Otter 184 was delivered to the United States Army on 30th November 1956 with serial 55-3318 (tail number 53318). It was delivered from Downsview to All American Engineering Company at Bar Morton, Pennsylvania. A “Universal Landing Gear” comprised of special water skis, which allowed the aircraft to taxy from water to land and vice versa had been designed by this company. It was fitted to Otter 53318 and tested during 1957 and '58. The Otter was painted in the standard Army olive drab colours, but with 'AAE' on the fuselage side (standing for All American Engineering). The idea of these 'hydro-skis' was to start on land, apply full throttle and take off from water. Presumably the take-off performance was improved over that on floats, although the idea does not appear to have been overly successful as it was not pursued. 53318 was then re-assigned to the 57th Aviation Company at Fort Sill, Oklahoma on conventional landing gear.
In November 1963 the Otter was re-assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina and then in February 1966 to the 12th Aviation Company in Alaska, alternating between the Company itself based at Fort Wainright, and its “Southern Platoon” based at Fort Richardson. For its deployment to Alaska, the Otter had been repainted into the Arctic white/red colour scheme. The Southern Platoon flew for the Headquarters Company of the 19th Aviation Battalion, based at Bryant AAF, Fort Richardson and it was to this unit that Captain Gerald L. Buchta reported for duty on 7th July 1969, fresh from an assignment in Vietnam where he had also flown the Otter. The Fort Richardson-based Otters were used to transport personnel and cargo where-ever they were needed throughout the territory, Search-and-Rescue missions, helping the civilian government by flying medicines and doctors to remote native villages and photographic work. There were a number of photo missions, flying grids with a camera and operator on board to photograph areas of interest. The Otters flew on wheels or floats in summer and on wheel-skis in winter. Most of the flights were “on demand” but the unit did operate some “scheduled services”. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday there was a regular mail run/personnel transport from Fort Richardson to Fort Greely, south of Fairbanks.
Not long after he started with the unit, Captain Buchta had a close call in one of the Otters, as described in an article in “The Pioneer” newspaper under the dramatic heading “Plane Blows Head…Pilot Keeps His”. The article went as follows: “Early on the morning of 22nd September 1969 Captain Buchta reported to work at Bryant Airfield as usual. He checked the flight schedule board and noted he was assigned to make a passenger flight to Homer. An hour later he made his pre-flight check of the U-1A Otter he was scheduled to fly. Specialist 4 Mark Standfer, the crew chief for the flight, assisted Captain Buchta in the pre-flight check and run-up. Everything was found to be in satisfactory order. Seated in the rear were two passengers from Fort Richardson who had business in Homer”.
“Forty-five miles south of Fort Richardson Captain Buchta's up to now normal flight took a decidedly different turn. He explained it in these words. We were at 1,500 feet at cruise when there was a loud bang and the cockpit filled with smoke. Immediately my mind turned to thoughts of fire, get the passengers out, find a place to land and so on. The smoke cleared somewhat and shortly after that the engine failed momentarily. It started up again but ran extremely rough. I contacted the Anchorage Flight Service Station and told them of my situation and that I was making a 180 degree turn in an attempt to make it back to the Anchorage area. About five minutes after we turned around the engine failed completely and it was time to land for sure”.
“Captain Buchta had been following a gasline for the few minutes he had been headed towards Anchorage. He had hopes of being able to set the plane down in the meagre clearing the right-of- way afforded. 'Just as the engine finally gave out on me I lowered the nose and set up my glide. Dead ahead was an old unattended gravel landing strip known as South Gasline. The wind was calm so I made straight for the strip. We'd been talking with the Flight Service Station all the while and they had a fix on our position. When we informed them we were being forced to land they notified Flight Operations at Bryant and a Huey helicopter was dispatched to pick us up'. Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Davis Jr, battalion commander for the 19th, said that the only damage to the Otter was the cylinder that was blown during the flight. He continued - Captain Buchta put the Otter down without a scratch. In doing so he saved an airplane that cost nearly $125,000. I'd say he's earned his salary for a number of years to come”.
