Otter 235 was delivered to the United States Army on 14th December 1957 with serial 57-6115 (tail number 76115). It was one of sixteen Army Otters delivered from Downsview to Addison, Texas for work to be done on them by Collins Radio Corporation. Most of these Otters were then assigned to Europe. By 1959 76115 was attached to the 572nd Engineer Platoon (Topographic Aviation) based at Wheelus Air Base, Tripoli, Libya. The unit supported Army survey work in Libya. It was painted in the red and white colour scheme, as were the unit's other two Otters 53317 (182) and 76123 (259). Other aircraft types in the unit were L-19s, L-20s, L-23s and H-23 helicopters.
On the morning of 4th January 1960 at 0700 hours, Captain Dobson, Lt. Petterson and Lt. Jefferson arrived at Army Flight Operations at Wheelus to prepare for a three Otter flight to Berka II, a radar site near Benghazi, to return field crews of surveyors to their camps after the Christmas holiday.
Lt. Jefferson was to fly 76115, Lt. Peterson 53317 and Captain Dobson 76123. For convenience, to limit administration and to expedite their departure, they decided to file one flight plan for all three Otters. They obtained the weather briefing, carried out their pre-flight checks and made ready to depart. Lt. Jefferson in 76115, having embarked nine passengers, started his engine before the other two and performed his run-up checks on the ramp. He started to taxi out until he was reminded that they were proceeding as a flight of three. He throttled back and received some cargo to be off-loaded at Misurata, an NDB station maintained by the USAF. Lt. Jefferson then taxied out to the active runway some five minutes before the other two and took off at approximately 08:00 hours. The other two Otters took off ten minutes later and circled Misurata while Lt. Jefferson landed and off-loaded his cargo.
When Lt. Jefferson became airborne again, the three Otters proceeded initially via the coast line towards Marble Arch, where the Coast Guard maintained a LORAN Station. 76123 was in the lead, level at 5,000 feet, followed by 53317 at 5,000 feet and 76115 at 7,000 feet. 76123 descended for a landing at Marble Arch, to off load some of its passengers. At that stage, Lt. Peterson in 53317 saw 76115 bank to the left and head out over the Mediterranean Sea direct track towards Benghazi. In doing this, Lt. Jefferson was 'cutting the corner' over the Gulf of Sirte, a route of flight which although headed directly to its destination, would bring the aircraft about one hundred miles off shore.
Standing orders for the unit were for flights on this route to follow the shore-line, even though it made for a longer flight, as there were several wartime landing fields along the coast in case of emergency. Indeed, the previous October, while flying 76115 from Wheelus to Benghazi, Lt. Jefferson had experienced engine failure and had to make a forced landing at one of the unit's old field camps. It was the policy of the unit that there were to be no overwater flights unless adequate survival/flotation equipment was carried and the passengers had been briefed, which had not been done on this occasion. The direct track route took the Otter over 240 miles of open water over the Gulf of Sirte.
53317 continued to follow the coast line towards Benghazi, as did 76123 when it had taken off from Marble Arch. En route, they encountered a squall line and descended to pass under it, encountering turbulence and rain. When they landed at the radar site at Berka II near Benghazi, there was no sign of 76115, which should have arrived before them, as it was proceeding by a shorter route. The two Otters took off again to search for the missing 76115, and were joined by the unit's other aircraft. An alert was raised and a major search commenced. The following is an extract from the history of the USAF's 58th Air Rescue Squadron, then also based at Wheelus: “On 4th January at 14:40 hours, the 58th ARS received a call from Army Operations that a US Army U-1A Otter, with one pilot and nine passengers, was overdue at its destination, Benghazi, Libya. The aircraft, assigned to the 329th Engineer detachment, had departed Wheelus with en route stops at Mizurata and Marble Arch and was last seen over the water heading towards Bengazi. At 1502 the first of two SA-16 Albatross and two SC-54 Skymasters (one of which was 50637) from the 58th ARS, were airborne to begin a route search for the U-1A. The first day of the search proved fruitless, as the rough seas, rainstorms and darkness hampered the search effort”.
