Otter 285 was delivered to the United States Army on 3rd October 1958 with serial 58-1681 (tail number 81681). It was one of sixteen Otters delivered from Downsview to Addison, Texas for work to be done on them by Collins Radio Corporation. Most of these Otters then went to Europe but four of them went to Panama, including 81681 which was allocated to the US Army Aviation Detachment - Carribbean, stationed at Howard AFB., Canal Zone, Panama. This Detachment later became the 352nd Aviation Company, part of the US Army's Southern Command, based at Albrook AFB., Canal Zone, Panama. In July 1963 the Otter was assigned to the United States Mission to Colombia and moved to its new base at Bogota. Initially the Otter was based at El Dorado International Airport, but after a few months it moved to Guayamaral Airfield, where it shared a hangar and facilities with the 937th Engineer Company, who were flying Otters and other aircraft on the Inter American Geodetic Survey (IAGS).
The purpose of the US Army Mission to Colombia was to administer the Military Assistance Program. US military equipment was issued to the Colombian Army, which required that training teams be provided to teach the Colombians to use and operate the equipment, and a re-supply system had to be established for spare parts for the equipment. The Colombian operation of the equipment had to be inspected on a regular basis. The mission of the Otter was to provide air transportation within Colombia for those inspection and training visits. The support work undertaken by the Mission brought the Otter all over Colombia, to all of the civilian airports and military bases, large and small. There were trips to the Guajira region in the northeast, bordering Venezuela, and to Ipiales in the south, near to Ecuador. Towns such as Cali and Medellin high in the Cordillera mountains were visited, as well as small grass strips out in the Llanos (plains). When the IAGS Otter went to Panama for maintenance, the Mission's Otter was flown on IAGS tasks, bringing fuel in barrels and supplies to the remote regions where surveying was being carried out.
As required, Otter 81681 was flown back to Panama for maintenance but otherwise it continued its operations within Colombia until sadly coming to grief on 15th September 1965. The Otter had flown from its base to Medellin the previous day, for a scheduled three day staff visit to Colombian military units located in the north-western part of the country. In addition to the two crew, there were three passengers on board as the Otter took off from Medellin en route to Manizales, a city of approximately one hour flight time away. The following is an extract from an excellent article subsequently written by the pilot William Potts on what happened:
“La Nubia Airport, which serves the city of Manizales, is an uncontrolled airfield that was constructed on top of a mountain. Field elevation is 6,300 feet MSL with terrain dropping off sharply on all sides. The south side is hugged by a ridge line running east and west, providing less than one mile clearance from the single NE-SW runway. The east end of the field is boxed in with mountains of 11,000+ feet in height. The west end of the strip falls away approximately 5,000 feet to the city of Manizales. To the north is a long valley that climbs and climbs until it becomes the side of a massive, tall wall of dirt, rocks, grass and trees.”
“The election was made to land to the west. To make this approach it was necessary to fly down a ridge line that runs from the southeast towards the east end of the runway. This ridge line provides sort of a modified left base leg for the runway. After alerting the passengers to strap in for landing, we set up over the ridge line, reduced power and trimmed, with initial flaps set. Turning onto final, I found I was higher than I wanted, so I slipped the 'bird' to lose some of the un-wanted altitude. When we finally had a decent glide path established, our touch-down point was going to be on the last third of the runway - not enough room to stop safely. The go-around was uneventful. For the second approach, I was convinced to land to the east. Climbing back to pattern altitude, I set up a right base leg to have about a three mile final approach to the east. On base, I put down climb flaps and maintained 70 knots indicated. On final with the landing assured, flaps were lowered to take off setting. Approximately one half mile from the end of the runway, with all power off and 65 knots indicated, that sheer moment of panic struck me”.
“Instead of looking at the end of the runway, we were looking at the side of the mountain - blown there by the wind. Power was added and a turn to the north initiated. With full power on and all those flaps hanging down, the Otter doesn't climb all that swiftly at 6,000+ feet. On the way up the valley, not knowing where it went, flaps were 'inched off' a little at a time, in an effort to gain altitude. Eventually a climb of 300 feet per minute was established, but the terrain was climbing at a faster rate than old '681. As it became crystal clear that we were in for a hard landing, I made for a small ploughed field to our left. It was about this time I saw two little (?) wires between us and the field. These turned out to be woven steel cables supporting a gold mine aerial tramway running through the valley”.
“There was not enough room or time to try and dive under the cables and we were basically stalled out trying to get over them. Once we took on the cables, control of the aircraft was totally lost. There was a house to the left of the field of intended touchdown that I desperately tried to avoid, but the cables were tougher than the Pratt & Whitney at that point in time. The next thing I knew all sorts of debris was appearing in front of my eyes”. 81681 had crashed into the house, but as the cables had slowed the descent, those on board were able to walk away from the crash, the only injuries being to one of the passengers, who suffered a fractured leg. The occupants of the house were equally fortunate, although one of them had to hurriedly leave the outside toilet, which the Otter demolished. Poor old 81681 was a total loss, although for years after the fuselage was in use by the Colombian Army battalion in Manizales as their NCO club. The US Mission to Colombia picked up a replacement Otter in Puerto Rico and 'island hopped' back to Panama for an acceptance check by the field maintenance facility, before ferrying the Otter to Colombia.
Full history up to 2005 courtesy of Karl E Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter - A History (CD-ROM 2005)