Otter 131 was delivered to the United States Army on 26th June 1956 with serial 55-3282 (tail number 53282). It was assigned to the 2nd Aviation Company, Fort Riley, Kansas which later deployed to Germany, then France (as described in relation to Otter 124). The Otter was displayed at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airfield in June 1959. 53282 continued to fly for the 2nd Aviation Company until July 1966 when it went into storage at Coleman Barracks, Mannheim, Germany. In April 1967 it was assigned to the 67th Aviation Company at Stuttgart, until October '67 when it was transported back to the United States and then onwards to Vietnam, where it joined the 18th Aviation Company in March 1968.
From at least February 1969 onwards, 53282 served with the Company's First Platoon based at Marble Mountain, Da Nang. The Otter was named “Cajun Queen” and was still serving with the 18th Aviation Company when the unit stood down in March 1971. It went into storage with the 388th Transportation Company, Vung Tau where it remained until May 1971. It was one of five Otters shipped from Vietnam to Panama and which after overhaul were handed over to the Air Force of Nicaragua in June 1971 under a Military Air Program. The five Otters were loaded aboard ship at Vung Tau and transported to the Port of Balboa in Panama. From there they were taken to Albrook AFB, Panama where they were re-assembled by the Army's 590th Aviation Maintenance Company and handed over to the Fuerza Aerea de Nicaragua (FAN). 53282 took serial FAN-1012.
As explained in the Nicaraguan Air Force section, another FAN Otter (1015) was damaged on landing in the Nicaraguan jungle on 7th September 1976. In February 1979 a rescue effort was made to retrieve this Otter and bring it back to Canada. This effort was made by a Canadian pilot Paul Hajduk, assisted by Roy Westgate, who has written an excellent article, contained in the Nicaraguan Air Force section, describing the expedition. When they were in Nicaragua, they also purchased Otter FAN-1012, which had previously crashed, and the fuselage of which they found dumped behind a hangar at the Managua Las Mercedes Air Base. The two Otters were shipped from Managua to Miami, manifested as “scrap metal of aircraft, constructor's numbers 131 and 307, both involved in accidents”. From Miami, the two Otters were then trucked north to Montreal.
The two Otters were then sold to York Realty Ltd of Duncan, BC and trucked across the country to Duncan on Vancouver Island. Parts from the two Otters were used in the re-building of Otter 288 which York Realty were working on. After that, both Otters were sold by York Realty Ltd to Harold J. Hansen, by Bill of Sale dated 10th September 1980 and were trucked via Vancouver to his facility at Boeing Field, Seattle for rebuild. On 11th September 1980 Harold Hansen applied for registrations for both Otters, and was allocated N8510Q for number 131 and N8510T for number 307.
Otter 131 was noted during October 1980 at Harold Hansen's facility at Boeing Field under rebuild. Parts from Otter N48148 (115) were used for the rebuild of 131. At this stage of its career, 131 had a total airframe time of 2,150 hours. As the rebuild neared completion, 131 was sold by Mr. Hansen to James J. Harkey of Auburn, Washington by Bill of Sale dated 4th May 1981. Two days later he applied for a change of registration from N8510Q to N58JH. The Certificate of Airworthiness for the aircraft issued on 2nd June 1981. Mr Harkey has dealt in several Otters over the years (including 77 and 307) but N58JH was used for his personal transportation, flying from its base at Auburn, to the south of Seattle. Painted in an attractive red and white scheme and on amphibious floats, it was named “Liebe Brigitte”.
After eight years in the ownership of Mr. Harkey, the Otter was sold by Bill of Sale dated 24th May 1989 to Glacier Bay Airways Inc of Gustavus, Alaska and was delivered the following month to its new owners. The acquisition of the Otter was part of a strategy to upgrade to larger aircraft, from the Cessna 206s which had been used by Glacier Bay Airways up to then. That same month Glacier Bay also purchased Otter N5323G (91), the intention being that N58JH would be operated as an amphibian and N5323G on wheels. Sadly, N5323G was lost on its delivery flight on 8th June 1989 when the engine failed and it ditched and sank in the Grenville Channel en route to Gustavus. On board the Otter were $30,000 worth of spares for the new operation and the wheels of N58JH.
