Otter 339 was delivered to the United States Army on 9th October 1959 with serial 58-1720 (tail number 81720). It was delivered from Downsview to the Arctic Test Center, Army Test & Evaluation Command, at Fort Greely, Alaska as a support aircraft. It replaced Otter 53296 (152) which was then assigned to Fort Wainwright. 81720 was destined to spend the rest of its long military career with the Arctic Test Center. It continued in service at Fort Greely until November 1971, when it flew south into retirement in the storage compounds of the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center, Davis- Monthan AFB., Tucson, Arizona. It was the first of five Army Otters to be placed into storage in “the boneyard”, and received the inventory code UA 001.
It did not remain in storage all that long, and on 27th October 1972 was transferred by the US government to the Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda, California for use as an air ambulance. It left Davis-Monthan AFB., on 31st October 1972 and was flown to Paine Field, Seattle where it was to be converted to a civilian aircraft by Aero Support Facilities Inc. The Otter had total airframe time at that stage of 3,342 hours. Work progressed slowly, but on 6th March 1974 the Otter was registered to the Loma Linda University Medical Center as N41755 and its Certificate of Airworthiness was issued on 29th March 1974. During July / September 1974, Air Comm Systems of Rialto, California installed new radios and navaids to equip the Otter for its role as an air ambulance, and it flew for the Medical Center during 1975, 1976 and 1977.
By Bill of Sale dated 2nd January 1978 the Otter was sold to Warren W.Woods of Palmer, Alaska, who operated a fuel hauling business. It was converted with a bulk fuel tank and entered service alongside Otter N48148 (115) and PBY N9521C. The Otters could carry 400 US gallons each and the PBY 1,500 gallons. The aircraft operated all over Alaska on this fuel hauling business. Warren “Buddy” Woods had started business in 1962 doing mapping surveys for the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska with an Aeronca Chief. That business developed into a fleet of helicopters, and he made use of the Otters to supply fuel for the helicopters. In the past he had operated Otters N90574 (174) and N48064 (278). He then went into the fuel hauling business, using the Otters and the PBY, a DC-3 and a C-46. Sadly, Buddy Woods was killed on 20th March 1986 when his DHC-4 Caribou N539Y crashed on approach to Lime Village, Alaska on a flight from Palmer. However, his family continued on the business, using the Otter N41755, the DC-3, a Super Cub and a Cessna 185.
On 20th June 1989, on take off from Palmer, the Otter pitched abruptly nose down following an in- flight failure of the horizontal stabilizer's trim actuator jack screws. The pilot was able to maintain control of the Otter and make a successful landing by exerting a large amount of back pressure on the control wheel and adding nearly full engine power. An examination of the actuator revealed an inadequate amount of lubricating grease and excessive part wear. The aircraft landed safely and no damage was done, but it had been 'a close run thing'. On 27th September 1989 the Otter and other aircraft were transferred to a limited liability company, Woods Air Fuel Inc. The fleet at that stage, as well as the Otter and a Cessna 206, comprised two DC-3s N50CM and N777YA and a DC-6 N400UA.
The Otter continued in service with Woods Air Fuel until an accident in July 1992. Dick Lochner, the company's chief pilot, describes what happened: “On 22nd July, N41755 was involved in an accident while hauling supplies from Nikolai, Alaska, about ninety nautical miles south of Mount McKinley (Denali) to a mining strip on the west side of the Alaska Mountain Range. The strip had been cut out of a ridge adjacent to the Windy Fork river and was 700 feet long, with an approximate six percent up-slope. One way in and one way out and being at the base of the mountains, was very challenging. Whether the winds were on the windward side of the mountain or the leeward side, they were always crosswinds and always presented a great challenge to the pilot”.
“The pilot, a former Navy carrier pilot, was letting down for a straight-in approach to the strip when an engine fire occurred. The real problem was that the fire burned through the accessory section and he lost control of the throttle, prop and mixture. His power setting for the let down was not sufficient to make the strip, so his only alternative was to accept what power he had and dive through the top of a stand of trees to make a sand bar in the river bed. He shut down the engine with magnetos and turned off all electrical as he made contact with Mother Earth. He did a magnificent job of putting it down in the riverbed below the bluff of the strip. But the emergency landing was not without consequences. As is typical of this situation, the right landing gear came up through the fuselage and the right wing spar broke and the right wing curled up. The pilot, passenger and some of the crew from the mining camp who witnessed the crash and came running to the scene, managed to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher and by throwing earth and river silt on the fire until it was out”.
“After the pilot was recovered and the load delivered to the mining camp, the Otter was tied down to some “dead men” (logs buried in the river bed) until plans could be made for its recovery.
Unfortunately, the unpredictable winds of Alaska reared their ugly head. Winds estimated at seventy knots put the Otter in the air for one last flight. Tie downs, bent wing, collapsed gear and all. Father wind picked up N41755 about thirty feet in the air and put her back down about thirty yards down the river bed on her back. We now had two broken wing spars, a crushed fuselage and empennage and the engine efficiently separated from what was once a beautiful air machine”.
“The recovery of all the parts and pieces took several months, due to the heavy snow and wind conditions. The 'carcass' was eventually brought out using snow machines and sleds to a larger strip some thirty miles from the crash site. From here, the wrecked Otter was flown back to Palmer by a Northern Air Cargo 'swing-tail' DC-6. N41755's broken body was put in the back corner of the Woods Air hangar and pretty much left to rest in peace for several years. After a few years, the owner decided to resurrect the old girl and start putting her back together again. Work was to be accomplished during slow periods in the day to day activities of the normal fuel hauling operations. The slow process of restoration was made even slower by this approach. This went on for several years, but progress on the rebuild project came to a complete halt on 18th April 2000 when Woods Air Fuel went out of business. Although the owner had a zero time engine and propeller and had all of the sheet metal and most of the parts in place to complete the job, the pressures of the business world overwhelmed the good intentions”.
What had happened was that on that day, the Federal Aviation Administration had revoked the operating certificate of Woods Air Fuel for violations of Federal Aviation Regulations pertaining to maintenance and operations, causing the immediate closure of the company. As an FAA press release stated: “Woods Air Service and Woods Air Fuel were cited for using unqualified persons to perform maintenance, using an unauthorised person to approve an aircraft return to service, careless or reckless operations that endangered the life or property of others, fraudulent or intentional falsification of required maintenance records and operation of un-airworthy aircraft”. A sad end indeed to a long-standing operation.
There was an auction for the assets of Woods Air Fuel on 17th January 2001 but the Otter did not sell. Tesoro Alaska Petroleum Company held a lien on the Otter for unpaid bills and had specified a minimum bid of $100,000. Two bids were made on the Otter but were declared too low and refused. “So, N41755 still occupies the back corner of a darkened hangar waiting for some loving owner to come along and put her back in the air”.
Having lain at Palmer, Alaska since recovered from the crash site, following its accident on 22 July 1992 while operated by Woods Air Fuel, the Otter was sold to Harbour Air of Vancouver in November 2005 and trucked all the way from Palmer to the Vancouver International Airport, where over the winter of 2005/06 it was rebuilt by Aeroflite Industries and at the same time converted to a Vazar turbine Otter. It was registered to Harbour Air Ltd., Richmond as C-FHAX on 25 January 2006 and entered service as fleet # 313.
Full history up to 2005 courtesy of Karl E Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter - A History (CD-ROM 2005)