Paying tribute to the Twin Otter

It can land on mud, water or snow. It can carry 20 people but only needs one-third the distance similar aircraft need to take off and land.

It can land on mud, water or snow. It can carry 20 people but only needs one-third the distance similar aircraft need to take off and land.

The Twin Otter, a bush plane used around the world to access remote and difficult areas, is turning 50 this year.

The plane, formally known as the De Havilland DHC-6, is special for a lot of people – especially in Canada’s North.

Longtime Yukoners will recognize the emblematic plane – the RCMP operated one and several were used to fly to remote communities.

“The Twin Otter is aerodynamically designed to be able to get in and out of shorter strips than most aircraft,” said Gerry Anderson, a retired RCMP pilot who used to fly in the Yukon.

 

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Anderson would know: he flew the legendary plane from 1988 to 1998 in the territory, assisting search and rescue missions, transporting prisoners and moving RCMP agents from one community to another.

In the early 90s Anderson, who was then a staff sergeant, was tasked with searching for a missing heavy-equipment driver whose machine was found broken down about 115 kilometres west of Carmacks.

Cold temperatures prompted concerns about the driver’s well-being.

Anderson was directed to an abandoned landing strip that hadn’t been used in over 20 years.

“You wouldn’t normally land there, but it was a potentially life-threatening situation,” he said.

But the helicopter pilot who had gotten there first signalled the wrong side of the strip to land on, sending Anderson on a muddy soft strip.

The plane’s nose wheel got stuck about 30 centimetres deep into the mud, and the crew had to wait for an helicopter to drop a plank in order to get the plane out.

“That showed the versatility of the airplane, to be able to turn around, take off on a relatively short area,” said Anderson.

His assignments sometimes involved quite unusual people.

In 1991 Anderson flew over the Yukon’s Southern Lakes, looking for an American couple who had embarked in a 25-year search to uncover what they thought was the truth behind John F. Kennedy’s murder.

“The case involved a secret brown envelope, allegations of a CIA conspiracy, a missing airplane, a dead senator, an abandoned mine shaft, and a double drowning,” said Anderson.

Eventually he found items from the couple’s canoe, but their bodies never resurfaced.

Despite the RCMP not using skis, the Twin Otter could also land on hard-packed snow.

On one occasion Anderson flew to Dawson City to deport an American family who had been living in the country illegally.

The father, hearing an RCMP plane was on its way, cleared a strip on the Yukon River.

“We took off from this makeshift airstrip from the river, in the snow,” recounted Anderson.

The plane’s versatility and the lack of airplane traffic in the Yukon made for remarkable experiences, he said.

“Flying in the Yukon is second to none in terms of scenery and freedom to go wherever you want without the encumbrance of aircraft regulations,” he said.

Anderson remembers how rewarding it was to rescue hunters and tourists.

“We had a feeling of satisfaction knowing that people’s lives were safe because we had that capability,” he said.

Of all his years flying, Anderson remembers one close call he had in August 1988 landing on the highway north of Carmacks, while responding to a vehicle crash.

Twin Otters are equipped with a centering mechanism that keeps the nose wheel straight, so the aircraft doesn’t veer off once it touches down.

But that day the mechanism didn’t engage, and of course it happened to be the only time in Anderson’s career that he had to land on a road with no shoulder space, and no room for error.

“I guess I was fortunate that it had happened 10 years before, when I was a passenger in a Twin Otter,” he said.

Realizing things were about to go sideways, Anderson acted quickly, managing to recover the plane using the brakes and engine on the opposite side the plane was headed.

It also turned out that an ambulance had gotten there a few minutes before him, so his service weren’t needed anymore.

“Flying is 99 per cent boredom and one per cent stark terror,” he said, chuckling.

After 42 years of service, Yukon RCMP’s Twin Otter, known as “Mike Papa Lima” after its plane identification, retired in March 2014.

Today only one company still operates a Twin Otter in the territory, Alkan Air.

But even 50 years after its inaugural flight, the Twin Otter remains unrivaled, said David Reid, a pilot at Viking Air.

“When the Twin Otter came along, there was nothing else that could do what it did, and to be honest, that’s still the case,” he said.

The plane’s mix between short takeoff and landing capabilities – it can land on less than 30 metres with strong headwinds – the passenger or cargo capacities, and its ability to also navigate in busy airports, make it unique, he said.

Viking Air, which in 2005 bought the manufacturing rights for the Twin Otter and several other De Havilland planes, is organizing a 50th anniversary tour that will see the plane flown through all three territories.

It will stop in Whitehorse on Monday, July 13 at 2 p.m.

The plane will be on display at the Air North headquarters, and visitors will be able to sign one of the wing ribs of the plane.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at

pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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