The loss of N5323G caused a re-think of the strategy but N58JH did go into service with Glacier Bay Airways, flying from Gustavus for the summer of 1989. Tourists and kayakers were flown to outlying wilderness areas. Another task for the Otter was flying school basketball and volleyball teams to games all over the panhandle. N58JH was then sold by Bill of Sale dated 3rd January 1990 to Ketchikan Air Service Inc, thus bringing to an end the Otter operations of Glacier Bay Airways.
N58JH was acquired by Ketchikan Air Service for $250,000. It was ferried to Salinas, California for conversion to a Vazar turbo Otter by Serv Aero and after another long ferry flight up along the west coast, it arrived at its new base at Ketchikan, Alaska on amphibious floats, proudly taxying onto the Ketchikan Air Service ramp shortly after 9am on the morning of 31st January 1990. It carried 'Turbine Express' titles on the engine cowling.
Having served the Alaskan panhandle for nearly two years, its next assignment was to be a most interesting one. An organisation called Adventure Network International offered tourist trips to the Antarctic, starting in 1987 using Douglas DC-4 N4218S and later Antarctic Air Douglas DC-6B N41840. Those taking part in these adventure trips made their way by scheduled airline to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile. From there they were flown by the DC-4 and later the DC-6B to a camp at Patriot Hills on the Antarctic continent. The American aircraft was later replaced by DC-6B
C-GBYB chartered from the Canadian company Conifair. The Ketchikan Air Service turbo Otter N58JH was also chartered by Adventure Network International, to be based at Patriot Hills to fly tourists around Antarctica, specifically to the South Pole.
This involved a massive ferry flight from Alaska to Antarctica, a distance of some ten thousand miles. N58JH was fitted with ferry tanks at Ketchikan and started off on 10th October 1991 with a relatively short hop from its Ketchikan base to Prince Rupert, BC. Continuing south along Canada's Pacific coast, the Otter landed next at Vancouver, on 13th October and then at Paine Field, Seattle. From there it crossed the Rocky Mountains to Casper, Wyoming. A long flight across the plains of the central United States followed, landing at Jackson, Mississippi. The routing from there was via Panama City, Florida over the Gulf of Mexico to Miami and onwards down the Florida keys to Key West. Flying over Cuba, the next stop was at Georgetown on Grand Cayman Island and thence over the Caribbean to Panama City, Panama. (Interestingly, it was again visiting Panama 21 years after it had arrived there back in 1971 to be made ready for service with the Nicaraguan Air Force). From Panama the flight continued into South America, next fuel stop at Guayaquil, Ecuador. From there it proceeded to Lima, Peru and onwards via Arica in Chile, Santiago and Puerto Montt to the southernmost tip of Chile at Punta Arenas. Having changed its wheels for skis, its final sector was south over Cape Horn and across the Scotia Sea to its new base at Patriot Hills. It was no doubt the first Otter to land on Antarctica since the survey and exploration Otters of the late 1950s and 1960s.
Tourists were flown to the camp from Punta Arenas on board the DC-6B, which landed on the ice. The Otter was then used to fly the tourists to various locations, and by means of pre-positioned fuel caches, the Otter was able to bring its passengers in a multi-sector operation all the way to the South Pole. Although the cost of all this was understandably very expensive, and only available to tourists with deep pockets, N58JH became exposed to a much wider audience when it featured extensively in the BBC Television series 'Pole to Pole' with Michael Palin. In this series, Mr Palin and his film crew were endeavouring to proceed from the North Pole to the South Pole by surface means. They had got as far as Capetown, South Africa in December 1991, from where a ship was meant to bring them to the Antarctic, but it left without them. To retrieve the situation, they flew to Punta Arenas and then by the DC-6B to Patriot Hills and onwards in the turbo Otter to the South Pole.
