Otter number 77 was delivered to the United States Navy on 21st March 1956 with BuAer serial number 142425. Otters 78 and 79 were delivered to the Navy at the same time (all three were to have been delivered the previous July but were delayed by a strike at DHC) and all three were flown to the Navy's VX-6 Squadron base at Patuxent River NAS, Maryland. Here, training flights were conducted in preparation for the Antarctic deployment, as well as trials to determine how the Otter would perform at altitude, in case it had to be used on the high Antarctic plateau regions. For this purpose 142425 and 142426 departed Patuxent River on 9th May '56 en route to Colorado, where the high altitude trials were to be conducted in the Rocky Mountains. Both Otters landed that day at NAS Columbus, Ohio to refuel. A broken generator shaft on 142426 resulted in loss of electrical power, and since no suitable replacement generator could be obtained, '426 returned to base.
142425 continued on westwards to Peterson Field, Ent Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colorado arriving on the afternoon of 11th May. The trials were to be conducted at Leadville, a rough gravel strip ten thousand feet up in the Rockies. Weather precluded operations for a few days but on 15th May the Otter departed from Fort Carson's airstrip, elevation 5,800 feet and flew to Leadville. “The condition of the strip and the performance of the Otter at 10,000 feet were of such a nature that after three landings the pilots felt it inadvisable to continue the tests”. On 16th May, '425 departed Peterson Field, arriving back at Patuxent River on 18th May '56. The following month 142425 moved with the Squadron to VX-6's new base at Quonset Point NAS Rhode Island, from where it operated until transported to the Antarctic in October 1956. The Otter was to serve the Navy faithfully for 22 years, including ten years in the harsh Antarctic environment with VX-6.
During Deep Freeze III an Antarctic “first” was made by '425 on 25th October 1957, when it landed on Roosevelt Island, located some thirty miles from Little America. It was on a reconnaissance flight to establish Camp Michigan, a site on the Ross Ice Shelf where the IGY Ice Deformation Study programme was to be conducted. Six days later '425 made an emergency flight to the Ross Ice Shelf traverse party, which was then feeling its way from Little America to McMurdo. A scientist had fallen sixty feet into a crevasse, but had been pulled out by other members of the party. He was in urgent need of medical treatment and the Otter was sent to collect him. Crew of the Otter were Commander James Waldron and Lt.Harvey Gardner. In the Antarctic darkness and with weather only marginal at the accident site, the two took off in '425. Homing in on a low frequency beacon, Waldron was brought right over the campsite. On arrival at the remote location, landing the Otter was very hazardous. Visibility was so bad that Waldron could not see anything smaller than the outline of men, vehicles and dark streaks indicating the dreaded crevasses. Instructing the traverse leader to have his men form a straight line 25 yards apart, beside the tracks made by the party's equipment, he considered this to be the safest landing ground. The hard landing which followed caused some damage to the Otter's skis. After picking up the injured man, he was flown to McMurdo in the Otter and from there airlifted to Christchurch.
142425 very nearly came to grief again on Christmas Eve 1960, and was lucky to survive. The Otter was engaged that day on a re-supply flight to Mount Christmas, 230 miles south of McMurdo, when it suffered engine failure and was forced down on the Ross Ice Shelf, landing between two crevasses in the area of Barne Inlet. The following is a summary of an article written by the pilot, which graphically illustrates the difficulties of dealing with an engine failure, particularly over the inhospitable terrain of Antarctica. The Otter had been cruising along on top of an overcast, as the pilot sought a break in the clouds large enough to go down through. He then heard a definite 'clunk' from the engine, followed by noticeable vibration, a 'dancing' RPM needle and the oil pressure gauge pointing to the lower end of the scale. A glance at the windscreen showed oil creeping up over the glass.
The pilot turned left toward a space between two mountains that loomed above his 8,000 foot altitude. Continual re-trimming of the Otter was necessary as the crewman and passenger hurriedly tossed everything they could out the door. The engine was putting out about 50% power, with a steady loss of altitude. Howls from the husky tied up at the rear of the cabin could be heard above the reduced power noise. The huge beast bared its fangs and snapped at the men as they passed. The windscreen was by this stage covered with thick oil, darkening to black as it congealed in the frigid temperature. Forward visibility was zero. About a ton and half of cargo had been thrown out the door in a matter of minutes, which reduced the rate of descent, but the Otter was still going down. Passing five thousand feet, it entered the overcast, holding a 600 feet per minute rate of descent. The inside of the aircraft went dark as thick clouds closed around. With visibility gone and no navigation aids to fix their position in relation to surrounding mountains, the occupants were in the hands of providence. The pilot carefully maintained the gyro compass heading of a course between the peaks and prayed that the terrain of the glacial range would fall away below faster than the Otter was going down.
