Otter 115 was delivered to the United States Army on 15th May 1956 with serial 55-3269 (tail number 53269). It was allocated to the 14th Army Aviation Company at Fort Riley, Kansas. In August '56 the 14th was re-designated the 1st Aviation Company and moved to Fort Benning, Georgia whereit continued to fly the Otter until 1961, when it converted to the Caribou, relinquishing its U-1As to other units. 53269 was then assigned to the 2nd Missile Command at Fort Carson, Colorado until April 1962, when it joined the 17th Aviation Company at Fort Ord, California.
53269 was one of the platoon of Otters from the 17th which went to Vietnam in May 1963 by ship to join the 18th Aviation Company, increasing the strength of the 18th Aviation Company to 24 Otters. On arrival in Vietnam, the Otters were re-assembled by Air Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon and entered service with the 18th. Many of the Otters which served in Vietnam were given nick-names. 53269 was named “Leapin' Linda” and was based at Nha Trang initially and later at Saigon. One incident was recorded when it flew from Saigon to Ha Thien to pick up some VC prisoners. On take off from Ha Thien the Otter slid off the runway, buckling the bulkhead above the tailwheel. The damage was repaired.
53269 continued to fly with the 18th Aviation Company until February 1966 when it was placed in storage with the 79th Transportation Company. In July 1966 it arrived at the ARADMAC Depot, Corpus Christi, Texas for overhaul and was then transported back to Vietnam where it re-joined the 18th Aviation Company in October '66. It remained with the 18th Aviation Company until April 1969, when it was transported back to the United States, arriving at the Sharpe Army Depot, Stockton, California. Here it was overhauled and put into storage until September 1971 when it was allocated to the 568th Transportation Company, Fort Wainright, Alaska as a support aircraft.
It was serving with this unit when a take-off accident at Fort Richardson on 23rd March 1972 ended its military career. It was taking off on the cross runway 06, towards the mountains. To quote from the accident report: “Started take-off; directional control was not maintained. The aircraft veered to the left, became airborne, power was reduced and then re-applied. The aircraft struck a snow bank and skidded to a stop”. The undercarriage collapsed and substantial damage was caused to the engine and propeller. The damaged Otter was put up for sale by the Defense Property Disposal Service and acquired by that master Otter rebuilder Harold J. Hansen, who rebuilt the aircraft at his facility at Boeing Field, Seattle.
The Otter was registered to Mr.Hansen in 1975 as N48148, as the rebuild was nearing completion, and in June of that year he arranged to lease the aircraft to Warren W. Woods. N48148 flew north to its new base at Palmer, Alaska. 'Buddy' Woods was one of Alaska's best known bush pilots and operated a fuel hauling business out of Palmer. He also flew Otters N90574 (174), N48064 (278) and N41755 (339), delivering fuel around Alaska. The fuel could be carried in a bladder tank, which held 400 US gallons, or in fuel drums. N48148 continued to fly for Buddy Woods on the fuel hauling business until an accident on 12th July 1979. It was substantially damaged when the gear collapsed on landing on a sand bar near Arctic Village, Alaska. As the accident report summarised, the pilot “selected unsuitable terrain”, which the landing gear could not handle.
Harold Hansen travelled to Alaska to repair the Otter, after which he leased it to Bering Air Inc., of Nome, Alaska, to whom it was registered in September 1979. It was the first Otter flown by this recently formed operator and several more would follow. Bering Air took delivery of the Otter on 16th September '79 and it entered service on 3rd October '79, flying alongside a Cessna 207, the humble beginnings of a fleet which was to expand greatly over the years. The Otters operated by Bering Air were used to transport passengers and cargo to destinations within a four hundred mile radius of Nome. Cargoes included mail, groceries, lumber, even animals (reindeer and polar bear cubs). Jim Rowe, the founder of Bering Air, remembers going out with an Otter for a week at a time, landing offairport on the snow or ice, with teams of geologists. Other Otters flown by Bering Air over the years were N11250 (171), N83U (371) and N2899J (425).