This is an excellent series of television programmes, well worth viewing, particularly the last episode which features the DC-6B and Otter extensively, including some awe-inspiring take-offs by N58JH from rough ice strips. In the programme, the Otter is shown operating a one and a half hour flight from Patriot Hills to the Mount Vinson Massif, as well as the flight from Patriot Hills to Thiel Mountains (King's Peak) and onwards to the South Pole, landing at the US Navy's McMurdo Base, the scene of much Otter activity years before when the VX-6 Squadron Otters were based there.
Sadly however although the Antarctic is a place of great beauty it is also a most demanding environment and in February '92, at the end of the season, N58JH sustained damage to its port wing at position 80 south 79 west, some thirty miles from its Patriot Hills base, and had to be abandoned there for the southern winter. The following September a rescue mission was mounted using Basler Airlines Turbo DC-3TP N300BF. The DC-3 took off from its base at Oshkosh, Wisconsin on 3rd September 1992. Between then and 11th September it flew to Brownsville, Texas-Guatemala City- Guayaquil, Ecuador-Lima, Peru-Antofagasta, Chile-Santiago, Chile-Puerto Montt-Punta Arenas, Chile, a distance of 7,950 hours covered in 44 flying hours. On 15th September it flew from Punta Arenas to Jones Sound Glacier, a distance of 860 miles in six flying hours. Here the crew made camp and dug a fuel cache out of the snow. The following day they flew from Jones Sound to Patriot Hills, dropped off some people, and then flew to the location where Otter N58JH was still sitting on the ice. As Paul Votava, the captain of the DC-3 recalls: “We repaired the damaged wing on the Otter in less than an hour. Then we dug the rock-hard snow from around it, and melted the snow from inside the control surfaces, wings, fuselage and tail - this took three days. The battery and engine were warmed and started just fine. Both the DC-3 and the Otter then flew to Patriot Hills. The weather was terrible, at times -40C with wind gusts reaching 125 knots”.
On 3rd November 1992, as the Otter took off from Patriot Hills for its return flight home, the pilot lost control and N58JH ground looped and was wrecked. The Otter was salvaged, with the engine, instruments and all other parts that could be removed loaded onto the Basler Turbo DC-3 N300BF to be brought home. All that remained at Patriot Hills were the fuselage, wings and tail, which were used at the camp for support and shelter. Even the fuel was taken from the Otter and burned in the DC-3 on the first leg of the return trip home. N300BF took off from Patriot Hills on 19th November '92 and flew to Fossil Bluff in just under seven hours. On 21st November it continued on to Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey base and on 25th November flew on to King George Island, refuelled and continued on to Punta Arenas. From there the routing was to Santiago-Arica-Guayaquil-Guatemala City-Houston, Texas-Milwaukee-Oshkosh, arriving home on 6th December 1992. It had been a massive effort to recover the Otter from the Antarctic, sadly only returning with what could be salvaged. The parts from the Otter were sent from Oshkosh back to Ketchikan and the engine from N58JH was installed in N53KA (355), one of Ketchikan Air Services other Otters. By that stage, back in the Antarctic, the Conifair DC-6B had been replaced by another DC-6 N1597F (in fact, a former US Navy C-118B) belonging to Allcair Air Transport. On 26th November 1993 this DC-6 flew into rising terrain at Patriot Hills while on visual approach to the 'Blue Ice' landing strip. Although no- one was killed, the aircraft was totally destroyed.
By Bill of Sale dated 4th March 1995 Ketchikan Air Service sold the Otter to James J. Harkey, its former owner and in August 1995 N58JH was again registered on the US Civil Aircraft Register to Mr Harkey. In January 1997 ownership was transferred to Kenmore Air Harbor Inc of Kenmore, Seattle but these are logbook entries only, the aircraft itself being a wreck sitting on the Antarctic ice.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).