After this excitement, the flying settled down to a routine, until even more dramatic events were to take place on Wednesday 18th February 1970. The Otter in question was 53318 and on board were Captain Buchta as pilot, CWO Joseph H. Bussard as co-pilot, First Lt. Woods E. Gray, Specialist 5 Joseph Kusy and Specialist 4 Norman A.Nielsen. They were returning from a mission to Point Barrow. 53318 had departed Fort Richardson on 16th February, refueled at Bettles and proceeded to Point Barrow. It departed Barrow the following day, 17th February, refuelled at Kotzebue and ended up that day at Nome. It departed Nome on 18th February at 1,132 hours, refuelled at McGrath and departed from there at 1606 hours en route to home base at Bryant AAF, Fort Richardson, ETA 1,802 hours.
Captain Buchta tells what happened: “The weather over the Brooks Range and Anatuvik Pass was totally impassable, so we decided to take the long route home, by flying from Point Barrow via Kotzebue to Nome, staying overnight and leaving the next morning for Fort Richardson. The first leg from Point Barrow was made without incident and the next morning we departed Nome, made a planned fuel stop in McGrath and then continued on. The aircraft was flown at 300 feet above ground level from McGrath to Farewell, along the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. After passing Farewell, a climb was made to approximately six thousand feet. The flight followed the river bed to the intersection with the Tatina River. Turning south east, the flight proceeded down Dalzell Creek, a narrow valley ringed with six-thousand-foot mountain peaks and high ridges”.
“There were heavy snow accumulations at this level but we could see green areas in the valley below. As we were approaching a 4,500-foot ridge ahead, the aircraft suddenly began losing altitude. Additional power was added until the engine was at full power but we were still losing altitude very rapidly. I attempted a turn and reverse course since it was obvious that our present path would take us straight into the rapidly approaching ridgeline at the current descent rate. We were now at full power, diving and losing altitude in order to maintain airspeed and control, while also trying to complete a 180 degree turn so that I could take advantage of the lower elevation in the clear valley below, but it soon became very apparent that we were not going to be able to complete this manoeuvre. I stopped the turn so that the aircraft would make semi-controlled contact with what looked like the edge of a flat snow-covered area. I directed the aircraft straight there while still at full throttle, losing altitude and down thus far almost three thousand feet. A couple of seconds later the aircraft made contact, with the engine still at full throttle and snow completely shrouding all visibility”.
“Then it was very quiet and I looked back and in spite of our landing the crew and passengers seemed okay. We had all survived the ordeal without incurring any serious physical injuries even though one passenger had been napping in the aisle when the aircraft made contact. The location could not have been in a more remote and desolate area. The aircraft was in a precarious position with the right wing extended out over a 2,000 foot drop off. The wind was very strong and threatening to blow the Otter off the edge and down the cliff. We immediately took out the survival gear and parachutes which we used to cover the lift wing, so that we could then cover it with snow and stabilise the aircraft. This worked and also gave us shelter from the wind and other elements for the night. After securing old faithful Otter 53318 we settled down under the wing since night was upon us, to check our supply of rations and emergency equipment. We did not know how long we would be here so we also discussed contingency plans should they be required”.
“The night was dark with blowing snow and heavy overcast and we were not too encouraged about a quick recovery. However, during the night an aircraft was heard and even though we could not see anything due to the conditions, I ordered several high altitude flares to be deployed and the crew of an Alaska Air National Guard C-123 did see and report the position. The night passed fairly well and since I had undergone arctic survival training I was able to help the passengers and crew attain some level of comfort. Morning brought clear skies and at approximately 10am the wonderful sound of Huey helicopters coming up the valley, which were a beautiful sight and sound to behold”.
The Otter had come down in Rainy Pass, southeast of Farewell, at the 3,800-foot level. When it became overdue a search began, involving three Huey helicopters from the 90th Aviation Company at Fort Richardson, four 19th Aviation Battalion Otters, also from Fort Richardson, six aircraft from the Anchorage and Palmer Civil Air Patrols and the C-123 from the Kulis Air National Guard Base at the Anchorage International Airport. The rescue aircraft flew 54 hours in 27 sorties. The incident is also referred to in the history of the 90th Aviation Company: “The first search and rescue mission of the year was conducted on 18th February 1970. It consisted of three UH-1Ds piloted by Major Payne, our commanding officer at the time, Captain Lenz, Captain Priddy, Captain Ramsey, CWO 4 Smith and CWO 2 Gallop. Total time flown was 16 hours and 45 minutes with 84 man hours utilized. The search was conducted for a U-1A aircraft overdue somewhere between Farewell and Fort Richardson. The weather was fair although visibility was restricted during search operations.