“On 5th January, the two SA-16s and three SC-54s of the 58th ARS were joined by two RAF Shackletons, one C-47 and four Army aircraft to begin search at first light. An intensive search was made of the water area between Marble Arch and Bengazi. The results of the second day of the search were again fruitless. On 6th January the two SA-16s and three SC-54s from the 58th were joined in the search by twenty-two aircraft, including four SA-16s, two Shackletons, five C-47s, two B-57s, one L-23A and one L-19. These aircraft conducted an intensive search of an area twenty-five miles off the coast to seventy miles inland, with Army helicopters and light aircraft patrolling the coastline at an altitude of fifty feet. At 16:56 hours some debris was spotted on the coast and positive recognition of some locally manufactured parts as those installed on the missing aircraft. The mission was suspended 8th January at 20:30 hours in view of the negative possibility of survival in the water under the existing conditions for more than twenty-four hours. The U-1A Otter carried no water survival gear other than the flotation seat cushions”.
This incident is also referred to in the history of the Royal Air Force's 38 Squadron, then based at RAF Luqa in Malta, flying the Avro Shackleton Mark II. Four sorties were flown on 5th and 6th January 1960 to search for the missing Otter, involving a total of sixty hours flying. The four Shackletons involved were WL744, WL758, WL759 and WL786. These missions took off at 05:00 hours and did not return to base until 20:00 hours, a 15-hour airborne time. Mention is also made of this accident in the “Lady Be Good” exhibit in the USAF Museum in Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio. On 4th April 1943 B-24 bombers of the 376th Bomb Group took off from a base in Libya for a bombing raid against enemy facilities in Naples, Italy. All the bombers returned, except one which was named the “Lady Be Good”. Almost sixteen years later, on 9th November 1958, the wreck of the B-24 was spotted in the Libyan desert and a ground party reached the site in March 1959. It appeared that the bomber had become lost returning from its mission, and as the fuel supply became depleted the nine crew bailed out, but had perished in the desert attempting to walk to civilization.
Parts of the B-24 had been installed on other aircraft, but it brought them nothing but bad luck. As the museum exhibit says: “A seat armrest from the Lady Be Good was installed on a US Army Otter which crashed in the Gulf of Sirte with ten men aboard. No trace was ever found of any of them. One of the few pieces washed ashore was the armrest”.
Giffen A. Marr, who was flying with the 572nd Engineer Platoon at the time, adds some further details: “We deployed from Wheelus to Berka II and assisted the USAF in the search. The following morning, the 5th, I was assigned to fly a Beaver to do a low-level search of the coast line between Berka II and Marble Arch. On the 6th I was assigned an H-23 helicopter and joined Lt. Tom Gochnaur at a search camp close to Marsha Brega, which is about half way between Berka II and Marble Arch. As I was arriving there, Tom called me on the radio to join him on the beach. I landed and we looked at some honeycomb aluminium. One piece was part of a USAF tow target; another was part of the cabin floor from the Otter. We were getting ready to depart to the search camp and use the HF radio to report our finding, when Tom called me over to his H-23. Lying on the sand, next to the skid, was the armrest from the Lady Be Good. Our maintenance officer had been to the Lady Be Good and had removed one of the armrests from the aircraft seat, to use as model to add armrests to the Otters. Most of our flights were five to six hours and it would be a lot less fatiguing if there were armrests for the flights. He built enough armrests along with the one from the Lady Be Good to fit all of the aircraft. Do you believe in fate, or possibly a jinx?”.
It appears that 76115 was lost when it flew through the squall line far out to sea, and broke up in turbulence. No trace was ever found of the aircraft, apart from the few scraps of wreckage washed ashore, nor of the ten souls on board. At the time of its loss, Otter 76115 had flown 832 hours in Army service.
Full history up to 2005 courtesy of Karl E Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter - A History (CD-ROM 2005)