Otter 174 was delivered to the United States Army on 14th November 1956 with serial 55-3312 (tail number 53312). It first served with the 3rd Aviation Company, Fort Riley, Kansas and moved with the unit when it deployed to Germany in July 1957, establishing at Illesheim. The 3rd Aviation Company disbanded in November 1959. 53312 remained based in Europe, being assigned to the 708th Maintenance Battalion, Germany. The first ever visit of a US Army Otter to Ireland occurred on 15th September 1961 when 53312 arrived at Dublin Airport, flying in from Coleman Barracks, Mannheim, Germany. It brought in a skydiving team for a local airshow, but they were regrettably prevented from performing by violent westerly gales. The Otter returned to Mannheim on 17th September '61. The Otter was noted flying from Brussels to Birmingham to Bad Kreuznach, Germany on 6th July 1963. Its European deployment came to an end in May 1964 when it was transported to the ARADMAC Depot, Corpus Christi, Texas where it was prepared for service in Vietnam.
On arrival in Vietnam in December 1965, flown there on board a USAF C-124 Globemaster, it joined the 54th Aviation Company. By May 1966 it was back at the ARADMAC Depot for work to be done on it, re-joining the 54th Aviation Company in July 1966, where it was to serve for the next four years. It is mentioned in the unit's history for September 1968. The 54th Aviation Company had a tasking to base an Otter in Bangkok, Thailand and 53312 was the aircraft in question in September '68, when it blew an engine. Parts had to be flown from Tan Son Nhut to Bangkok by USAF C-7A Caribou to repair the Otter.
In March 1970 53312 arrived at the 166th Transportation Company to be prepared for shipment home. It arrived at the Sharpe Army Depot, Stockton, California in July 1970 where it remained in storage until February 1973, when it was put up for disposal. It was one of two ex “Big Daddy” (the 54th Aviation Company's radio call sign) Otters purchased by Harold J. Hansen, who collected both aircraft at Stockton and trucked them to his facility at Boeing Field, Seattle, where they were rebuilt and civilianised. 53312 was registered to Harold J. Hansen as N90574 and the other Otter he had acquired, 81692, was registered to him as N90575. Both were painted in most attractive white colour schemes with blue trim and were put up for sale. N90574 was noted at Boeing Field on 8th February 1975. Both Otters went to Alaska, where Mr. Hansen’s refurbished Otters always found a ready market.
N90574 was leased by Harold Hansen to Woods Air Service of Palmer, Alaska, who ran a fuel hauling and general charter service. It was not long in operation before it came to grief, in quite a spectacular accident at Anchorage. On 21st May 1975 at 0905 hours that morning, the Otter was taking off from the 2,200-foot gravel strip beside Lake Hood, adjacent to the Anchorage International Airport. Only the pilot was on board for the very short flight to the International Airport, where he was to pick up three passengers for a flight to Aniak. The 35-year-old pilot had 2,768 hours’ total time, but only twenty in the Otter, which was new to the Woods Air Service fleet. The flight was a charter for Resources Associates of Alaska and also carried a load of food and fuel. The Otter, it was subsequently determined, was already 484 pounds over its maximum gross weight and took off with an incorrect trim setting.
Shortly after take- off, N90574 stalled and crashed into the United Lumber Company yard at Jewel Lake and Spenard Road, about three quarters of a mile from the end of the Lake Hood strip. The Otter clipped a 30-foot radio tower on top of a National Guard building, then impacted the yard, sadly killing the pilot. No one in the lumber yard was injured, but the ensuing fire damaged five cars, two of which were destroyed, as was a stock of lumber and the fence of the yard. According to a newspaper report: “Employees at the lumber yard next to the crash site watched the white and silver plane descending and saw the craft apparently veer to avoid hitting buildings there. Wreckage was scattered across a 60-foot circle, with the Otter's tail section propped intact against a 25-foot-high stack of plywood”. The engine was taken by the NTSB to Air Power Overhaul Co for tear down and inspection. The subsequent accident report cited: “Inadequate pre-flight preparation and/or planning and failure to obtain/maintain flying speed” as the causes of the crash. Contributory factors were the pilot's lack of familiarity with the aircraft, an improperly loaded aircraft and an incorrect trim setting.
Despite the severity of the crash, which surely would have been the end of a lesser aircraft, the wreckage of the Otter was brought back by Harold Hansen to his facility at Boeing Field, Seattle and rebuilt. The Otter was completely repaired by July 1976 and had been repainted in a red overall colour scheme with white trim. He then arranged to lease the aircraft to Harold's Air Service Inc. of Galena, Alaska. Despite the similarity of name, this operator had nothing to do with Harold Hansen, but was a charter company owned by a native American, Harold Esmailka. The Otter was on its delivery flight from Seattle to Galena when it came to grief again, yet another stall! N90574 had flown up along the Alaska-Canada highway, and fuel stopped at Northway, Alaska. On 29th September 1976, with just the pilot on board (aged 54, with 14,500 hours’ total time, but only 450 on the Otter) N90574 took off from Northway and was on its final approach to Eureka, Alaska when it stalled, sustaining serious damage. The pilot had “failed to obtain/maintain flying speed”. Yet again the Otter was repaired by Harold Hansen, before finally entering service with Harold's Air Service, based at Galena.
