sedra in the Province of San Blas. The strip was made to land Cessna 172s. We had been in and out of the strip three times that day. I got off to the left of the runway and did not have any right brake. After we stopped and inspected the brake, we found a rock between the calliper and the puck. We got the help of about a hundred San Blas Indians and were able to pull the Otter out of the mud. The only damage was one prop blade which was bent, and the Indian chief who climbed up onto the wing bent the aileron. We changed the prop and flew the Otter back to Albrook”.
The aviator also describes another incident during his time in Panama: “I was solo and had just picked up some passengers at France Field, on the Atlantic side of the isthmus, when I had an engine problem. I was flying down the Panama Canal and lost all oil pressure. I was able to land at a small strip half way up the Canal called Gamboa, a private strip where the Canal employees kept their aircraft. After shut down, I found that I had blown a bottom jug”. Otter 53258 features twice more in the incident lists while serving in Panama. On 23rd August '73 the engine chip detector light came on. The Otter turned downwind and landed. Traces of water were found in the sump. On 13th October '73, in the cruise at 5,500 feet, the aircraft lost its propeller governor control. Oil pressure fluctuated and a landing was made at the nearest airfield.
53258 continued to fly for the 352nd Aviation Company until February 1974. The following month, March '74, 53258 and the other two Otters which had been operated by the 352nd (53255 and 76107) were transferred to the Government of Costa Rica under a Military Aid Program, for operation by the Guardia Civil Air Wing based at Juan Santamaria Airport, San Jose, Costa Rica. All three Otters were flown to San Jose, where they were repainted in the Guardia Civil's blue and white colour scheme. All three were registered to the Guardia Civil in March 1975, 53255 as TI-SPE, 53258 as TI-SPF and 76107 as TI-SPG.
Word of the arrival of these Otters in Costa Rica had evidently reached Canada, as already offers to purchase the aircraft were being made. Air Alma Inc of Alma, Quebec were so confident of having “clinched a deal” for the aircraft that on 19th March 1975 they reserved Canadian registrations for the three, C-GAOG (for TI-SPG), C-GAOI (for TI-SPE) and C-GAOJ (for TI-SPF). The proposed purchase however did not proceed and all three aircraft entered service with the Guardia Civil. Unfortunately, TI-SPF was the only one of the three to be written off. On 28th October 1977, at 0730 hours, the Otter took off from its base at San Jose en route to Barra de Tortuguero for a photographic sortie. On board were two pilots, a parks official and three photographers. An hour into the flight, when the Otter was over the sea near the town of Parismina, the engine exploded. Unable to make the airstrip at Parismina, the crew ditched TI-SPF into the sea. The six on board scrambled clear and swam to the shore, but sadly the Otter sank. It had 5,122 hours total time on the airframe at the time of its loss.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).