Otter 94 was delivered to the United States Army on 12th March 1956 with serial 55-3254 (tail number 53254). It was allocated to the 14th Army Aviation Company at Fort Riley, Kansas. In August '56 the 14th was re-designated the 1st Aviation Company and moved to Fort Benning, Georgia where it continued to fly the Otter until 1961, when it converted to the Caribou, relinquishing its U-1As to other units. 53254 was then assigned to the 18th Aviation Company at Fort Riley, Kansas. From January 1962 it was operated by the 1063rd Aviation Company, an Iowa Army National Guard unit which had been called to active duty at Fort Riley, where it was operating a number of Otters left behind by the 18th Aviation Company when it departed Fort Riley for Vietnam.
53254 continued to serve at Fort Riley until April 1962, when it was transferred to the 17th Aviation Company at Fort Ord, California. In May 1963 it was one of a platoon of Otters from the 17th Aviation Company which were transferred to Vietnam to join the 18th Aviation Company. On arrival in Vietnam by ship, the Otters were entrusted to the 339th Transportation Company, and were re-assembled at Tan Son Nhut Air Base by Air Vietnam. In June 1963 53254 re-joined the 18th Aviation Company, based at Nha Trang.
An Army aviator describes a flight he made in 53254 in September '63, from Nha Trang to Cam Ranh Bay, to collect three passengers and return to base: “I sighted the airstrip at Cam Ranh Bay. It was a PSP runway one thousand feet long with ocean on either side. I flew downwind, slowed the aircraft to 75 knots, dropped some flaps and turned base, the same time descending. Upon turning final, my set up was acceptable to me, except that the strip now looked like a postage stamp. I slowed the airplane down to approach speed, came over the threshold and began to round out. It was then that the aircraft floated down the runway. I decided that any second I'll touch down in a three point attitude and will stop before I completely ran off the postage stamp. However the aircraft continued to float and I was reluctant to make a go-around”.
“However, something from my previous training said 'Go Around'. I pushed the throttle forward as the end of the runway was coming up rather rapidly. Luckily the engine caught, giving full power to lift the Otter off the runway. I quickly built up airspeed, gained altitude and commenced the second approach, which was successful. I picked up the three passengers and flew off the airstrip. At a safe altitude I turned back for one last look at the postage stamp. A little voice then told me - let this be a lesson to you; you never stop gaining experience”. Some time later, another mission in 53254 is described:
“Lt.Funk and I were flying #254 out of Di Linh Special Zone Hq. On this particular Thursday our schedule included many stops. Finally, a short while after 1800 hours we landed in Di Linh and received an urgent message from the Senior advisor. A strategic hamlet had been overrun that afternoon and several ARVN troops had been seriously wounded. Could we take them to the Vietnamese hospital at Phan Thiet? A Huey had gone to the boonies to pick 3 up and would meet us at Bao Loc. Sunset was at 18:20 and we touched down at 1845. As we shut down I could hear the Huey rapidly approaching. Our litter racks were already rigged. Even so, by the time the Huey had cleared the strip and we began our take-off roll, only the mountain tops were visible. How far to Phan Thiet, 70 miles and downhill all the way”.
“We had called ahead and requested transportation and an ambulance to rendezvous at the airfield. Now all we had to do was find the place. Our ADF pointed the way and pretty soon lights were visible in the distance, only there must be some mistake as the lights were twenty degrees to the left of our ADF bearing so which way should we go now? I mentioned this to my co-pilot, who said the lights looked like a fishing fleet. His hunch was correct and in a few more minutes we could make out some lights in Phan Thiet, the shore-line and the Decca Tower next to the airfield. As we descended we began to encounter a haze layer and soon our only land mark was the radio tower. From memory we made a let down, feeling for the airfield every foot of the way. Then we lost sight of the town, shoreline and everything but the small circle of ground illuminated by the landing light”. “Our calculations had been near perfect and our descent brought us very close to the end of the runway. The MAAG advisors had placed a jeep at each end of the airfield, headlights converging
toward the centre. My co-pilot was so careful with the landing I could barely feel the wheels kiss the welcome runway. We parked and shut down at 1945 and unloaded the wounded who were driven to hospital. The MAAG advisors talked excitedly of our night landing and how we had really earned our flight pay. We didn't earn much, just another day with an exciting ending”.
Some time later, 53254 crashed while attempting to land at Phan Thiet, on 3rd January 1964. Early the next morning, two CH-21 helicopters from the 339th Transportation Company were dispatched to perform the recovery. Upon arrival at the crash site, it was apparent that the Otter was too damaged to be repaired at the scene. A determination was made to move the damaged aircraft
to Vung Tau, 180 miles to the south. Because the airstrip at Phan Thiet was not secured, the recovery crew worked rapidly to remove all the component parts off the aircraft. In six hours 45 minutes, the U-1A was stripped and ready to be lifted from the area. An attempt was made to sling load the wings in a UH-1B helicopter, but the wings were too unstable when lifted into the air because of very gusty winds. One of the CH-21s took an internal load of component parts to Vung Tau and returned to the crash site. Because of darkness and the possibility of a night attack by the Viet Cong the recovery crew returned to Nha Trang for the night.
On 5th January 1964 the two CH-21s and one UH-1B flew back to Phan Thiet with the recovery crew. Despite mild wind gusts, it was decided to attempt to sling load the wings to Vung Tau with a CH-21. After the helicopter was guided over the wings, the hook up was made. The wings were then slowly lifted from ground until suddenly at an altitude of 200 feet, a gust of wind caught the wings and they began to oscillate violently. The pilot fought desperately for control as the wings whipped the helicopter from side to side, smashing into the body and missing the rotor blades, but the hookup release was inoperative. Finally, after several minutes of marginal control, the wings caught in the landing gear of the CH-21 and became stable. A very delicate hovering operation was undertaken only five feet from the ground, while the recovery crew literally cut the wings away from the helicopter's landing gear. It took the remainder of the day to repair structural damage to the CH-21 caused by the pounding by the Otter's wings. During this time, arrangements were made for a CV-2B Caribou to fly to Phan Thiet the following morning to carry away the remaining parts of the crashed U-1A to Vung Tau.
53254 was deleted from the Army inventory in December 1964.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).