Harold Esmailka is a very famous bush aviator in Alaska. When the Otter joined his fleet, the operation was quite small. It joined Islander N22JA, a Cessna 206 and three Cessna 207s. Harold's Air Service had a contract from Wien Air Alaska to haul mail from its Galena base to outlying villages, and the Otter was engaged on this work. The Otter served with Harold's Air Service for the next ten years, rendering sterling service out of its Galena base with no further mishaps. Over the years, the fleet expanded and by 1986 had 28 aircraft including a Navajo, Bandeirante, Cessna Caravans and even a Turbo DC-3. Services were flown to 63 villages from Galena. In 1987 the company was re- named Friendship Air Alaska and in November of that year, the Otter was sold.
The new owner of the Otter was Lake Clark Air of Port Alsworth, Alaska one hundred and eighty roadless miles southwest of Anchorage. Owned by Glen R. Alsworth the company provided an air taxi service and at that stage also operated a Beech Bonanza, Cessna U206 and Piper Navajo.
When it was first acquired by Lake Clark Air, the Otter was used to haul freight to mining company camps out in the bush. To quote from the book “Bush pilots of Alaska” by Fred Hirschmann:” The winter months reduce Glen's air fleet to serving local residents, transporting them between the few nearby Indian and Eskimo villages, hauling freight from Anchorage or emergency flights. But with the long daylight hours of spring, activity accelerates. Between May and October, Glen's aircraft fly almost continuously. Some days he makes three or more round trips to Anchorage, hauling sport fishermen, hunters, prospectors, sightseers or freight into a region best known for its sport fishing and hunting. With no overland or water access into Lake Clark, its small population is totally dependent on aircraft for fuel, groceries, building materials and transportation”. The book contains a particularly fine photograph of N90574 resplendent in its red colour scheme with white trim at Pear Lake, in Lake Clark National Reserve, with hunters of caribou and moose loading their gear into the Otter.
One mishap occurred in the course of this work. On 11th October 1988 the Otter was landing on a gravel strip at Bonanza Hills. During the landing roll, the left main gear encountered snow along the runway edge. The Otter veered sharply to the left and off the runway, causing substantial damage.
The “Bush Pilots of Alaska” book also contains another fine photograph of the crashed Otter, in a somewhat forlorn state in the snow, with its left main gear folded under the fuselage and its propeller fallen off. As the book says: “Except for damaged pride, no one was injured. After three days of field repairs, the Otter was flown to Soldotna for a complete overhaul”.
After a time, the mining support work dried up and the Otter was then used primarily to transport fishermen during the summer months. The insurance for the aircraft became increasingly expensive, until the operation was no longer economical. N90574 was put up for sale, and sold in December 1999 to Warren Le Fave, who collected the Otter at Port Alsworth and flew it to Kelowna, BC where it received a complete overhaul from AOG Air Support, the insertion of a large cargo door and repainting in a yellow and brown colour scheme. In June 2000, on completion of the work, the Otter was registered C-GFTZ to Kluane Airways Ltd., of Whitehorse, Yukon, the operating company of Warren Le Fave.
Kluane Airways also operates a Beaver and a Hughes 500 helicopter in support of the Inconnu Lodge, a fishing and recreational resort in the Yukon, 185 miles east of Whitehorse. As its website proclaims: “The lodge offers its guests a vast variety of activities - heli-hiking, canoeing, kayaking, gold panning and some of the best fishing in Canada's North. Partnered with Inconnu Lodge is Kluane Airways, offering flights to the Cirque of the Unclimbables in the Northwest Territories for rock climbing”. The Otter remained parked at the AOG facility at Kelowna for a time, but was used to support the Lodge during the summer of 2001 and was then advertised for sale or lease in November 2001. At that stage it had 14,625 hours’ total airframe time, and had an asking price of US$525,000. It was on EDO 7170 floats with Baron extensions and bumpers, Baron STOL kit, the enlarged cargo door, nine new passenger seats, a new aluminium cargo floor and new interior. The Otter was not sold, but instead went on lease to Alkan Air of Whitehorse, Yukon to whom it was registered on 14th June 2002.
Alkan Air had during the 1980s flown Otter CF-AYR (436), which they had sold in June 1988. Now with the acquisition of C-GFTZ on lease, the company returned to Otter operations. During the summer months, the Otter was used to fly in guests to Mr. Le Fave's Inconnu Lodge, as well as to fly big game hunters around the Yukon. It was parked up for the winter of 2002/03, but was again in use by Alkan Air for the same purposes during the summer 2003. In addition, it supported an emerald mining operation at Regal Ridge, some 160 miles east of Whitehorse, flying in fuel drums and groceries and crew changes for the mine. It continued in use during the winter of 2002/2003. C- GFTZ arrived at Vernon, BC in mid-March 2004 to be re-engined as a Texas Turbine Otter by Kal-Air, following which it was registered to Saltwater West Enterprises Ltd., Smithers, BC, on 17th June 2004. It is operated by Alpine Lakes Air Ltd., of Smithers, replacing C-FMPY (324), the turbine Otter which they operated up to March 2004.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).