Operated by 400 & 411 Squadrons 1960-1980

Early Years

From FreddyK's original site: Capt Don Eddie's "Farewell to the Otter", written circa 1982.

Originally designated the King Beaver, the DHC-3 had been renamed the Otter by the time of the first flight on 12 December 1951.

One of the first Otters off the assembly line at the end of 1952 went to an RCAF veteran by the name of Maxwell Ward. He started up Wardair Ltd. in Yellowknife, North-West Territories, with this lone aircraft. Mr Ward recalls carrying some unusual cargo with the Otter, like a piano lashed to the floats, and the first live muskox to be brought out of the Arctic. This particular young muskox was swimming across a river when it was wrestled on to the pontoons and into the cabin of the Otter.

Apparently it can be determined if a building in an isolated northern community is pre-Otter or post-Otter by looking at its construction. With the arrival of this aircraft, 4x8 sheets of plywood and 16 foot lengths of lumber could he flown in for the first time.

First RCAF Otters

The first of 66 Otters destined for the RCAF arrived at 408(P) Squadron Rockcliffe in February of 1953. Soon there were Otters based right across the country from Sea Island, British Columbia to Goose Bay, Labrador. Some of the other stations having these aircraft in the early days were Namao, Cold Lake, Winnipeg, Fort Churchill, Trenton and Greenwood.

RCAF Otters were based at Capodichino airport near Naples; Italy with 114 Air Transport Unit from the end of 1956 until 1962. Also in 1956, 403 Auxiliary Squadron in Calgary traded in their Mustang MK IV's for Otters.

In January 1957, HMCS Magnificent arrived at Port Said, Egypt with men and material for the United Nations Emergency Force. Four Otters took off from the flight deck unaided while the ''Maggie'' rode at anchor. One almost didn't make it. Immediately after becoming airborne, the right wing dropped and scraped along the deck for about 100 feet before struggling off the end of the carrier. These aircraft were based at El Arish on the Sinai Peninsula carrying out supply, communications and reconnaissance flights until 1967.

In 1960, the Auxiliary squadrons at Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal were equipped with Otters, as were the squadrons at Saskatoon and Hamilton the following year. Some of the air and ground crews were disappointed with this decision, after working with the likes of the Sabre, Mitchell bomber, T-33 and the Mustang. This disappointment was short-lived however, as the Otter demonstrated its many capabilities.

Between October 1962 and May 1963, Canadian servicemen helped supervise the transfer of sovereignty of West New Guinea from the Dutch to the Indonesians. In support of this operation, two float Otters were based at Biak, an island only 60 miles south of the equator. Besides the sharks and 16,000 foot mountains to make life interesting, the jungle contained real live head-hunters who probably would have considered Canadian airmen a delicacy.

1963 saw the Otter in Yemen providing air support for the UN forces policing the truce between Royalist and Republican forces there. Back in Canada, the RCAF Auxiliary squadrons in Calgary, Saskatoon, Hamilton and Vancouver were disbanded in 1964 leading to the sale of several Otters to civilian operators and the RCMP.

Three Otters were airlifted by Hercules to Lahore, Pakistan in September 1965 on very short notice. Canada was again involved in a United Nations force which, this time, would supervise a cease fire between India and Pakistan.

More Otters were phased out of service in the mid 70's when 402 Squadron in Winnipeg switched to DC-3's and 418 Squadron in Edmonton switched to Twin Otters. This left approximately 20 Otters in the CAF being operated by 400 and 411 Squadrons at Downsview and 401 and 438 Squadrons at St. Hubert. These four Air Reserve squadrons are now in the process of converting to the Bell CH-136 Kiowa helicopter. The 16 Kiowas became available when No. 3 Flying Training School at Portage La Prairie received the more powerful CH-139 Jet Ranger.

There were 466 Otters sold to 21 countries before the line closed in 1967. The biggest customer was the United States with 212 going to the Army and 14 to the Navy. Although a large order, it pales in comparison to the 981 Beavers sold to the U.S. Army. The Americans used their Otters (designated U-lA) from Alaska to the jungles of South America. They were among the first U.S. aircraft into Viet Nam in the early sixties and proved their worth under fire. The USN used their Otters in Antarctica.

Water-skiing and a 22 Hour Flight

There have been some remarkable flights and unusual programs associated with the Otter over the years. In 1958, a Royal Air Force Otter made the first single-engine non-stop crossing of Antarctica over the South Pole in an eleven hour flight.

A civilian Otter, being ferried from Sydney, Australia to Edmonton, took 22 hours on the crossing from Honolulu to San Francisco. A TWA crew following the same route spoke to the lone pilot on the HF and were surprised to hear the same fellow still airborne the next day on their return flight. That's a long trip without an auto-pilot! The Otter landed with adequate fuel remaining but the extra oil reservoir had emptied several hours out and the engine would not have lasted much longer.

The U.S. Army installed a wide ski-wheel arrangement on an Otter at Fort Rucker and took it water-skiing. They were conducting trials to determine the aircraft's suitability as an assault vehicle. It would land on the water, and skim over the waves with power on until running up on the intended beach. Assault troops would jump out and the aircraft would hit the water again after a short run down the beach. Another Otter was used as a tanker in tests at air-to-air refueling of an H21 helicopter. For night reconnaissance duties using infra-red and sniffing sensors, a quiet Otter was tested. It had a 5 bladed prop, special reduction gearing and extensive noise suppressors which reduced the noise output to 80 decibels.

The Otter was such a fine STOL performer that De Havilland, in conjunction with the Canadian Defence Research Board, used 2 RCAF Otters for a series of studies into the dynamics of slow flight stability and control. One phase of the tests saw a jet engine mounted in the rear fuselage with adjustable nozzles protruding from each side. This configuration examined in-flight reverse thrust effects in combination with slipstream deflection. Another version with large flaps could fly at 35 knots.