Unfortunately however N48148 was not to remain in service for long. On 19th October 1979, barely two weeks after it had entered service, it crashed. The Otter had departed from Nome that morning and landed at Koyuk. The accident happened when it was taking off from Koyuk at 1600 hours to return to Nome. Conditions were not good, with an overcast sky and falling snow. The Otter ran off the end of the runway and into the tundra. Although the two on board were unhurt, N48148 received substantial damage which was to end its flying career for quite a time. The accident report blamed “Inadequate pre-flight preparation and/or planning; delayed action in aborting take-off;airframe ice; snow on wings and tail surfaces”.
Harold Hansen yet again travelled to the Alaskan outback to retrieve his Otter. The wreckage of N48148 was loaded on board a Northern Air Cargo C-82 Packet and flown from Koyuk to Anchorage. It was then placed on board a truck (Mr Hansen had a special truck adapted for carrying Otters) and driven all the way south to Seattle. It was registered to Mr. Hansen in May 1980. It remained in its
damaged condition at various locations around the Seattle area for the next 17 years. It was stored at first at Boeing Field, then at Mount Vernon for a time, where Mr Hansen had a yard, at Sedro Woolley, where North Sound Aviation Inc., are based, and it even spent a few years sitting on a trailer in the driveway of Harold Hansen's house in Seattle, much to the annoyance of his neighbours.
Eventually it was sold to T.C.Leasing Ltd., of La Ronge, Saskatchewan and registered to that company in March 1996 as C-FXOB. T.C. Leasing is associated with La Ronge Aviation Services and has traded in many Otters over the years, specifically those returned to Canada from the Indian Air Force. C-FXOB was trucked to the company's facility at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and rebuilt. In May 1998 the Otter was sold to Bishop Aviation Inc and was flown south to their base at Decatur, Texas. It was registered to Bishop Aviation Inc., as N120BA on 15th April 1999. At Decatur, the Otter was converted to turbine power with a 1000 horse power Garrett TPE-331-10 engine (flat rated to 900 hp). It was the prototype of this new turbine version of the Otter, by far the most powerful of all the versions available. After a period of test flying, the conversion received its Supplemental Type Certificate, and went on sale. N120BA was retained by Bishop Aviation for its own use. It also operated a parachute business called Skydive Texas and the Otter went into service for parachute work, alongside a Pilatus Turbo Porter, two Cessna 182s and an Antonov AN-2.
Sadly to relate, this historic aircraft came to grief on 31st March 2001 on take-off from Bishop Airfield, Decatur. It was carrying 21 skydivers aloft for a jump from 13,000 feet. The pilot reported that N120BA was 2,500 feet from the departure end of the runway and some two hundred feet above the ground when it “suddenly rolled to the right at an estimated 30 degrees per second, continued to the right and reached a 90 degree angle to the ground”. He maintained control of the aircraft, applied full left aileron and left rudder, pushed forward on the control stick and levelled the wings. He applied full power but realised that the Otter did not have enough altitude to clear the trees, and then reduced power to idle. The tail struck the ground, the left wing struck trees and the Otter came to rest in a muddy bog 250 yards from the runway. The left wing was separated from the airframe, the left side of the aircraft was crushed and buckled inward and there was structural damage throughout the airframe. There were six serious and thirteen minor injuries to the occupants, mostly broken legs and ribs.
The pilot concluded that a wing had been caught by a “dust devil”, a whirlwind that normally travels along the ground like a small tornado and becomes visible because of the dust it sucks into the air. With twenty two persons on the Otter, and such a severe impact, it is fortunate indeed that the outcome of the accident was not worse. The wrecked Otter was sold to Prof Fate Inc., of Eastsound, Washington and registered to that company on 6th March 2002. This company is the owner and operator of turbine Otter N79JJ (300) and was acquired as a source of spares. The wrecked Otter was trucked from Decatur to Vancouver and stored inside the Aeroflite Industries hangar at the Vancouver International Airport, where N79JJ is serviced.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).