Communications were poor between the search aircraft due to the mountainous terrain. The downed party were easily visible when Captain Ramsey and CWO 4 Smith spotted them within five miles of the downed aircraft due to flares and smoke fires set by the personnel on the ground. Recovery of the personnel was conducted and the mission terminated”.
This incident, typical of the hazards bush aircraft, both civil and military, have to contend with in Alaska puts one in mind of the Army song popular with Otter crews in Vietnam, whose chorus went as follows:
We hit the ground, but with a thud
I smelled for smoke, I looked for blood I smelled no smoke, that was fine
The only blood, it was all mine
I counted noses, and gave a shout
Five souls on board, five souls walked out That's my story, sad but true
If you fly those Otters, it could happen to you!
The “forced landing” could quite easily have had a much worse outcome. The area where the Otter impacted was all deep, soft snow but it was just beside an area of very little snow on top of solid ice, which could have proved fatal. Captain Buchta continued to fly for the 19th Aviation Battalion until he left the Army in May 1971. As he says, he did so “with great memories, a Bronze Star, Air Medal 1st through 5th Oak Leaf Clusters and many friends”. Nor were 53318's flying days over, by any means. The wrecked Otter was brought down from the mountain and back to Fort Richardson. It was put up for disposal by sealed bid tender, and sold for $2,222-22 to Field Aviation Company Ltd on 22nd July 1970. It was transported by Consolidated Freightways truck from Fort Richardson, Anchorage to Calgary, Alberta where Field Aviation set about rebuilding the Otter and converting it to civilian configuration. This took a year, and on 27th July 1971 the Otter was sold by Field Aviation to White River Air Services Ltd of White River, Ontario to whom it was registered as CF-QMN on 7th October 1971.
Its period of ownership by White River Air Services was brief, as on 28th January 1972 QMN was sold to Eclipse Consultants Ltd., of Oshawa, Ontario, a company which traded in Otters. The Otter was leased by Eclipse Consultants to Labelle Touristair Inc., of Mont Laurier, Quebec on 27th March 1972 and sold to that company on 20th June '72. It was sold on to La Riviére Air Service of Schefferville, Quebec on 23rd November 1973, which changed its name to Air Gava Ltée, to whom C-FQMN was registered on 13th February 1974. Air Gava were quite a substantial company and by 1979, as well as three Otters, also flew a Beech 18, two DHC-6 Twin Otters, a C-47 and several single Cessnas. Colour scheme was an attractive orange overall with white cheat line.
The Otter flew for Air Gava Ltee serving the bush country of northern Quebec until 1981, when the company encountered financial difficulties and ceased trading. C&S Enterprises Ltd., were appointed as brokers to sell its fleet of aircraft, including the three Otters, QMN, C-GLFL (329) and C-GLCR (425). “Steal these bank repossessions” proclaimed the advert. QMN had at that stage 4,727 hours on the airframe and had an asking price of $158,000 Canadian. QMN was sold to a Mr. Robert W. Chestnut of San Rafael, California on 24th March 1982, who paid only $110,000 Canadian for it.
Clearly, Otter prices were very depressed at the time. It was a candidate for registration to Bio-Air, but was registered N2959W to Robert Chestnut and subsequently re-registered to Michael G. Conlee of Orland, California in July 1984. In November 1986 it was registered to John R. Sieglinger of Canaan, New Hampshire but the aircraft itself remained “out west”, based at Lancaster, Fox Field in California and used to fly Purolator Courier services around California.
In April 1988 the Otter returned to Canada when it was purchased by Hawk Air of Wawa - Hawk Junction, Ontario. It reverted to its previous Canadian marks, being registered to Hawk Air as C- FQMN. As its web site proclaims, Hawk Air runs “21 outpost camps on 20 remote lakes, where the fishing is abundant and the wildlife is fantastic”. In 2004, the Otter was still in service with Hawk Air.
It was painted into a blue overall colour scheme with yellow cheatline and Hawk Air titles. It flew as a piston Otter with Hawk Air for some years but over the winter of 2005/6 it was converted to a Vazar DHC-3T turbine Otter by Springer Aerospace at their Bar River, Ontario facility. Summer 2006 was its first season as a turbine Otter and it was used on a daily basis to service the fly-in fishing camps and for charters to local fishing lodges and private camps. It hauled fishermen, lumber, fuel and general supplies to countless remote locations around Hawk Junction, continuing with this work in subsequent years. Winters were spent in outside storage at Bar River with Springer Aerospace.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (CD ROM 2005).