Two More and He's an Ace

The safety record of the Otter has not been particularly impressive. This can be attributed in part to the environment in which the aircraft operated and the decreasing reliability of the engine in later years.

Things got off to a bad start when 2 0tters, barely 4 months off the assembly line, were reduced to ashes in a hangar fire at RCAF Station, Sea Island. in April 1954. In 29 years of flying, there have been 66 air accidents of all types. Fourteen of these were "A" Category including 5 fatal crashes which claimed 12 lives. It says something for both the aircraft and the pilots involved that not one of the 81 forced or precautionary landings over the years has resulted in an "A" Category accident,

Captain Bill Webster of 402 Squadron received a good show for his handling of an engine failure which occurred at 1000 feet above the coast of Hudson Bay, His quick reaction allowed the aircraft to be landed safely on a short curving strip of beach. Remarkably this aircraft was flown off that beach within 24 hours of the failure after having a new cylinder installed.

The reliability of the engine is a debatable point, Major Ken Money of 400 Squadron has been flying the Otter for 20 years and 2700 hours with only one engine failure. On the other hand, Captain Erwin Triffo 2RSU, Downsview, has had three in a period of 3 years. In the first incident, the aircraft was landed on the runway when the engine lost power immediately after take-off, The second time, the engine failed near Port Hope, Ontario and was landed in a corn field with no damage. The third failure occurred on a test flight just north of Toronto when an oil line let go on the newly installed engine. The aircraft was landed on a snow-covered field but the skis slipped into a ditch and stopped while the rest of the aircraft kept going. Two more and he's an ace!

From Sea Ice to Sand Dunes

The operating environment has been a contributing factor in many of the recorded accidents. Landing on frozen water involves certain risks as ice thickness and strength depend on many variables. Even holes drilled to measure thickness cannot detect a crack under the snow or an underwater spring weakening the surface.

When an aircraft breaks through the ice, it sinks very quickly and the crew must get out fast. Normally the wings will prevent the aircraft from disappearing altogether and salvage action may be taken. In one incident however, the aircraft exploded as it filled with water, The crew was left standing on the ice of a large wind-swept lake at -26 0F looking at a black hole in the ice. In 1957, an Otter on the Christmas supply run along the coast of Labrador became trapped in sea ice at Postville and had to be written off.

The 3 Otters used in Kashmir arrived without special air filter kits allowing the sandy desert conditions to wear the engines out very quickly. On one mission, Flight Lieutenant Jim Dyer ran out of oil and was forced to land in the Great Indian Desert. While he was sitting in the shade of the wing, a jeep appeared on the horizon and, after some bartering with the Sikh, a jerrican of oil was obtained. The oil was a little thin but it did the job enabling the aircraft to take off and return to base.

Short, unprepared take-off and landing areas have caused problems on occasion. A take-off from a gravel bar along the edge of a river ended with the aircraft inverted in the water. It was the Poseidon Adventure all over again for Lieutenant Wally Sweetman who was a passenger in the back. He walked along the ceiling of the aircraft to the cockpit to turn off the electrics but had trouble finding the master switch under the water. Everything was reversed.

A Bull in the Water

"Float flying" is the most enjoyable and possibly the most hazardous of the different roles that an Otter pilot performs. Glassy water landings test one's instrument flying abilities to the limit as the aircraft is flown on the dials to touchdown. It's not unusual on a hot day to have a rate of climb of less than 100 feet per minute after leaving the water. There have been some white knuckles when meeting rising ground and descending air at the end of a short lake.

The pilot and crewman of a float aircraft always work together in close co-operation to ensure a safe operation. Well, almost always! An Otter had been beached tail first on the shores of No-Name Lake, Labrador. As sometimes happens, the strong wind and wave action worked the floats up the beach and grounded them quite solidly.

On departure, the crewman, Sergeant Dick Bull, was on shore rocking the tail while the pilot, Captain John McClenaghan, applied more and more power in an attempt to break free. When the aircraft decided to move, it did so with a start and headed out into the lake with Bull in hot pursuit. He somehow managed to grab on to one of the raised water rudders and was pleased to note that he was still dry, thanks to his overly large hip-waders.

Meanwhile, the pilot, oblivious to the human drama being enacted on the right float, lowered the water rudders, as per SOP's. The rudder caught the top of the Sergeant's waders, which proceeded to fill with very cold water. After a great struggle, he got safely on to the float, cold and exhausted. The ensuing one-sided conversation between crewman and pilot cannot be repeated here.

It cannot be denied that flying the float Otter is a lot of fun. Prince Phillip was flown by Otter to the Eagle River fishing camp near the Labrador coast in August 1954. Apparently he was more interested in getting checked out on the float Otter than he was in fishing.

Valuable Service

One by one, the remaining Otters are being ferried to Mountain View, Ontario near Trenton for eventual sale by Crown Assets Disposal Corporation. The Otter has provided valuable service through Search and Rescue, light transport and aerial reconnaissance. It has also been a good training aircraft for Air Reserve pilots and ground crew. Although looking forward to new experiences with the Kiowa, many of us are sorry to have to say farewell to an old friend.


Captain Don Eddie was born in London, Ontario. He immigrated to Australia to join the R.A.A.F. in 1970 and completed pilot training the following year. After a tour with No. 34 Squadron, flying HS-748 aircraft, he returned to Canada. He joined 411 Air Reserve Squadron in February 1977 where he is currently the Flight Safety Officer, In civilian life, he is a pilot with Air Canada.

By the time of printing, Captain Eddie should have completed the commemorative flight of the Otter, visiting Whitehorse, Yellowknife, all provincial capitals and all the Air Force bases.

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