Otter 139 was delivered to the United States Army on 24th July 1956 with serial 55-3288 (tail number 53288). It was assigned to the 2nd Aviation Company, Fort Riley, Kansas but did not deploy with that unit to Europe. Instead the Otter remained in the United States and by January 1962 was serving with the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where it served until April 1963. It then headed out west where it served at Fort Lewis, Washington and was also based for a time at the Presidio of San Francisco.
In May 1967 53288 joined the Otter Transition School at Fort Ord, California where it was to serve until March 1971 when the School closed down. During this period, many a young Army aviator was introduced to the joys and challenges of flying the Otter, before going on to serve on the type in Vietnam. In March 1971 53288 returned to its original post at Fort Riley, Kansas as an operational support aircraft and then in August 1972 it headed north to Alaska where it joined the 568th Transportation Company at Fort Wainright as a support aircraft. In December 1972 it joined the 12th Aviation Company at Fort Wainright where it continued to serve until June 1973 when the Company was disbanded. It was deleted from the Army inventory in August '73 and the following month was transferred to the Anchorage Community College, registered N1457H. It was used as an instructional airframe only, for training of aircraft mechanics. It was located at Merrill Field, Anchorage with no paint scheme, just in its natural metal. As it was parked outside, over the years its condition deteriorated, its flying days seemingly over. After the Otter was blown into the College's hangar during a storm, and its wing damaged, it was put up for sale.
The Otter was purchased by Cox Aircraft Company of Seattle, and after temporary repairs at Anchorage, was flown to Boeing Field, Seattle, where it was overhauled and civilianised and registered N55CX in July 1985. This was Mr Ray Cox's first project after the most unfortunate loss of his Turbo Otter (number 421) the previous December. N55CX was painted in an attractive overall yellow colour scheme with red trim and black upper surfaces on the wings, and adorned with the logo “Western World Retrievals Inc, Greenland Expedition 85-86”. This was one of several expeditions to Greenland attempting to recover six Lockheed P-38 Lightnings buried under the ice cap on which they had made a forced landing in 1942. Previous outings had proved very expensive but not very successful.
All these expeditions are described in a much-recommended book entitled “The Lost Squadron”, which refers to the failure of previous attempts and goes on to describe how in 1984 the promoters of the venture were put in contact with “Seattle-based Ray Cox whose company Western World Retrievals specialised in finding aircraft.” That expedition landed on the ice cap on 11th September 1985 and remained until 24th September '85 but did not find the buried treasure. The Otter was flown to Greenland and used to fly personnel and supplies from Sondre Stromfjord to the location of the downed P-38s out on the ice cap. It was to be another five years and many more attempts before some of the P-38 Lightnings were in fact retrieved.
Following its return from the Greenland expedition, Otter N55CX was registered to Ben Kalka of Oakland, California. It was noted at Boeing Field, Seattle in June 1987. Later that year it was acquired by Diamond Aviation of Wrangell, Alaska and used to support a gold mine, replacing Diamond Aviation's first Otter (number 393) which had crashed. Gold was first discovered in the Skeena Mountains region of British Columbia in the late 19th Century. During the 1980s a mine was established on Johnny Mountain, located almost directly above another mine at Bronson creek, which started production in 1990. Both of these mines were under construction at the same time and short, rough airstrips were created to service both. The town of Wrangell, Alaska is only a short distance away, located on an island in the Alaskan panhandle. From Wrangell, supplies of fuel were flown in to the mines, as well as food, personnel and equipment. On the return sector from the mines to Wrangell, the aircraft brought out bags of gold concentrate, which were then taken by barge from Wrangell to be shipped to processing plants, to be transformed into pure gold.
Initially these operations were carried out by Otters, reckoned to be the ultimate bush plane for this type of operation, capable of carrying almost any equipment into the mines airstrip, if broken down into small enough pieces, and of carrying out a useful load of gold concentrate outbound. Otters from Central Mountain Air and Trans Provincial Airlines were used, as well as Beech 18s. In later years, when the mine airstrip at Bronson Creek was extended, larger aircraft such as the C-47, C-117, DC-4, Bristol Freighter and Carvair, took over.
Diamond Aviation was another operator flying from Wrangell to service the mines. Initially a Norduyn Norseman was used, flying into both the Johnny Mountain and Bronson Creek mines. In the spring of 1987 the Norseman crashed on landing at the Bronson Creek airstrip and was a total loss. Otter N61LC (393) was acquired in August '87 to replace the Norseman and it continued in operation until it crashed on Johnny Mountain on 22nd November 1987. To replace the Otter, Diamond Aviation acquired N55CX the following month, which arrived in Wrangell and commenced operations to the mines, still in the same yellow/red colour scheme and still carrying the “Greenland Expedition” logo.
N55CX came to grief on an ice cap 35 miles north-west of Wrangell, near Black Crag Peak, at about the 4,500 foot level on 15th July 1988. It had just completed a flight to Johnny Mountain and was returning to Wrangell for another load when the pilot entered a white-out condition. As the accident report summary states: “The pilot attempted flight through a mountain pass in the presence of low clouds and fog. Visual ground reference was lost and the aircraft collided with a snow bank”. The pilot, the only occupant was not injured.
Mr Tyler Robinson of Sunrise Aviation, who later took over Diamond Aviation, continues the story: “At the time of the crash, the airplane was severely damaged, but salvageable. By coincidence, a Bell 205 of Rocky Mountain Helicopters was heli-logging near Wrangell and an attempt was made to sling the Otter out with the helicopter. However, something went wrong and the Bell 205 had to drop N55CX from about 1,500 feet above the ground. The crewless Otter made one last graceful flight back to the glacier it originally landed on and was completely totalled. It is still there today”
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).