As the needle on the altimeter dipped past 300 feet, the light coming through the smeared-over windows began to increase and suddenly they broke out of the underside of the overcast to find themselves over a glacier, with ice blocks and crevasses all over the place. Even with the increased light, the windshield was still an opaque layer of congealed black oil. The Otter touched down firmly on all three skis and then lurched sickeningly to the right as the ski on that side crashed into something. They bounced and became airborne again, hit again and stayed on the surface. They had just made a totally blind landing on the glacier. A careful inspection of the area showed just how lucky they had been. Behind the Otter was a long ridge of mounded white, like a sand dune, at a right angle to the landing track. The top of this ridge was some fifteen feet above the area where the Otter had come to rest. Along the base of the ridge was an aqua-colour bottomless void running off in both directions, this icy blue strip clearly indicating the opening of a major crevasse. They had touched down at first on the higher side of the chasm and then floated across it to the low side.
They dipped the seat cushions in engine oil and gas and set them alight, the black smoke indicating their position. Soon the sleek form of a Navy P2V Neptune appeared overhead and relayed their position to the rescue helicopter, a Navy H-34 Choctaw, which arrived and took the crew home. A repair party arrived. They changed the cylinder (the engine had not seized despite the lack of lubricant), flushed out all metallic residue from the rest of the engine six times until no filings could be found, changed the right ski because it was bent and a guy wire had snapped, dropped the fuel barrels the Otter had been carrying down a crevasse that the skis were bridging, muscled the aircraft around 90 degrees so it was facing a reasonably flat area with a thousand feet or so to the next big block of ice. The pilot (Thomas E. Morrow) then flew it out with one crewman back to McMurdo. Here it was carefully checked and was back in service three days later. It continued to fly for the Squadron until January 1966, when the Otter was finally withdrawn from the Antarctic.
Although the Otter had been acquired by the Navy for the specific purpose of supporting Antarctic operations, such was the versatility of the aircraft that the Navy retained its five remaining Otters, transported them back to the United States and put them to use on a variety of tasks. 142425 went to the Naval Air Rework Facility at El Centro, California. It had flown 888 hours with VX-6. After overhaul, it joined the Naval Aerospace Recovery Facility, which was also based at El Centro, in June 1966. This Facility had as its mission the development, test and evaluation of parachutes, human escape methods and systems, and rescue, survival and personnel safety equipment. With this unit the Otter was used as a 'jumper' - a platform from which the parachutists jumped in testing the equipment.
When the US Geological Survey acquired an Army surplus Otter (N2750, serial 261) its controls were only on the pilot's side, so during March 1974 its pilot arranged for transition training at El Centro using 142425, which used the radio call-sign “Shadetree 425”. As the pilot, Tony England, explained “We launched each mission with me in the co-pilot's seat until the jumpers exited. Then the pilot and I would exchange seats and I would get a lesson for an hour or so. We did this a couple of times a day for a week, at which point I felt comfortable with the aircraft”. 142425 remained with the Facility until February 1975, by which time its airframe hours had increased to 2,438. It was then transferred to the National Parachute Test Range, still based at El Centro. The Otter continued in use as a jumping platform, and performed other tasks such as aerial photography and was used as a spotter aircraft. It carried the name “Horribles Super Critter”. In October 1978, after 3,070 hours flying in Naval service over a 22 year career, it made its final flight in military service, across the Rockies to a well-earned retirement at the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center, Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona.
Having been placed into storage in “the boneyard”, as the storage compounds at Davis-Monthan are known, it was allocated Inventory Code 5U 001. It was to be the first and the only Navy Otter in the boneyard, and its storage was short-lived. The Navy arranged to trade the Otter and two other aircraft to Jack Lenhardt in exchange for a Grumman Wildcat, registered N20HA, which he had restored. Mr Lenhardt collected the Otter at Davis-Monthan and flew it to Lenhardt Airpark, his privately owned airfield at Hubbard in the Willamette Valley to the south of Portland, Oregon. It was still in the all-white colour scheme in which the Navy had flown it and still carried Navy titles and the star-and-bars. Here he converted the Otter to civilian configuration, including as he says “changing all of the firewall rivets to stainless steel instead of aluminium, which was not easy”. It was registered N1037G to Lenhardt Airpark Inc in April 1979. Jack Lenhardt flew the Otter for some hours around the local area. He then sold it to James J. Harkey of Auburn, Washington who over the years has owned a number of Otters. Mr Lenhardt flew N1037G to Renton Airfield, Seattle on delivery to Mr Harkey, to whom the aircraft was registered in March 1981. Two months later, in May 1981, Mr Harkey sold the Otter to 40 Mile Air of Tok, Alaska who went on to operate N1037G for many years.
