Otter 179 was delivered to the United States Army on 28th November 1956 with serial 55-3315 (tail number 53315). It was delivered to the 3rd Aviation Company, Fort Riley, Kansas. Details of its military career over the next few years are unfortunately unavailable, until February 1966 when it was one of three Army Otters which arrived at the Electronic Warfare Laboratory, Lakehurst NAS, New Jersey for conversion to RU-1A configuration, the other two being 52977 (50) and 53271 (117).
Whereas these other two Otters were then sent to Vietnam, 53315 remained in the United States and in November 1968 as assigned to the Army Security Agency Training Center at Devens AAF., MA.
53315 was noted at Devens AAF in April 1969 alongside two Beech C-45s, three U-6A Beavers and two U-8D Seminoles. The Otter was used to train Army personnel on the RU-1A, and continued in operation at Fort Devens until August 1970, when it was assigned to the Army Security Agency, Test & Evaluation Center, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, when the Security Agency's training programme was moved there. It continued to fly from Fort Huachuca until June 1972, when it made the short flight to Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona where it was put into storage, allocated the inventory code UA004. It was one of five US Army Otters to end their military careers in the 'boneyard’, as the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC) is often referred to.
Its retirement in the Sonora Desert was brief, however, as in October 1972 along with 81685 (291) which was also in storage at Davis-Monthan, it was allocated to the School of Bible & Music, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Vocational schools such as this were authorised to receive surplus military equipment. The School, which had recently opened an aviation section to train pilots and mechanics who would work in the field of missionary aviation, took full advantage of this entitlement and received the two Otters and also four Beavers. These aircraft were flown from Davis-Monthan AFB to a small airfield at Fremont, outside Grand Rapids, Michigan where they were civilianised and made ready for use by the School. 53315 was registered N432GR and 81685 was registered N433GR, the GR of the registrations standing for Grand Rapids.
Unfortunately, N432GR was damaged in a severe wind storm while at Fremont and it was decided not to repair it. It was trucked to Newaygo Airport outside of Grand Rapids, where the School's Aviation Division was based, and over the following years was used as a ground instructional airframe, and for spare parts to keep the other Otter flying. N433GR entered service with the School, based at Newaygo Airport, used for pilot training. Of the four Beavers which the School had received, two were used as ground instructional airframes and two were in use for flying training, and were also used to transport music groups from the School around the country, even as far south as Florida. The Otter was considered too expensive for such a task and was only used as a pilot trainer. Many of the pilots who trained at the School went on to become missionary pilots in under-developed countries.
In 1978, due to rising fuel costs, the School decided to sell its Beavers and Otters, which were replaced with more economic Cessna 172s and 182s, better suited for the training role. Otter N432GR was traded in to Wilderness Wings Airways of Ely, Minnesota in exchange for an Aero Commander 500. Having sat at Newaygo airfield for five years as a ground instructional airframe, it was trucked across the country to Seattle for rebuild. In June '78 N432GR was noted at Harold Hansen's facility at Boeing Field, Seattle in bare metal, being prepared for re-paint. It was registered to William H. Magie, doing business as Wilderness Wings Airways the following month, and set off for its new base at Ely, Minnesota.
At Ely, it joined Beaver N11015 and Beech 18 N44573 in the Wilderness Wings Airways fleet, serving the bush country of northeast Minnesota. The following month it was joined by Otter N90627 (106). N432GR continued flying for Wilderness Wings Airways until May 1980, when it was sold to Gary Archer of Anchorage, Alaska who re-registered the aircraft N13GA. According to the “Bush Pilots of Alaska” book, Dr. Gary Archer was “a cardiologist in the morning, and an air taxi operator in the afternoon”. His company was Bush Pilots Air Service Inc., which operated from Lake Hood seaplane base at Anchorage. The Otter was painted in a very attractive silver scheme with red trim. For eleven years the Otter flew for Bush Pilots Air Service alongside its Beavers N11GA and N12GA. As well as general charter work, the aircraft were used to fly guests to remote fishing lodges. The Otter continued in use until sold to Taquan Air Service Inc. of Ketchikan, Alaska in December 1991.
The Otter features in an incident report landing at the Metlakatla Seaplane Base at Ketchikan on 4th February 1992. The pilot reported that the aircraft's control yoke started vibrating and the nose of the Otter pitched down. The pilot corrected by re-trimming and the airplane landed without further incident. An inspection revealed that the rivets attaching the trim tab control horn to the right elevator trim tab had pulled out, allowing the trim tab and elevator to flutter. The Otter was sold to Alaska Juneau Aeronautics Inc., trading as Wings of Alaska, in April 1993 and made the short move north to its new base at Juneau, Alaska, a most scenic part of the State. Cruise liners visit Juneau in the course of cruises through Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage. As well as providing scheduled services to points in Southeast Alaska with its fleet of Cessna 206/207, Beavers and Otters, a major part of Wings of Alaska's business is offering sightseeing flights over nearby glaciers and ice-fields to tourists from the cruise liners.
On Wednesday 22nd June 1994, five of the company's Otters, of which N13GA was one, were engaged on these sightseeing flights. There were ten passengers from the cruise ship 'SS Universe' on board N13GA. The five Otters were bringing the tourists back to Juneau from a tour of Taku Glacier and dinner at Taku Lodge. The five Otters, all floatplanes, took off one behind the other, Fog and drizzle were encountered en route and the pilot of the first aircraft radioed to the others to cross the river to the east of the shoreline. A passenger in N13GA, the fourth aircraft, stated that when the Otter was over the middle of the river, she could not see either shore due to fog. The pilot of N13GA stated that he encountered deteriorating weather and started a descent, intending to make a precautionary landing. He began to level, expecting conditions to improve. However, the Otter hit the surface of “glassy water” and crashed at Flat Point, twelve miles south east of Juneau.
Six of the passengers died in the crash. The pilot and four passengers survived, although one of the surviving passengers later died. After the other aircraft had arrived in Juneau and noticed that N13GA was missing, three of the Otters flew back, located the crash site and rescued the survivors who, after forty minutes in the water were suffering from hypothermia. The Otter itself had sunk, containing three of the bodies. Strong currents and rough weather hampered efforts to lift the aircraft from 90 feet of water in the icy inlet. Six days later, the recovery team, using three boats and a winch, succeeded in pulling the wreckage to shallow water. The engine, the left wing and both floats were missing. There was no damage to the fuselage, except for the left bottom of the engine firewall and the left cockpit floor. The interior cockpit floor was buckled upward. All the doors were missing. The Otter had a total airframe time of 7,672 hours when the accident occurred.
It had been a horrific crash in which the unfortunate N13GA had encountered a fog bank which the other four Otters involved had managed to avoid. The wreck of N13GA was later trucked down to the Aeroflite Industries hangar at the Vancouver International Airport, where it arrived on 31st March 1998. Here the Otter was rebuilt, and fitted with a turbine engine. Testing of the turbine engine at high power however caused damage, requiring repairs to be carried out. As at October 2002 the fuselage of the Otter was noted in a jig outside of the Aeroflite hangar at Vancouver.
To be updated.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).