Otter 78 was delivered to the US Navy on 20th March 1956 with BuAer serial 142426. Otters 77 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. From there they were transported to the Antarctic and entered service with VX-6. During Operation Deep Freeze II of 1956/57, 142426 was one of six Naval Otters based at the Little America Station, some 400 miles to the east of the main American base at McMurdo Sound on the Ross Ice Shelf. During the harsh Antarctic winter (corresponding with summer in the northern hemisphere) flying was impractical, so the Otters and other VX-6 aircraft were parked and secured for the winter.
On 30th August 1957, as 142426 (which was named “Expediter”) was being prepared for Operation Deep Freeze III after its winter hibernation, it was destroyed in a severe storm. The following excerpts are taken from a most readable and highly recommended account of VX-6 operations “Flight of the Puckered Penguins” by Commander James Waldron. They describe not merely the sad destruction of the Otter, but also the immense effort needed to bring the VX-6 aircraft back to operational status after months picketed out in the open. The airfield at Little America was known as Kiel Field and was a mile or so from the camp:
“We could have done some flying every month of the winter, but the wear and tear on equipment and on ground personnel was so intense that we decided it was not worth it. So all the aircraft were parked well clear of any buildings or obstructions, securely tied down and left to weather the cold and blowing snow until spring returned. In all, we had four R4Ds, six UC-1 Otters and one helicopter stored this way. While it was still dark, but within a couple of weeks before the sun would creep above the horizon, we decided to start digging the aircraft out of the snow. The R4Ds were about half covered with hard packed snow and since we needed two of these aircraft to start the summer flying operations, we started digging out these aircraft first. The detachment pilots would do most of the digging around the aircraft. Each of us took up shovels and for about six hours each day we worked at freeing the aircraft from their snowy graves”.
“Since it was still dark outside, all of this work had to be done in darkness. Flashlights soon froze and then would produce no light, so much of our work was done around the aircraft using our memories of the aircraft's outline to tell us where to place our shovels. Temperatures at the time ranged from 30 to 35 degrees below zero so we had to constantly check our faces, hands and feet to avoid their becoming frozen. After a bit of constant digging, we all perspired inside our heavy winter clothing and this perspiration quickly froze if we stopped to rest for very long. After about two weeks, two of the R4Ds were free enough of the snow that a tractor could be attached to the landing gear so the aircraft could be pulled free of the hole they were in. Once free of the accumulated snow, our maintenance crews would then get to work going over the entire aircraft, readying them for flight.”
“We had only then to wait for favourable weather and temperatures so we could fly to McMurdo to start our summer flying. Both R4Ds and Otter 142426, which had been extricated from the snow, were securely fastened to the surface, since a spring storm could come up on short notice and we had to be prepared. Double lines were attached to the wings and tails of each aircraft, thus providing maximum protection from high winds. Just when it seemed the worst of the winter was over, a new storm moved over the base. When it came early on the morning of 30th August 1957, the crew was about to leave for Kiel Field to do their routine daily work. The winds came up so quickly and so violently that they remained at Little America. There were two men who bunked and lived at Kiel Field so they were the only ones to witness the onslaught of the storm. Throughout the day the wind howled and screamed worse than any other storm we had during the winter months. Around three in the afternoon, a real strong swell in the sound of the wind came up and all the buildings seemed to shudder for a few moments. In checking with our meteorologists we were told that the wind had been measured at 73 knots (over 80 mph). This must have been the storm's last gasp, for in a relatively short time the wind subsided, the clouds drifted away and the calm on the surface was very ghostlike”.
“Shortly after the wind died down, we received a call from the two men at the airfield. One of them had gone outdoors to check the condition of the aircraft. The two R4Ds came through the storm in fine shape, but the UC-1 Otter (142426) had torn itself loose from its moorings and was blown about a quarter of a mile away. The wings and tail of the Otter had remained tied down to the snow surface where the aircraft had been parked but the wings of the aircraft had broken off at the wing roots and the tail section (rudder, horizontal stabilizer and elevator) had been severed completely from the rest of the fuselage. The pilot's cabin, the engine and almost the entire fuselage must have been carried in the wind for a whole quarter of a mile before being dropped upside down in one piece. There was no evidence that the aircraft had touched the surface during its hurling journey because the fuselage was largely intact, except for the torn off tail and wings. Now we had to dig out a second Otter and have it readied for summer flying. After our two R4Ds and flight crews had departed for McMurdo, the remaining R4Ds, Otters and helicopter were resurrected from the snow by the maintenance crews and readied for summer operations.”
Otter 142426 was stricken from the inventory, having flown only 222 hours in Naval service.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).