As the company describe it: “The Otter was used mainly for short field work, supporting mining camps in the summer, based out of Tok. In the winter it lived in Prudhoe Bay, supporting the cat trains that searched for oil way up on the North Slope. The Otter would fly out to where-ever the cat train was, bringing food and mail. It was based out of the British Petroleum hangar at Prudhoe. One time it taxied into a 55 gallon drum, pitched the drum into the air over the top of a Cessna 206 and the drum was embedded into the side of a Beaver”.
Sometime in or around 1989 the Otter force landed due to engine failure in the Alaskan bush and was badly damaged. In July 1990 it was registered to Warbelows Air Ventures Inc, Fairbanks, Alaska a company associated with 40 Mile Air. In January 1993 the wreck was sold to a company called Kodiak Sanitation Inc of Kodiak, Alaska who started to rebuild the aircraft, but then gave up on the project. It was sold to a Michael L. Cusack of Anchorage in June 1994. He was the owner of a fishing lodge, serviced by a Beaver. He transported the Otter to Victoria, BC for re-build, but then sold it to James J. Harkey, its previous owner, to whom it was registered N129JH in January 1995. Mr Harkey did rebuild the Otter and had it converted to a Vazar DHC-3T turbine Otter and put it on amphibious floats. The conversion was undertaken by Aeroflite Industries at Vancouver. The Otter arrived 20th December 1995 and was rolled out after conversion on 5th March 1996. It then went to AOG Air Support at Kelowna, BC, for the incorporation of BARON/STOL modifications. The Otter emerged in pristine condition painted white with red cheatline, and with the leading edges of the wing also in red. It returned to Mr Harkey's base at Auburn, Washington just to the south of Seattle from where it was flown for his personal use until sold in March 1998 to North Star Air Ltd., of Pickle Lake, Ontario and placed on the Canadian register as C-GCQA.
CQA flew for North Star Air until an accident on 26th April 1999. The Otter landed at 39 Mile Lake, Ontario to pick up some goose hunters for a flight to the native community of Kasabonika. The company had made a flight to the lake earlier in the day in a Beaver and found the ice to be about two feet thick. After the Otter had stopped next to the hunting camp, the ice gave way. The front of the Otter sank through the ice and the tail remained on the ice. A helicopter was dispatched the next morning to retrieve the two crew and the hunters. A larger helicopter, a Sikorsky S-61, was then chartered to airlift the Otter to Kasabonika for repair. This incident well illustrates the difficulty and expense of retrieving an aircraft such as an Otter from the bush. The S-61 was chartered from Helicopter Transport Services and had to be ferried from its base at Carp, Ontario all the way to the lake, which was 155 miles north of Pickle Lake. In all, there was 15 hours of flying involved, there and back, for the S-61 which comes with a price tag of $4,400 per hour.
Arriving overhead the sunken Otter, ropes were attached but the first attempt to lift the aircraft was unsuccessful. It was too heavy and firmly embedded in the ice. The S-61 hovered nearby for 45 minutes to burn off fuel and reduce its weight, and then tried again. This time the lift was successful and the helicopter along with underslung Otter proceeded to Kasabonika, 39 miles away, where C-GCQA was deposited before the S-61 refuelled and headed for home. At Kasabonika, a new engine and propeller were fitted and temporary repairs carried out before the Otter was flown to Geraldton, Ontario for final repair by Recon Air. In all, the recovery operation had cost $85,000. CQA resumed operations with North Star Air from its Pickle Lake base, alongside the company's Beaver and Cessna Caravans. The Otter is flown year round to earn its keep, as an amphibian in the summer months and on wheel-skis in winter. Hunters, fishermen, tourists make up the bulk of the summer trade. The more adventurist tourists are flown up the River Winisk for canoeing, and to Hudson Bay for polar bear and whale viewing. Although nearly all flying is done within Ontario, occasionally the Otter flies down to International Falls, Minnesota to collect tourists and return them to Pickle Lake.
Mineral exploration is another activity which takes place year round, flying survey and drilling teams out into the bush. This activity covers the vast frontier area between Pickle Lake all the way north to Hudson Bay. The Otter is also used to fly freight to native communities at such places as Big Trout Lake, Summer Beaver, Wunnumin Lake, Webquie, Anglin Lake and Wawakapewin. Most of the winter work is to the Long Dog settlement, the only native reserve in the area not to have a runway. It is approximately one hour's flying time north of Pickle Lake and a standard load is six drums of diesel fuel to power their generators. There is also a small amount of work for the Otter during the winter months flying trappers around the bush.
To be further updated at some point.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).