TURBO SKY HORSE
by Cliff Jacobson
DeHaviland Twin Otter on floats
With a payload of 3,000 pounds, full instrumentation and extended range capability, the deHaviland Twin Otter rightly earns the title, "workhorse of the north." This mid-fifties freight hauler can carry up to 21 passengers--or half that number and all their gear--to the most remote regions of the world without need for a groomed runway. Seasonally equipped with wheels, skis, floats or tubby "tundra tires," the Otter can land almost anywhere--on open water, sand beaches, ice or snow, level or bumpy ground, or the scrubby tundra of a high esker. Some planes have both floats and wheels and are truely amphibians. For big crews with lots of gear, the Twin--especially, the faster "turbo Twin"--has no peer. From Africa to Alaska, the deHaviland Otter remains the ultimate sky horse for those who take wild places seriously.
The majority of float-equipped Twin Otters earn their keep by freighting mining equipment, prospectors, fishermen and groceries to northern bush camps and native communities. Occasionally, the planes earn a break from their routine by accommodating hikers and canoeists. One Twin Otter made history when it flew Will Steger's dogs and gear from Minnesota to Antarctica. Another ferried members of England's royal family to a remote arctic river. Everyone who travels the far reaches of the continent eventually comes to love these grand old airplanes and the saucy men and women who fly them.
You don't have to see a Twin to identify it. Miles away you'll hear the throaty growl of the high-pitched turbos. Landing on water is a sight to behold. First, the pilot circles the lake several times, wing dropped to check for rocks which can hole the pontoons.
Once the pilot is assured and committed, the plane comes in at what seems to be furious speed. The floats touch water one at a time and the aircraft suddenly slows. At the final approach, the pilot reverses an engine and pivots the craft 180 degrees so it can be backed onto the beach for an easy exit later. As the plane rotates, engine growl fades in and out until seconds later, the prop shuts down, and all is mysteriously silent.
Inside the cockpit of a twin otter. Don't ya just love those wonderful analog gauges?
Twin Otters are among the most expensive bush planes to fly: at this writing, charter costs, computed from air base and return are about $17+ per mile or around $3400 per hour(!), nearly three times that of a popular Cessna 185. This seems terribly exorbitant until you discover that for a crew of six or more, this is the cheapest way to fly, especially if you will carry canoes or bulky gear. The twin cruises comfortably at around 160 KTS (knots).
The first twin otter rolled off the assembly line in 1965. The last one built was in 1988, which makes these planes a collector's item of sorts. But Twins were never cheap--a low mileage, late model Turbo on floats may go for two million dollars, which makes it a very costly curio. For this reason, only the very best pilots fly Twin Otters; the rest bide their time in smaller Cessna's and Beavers until they become multi-engine rated and are "ready" for the big sky horse. A few exemplary pilots like Ray X, who flew us home from our Cree River adventure, become instructors. Ray was one of the most skilled and colorful bush pilots I've known.
There are 6 fold-down seats on the port side. Three canoes can be stacked on the right if you remove the yokes and nest the boats. That's me in the white hat.
Ray's chartered Twin settled onto the water like a yellow leaf in autumn. Engine throttled with unnatural ease, it slipped sideways towards the dock, where it came to rest just inches away. A friendly pot-bellied man in his mid-50's, Ray came complete with an ever-lit cigarette which he proudly brandished. In a feat of showmanship, Ray slapped a rolled magazine against the inside windshield. "Seven with one blow," he proudly exclaimed, as he shook the dead mosquitoes into the lake.
Then, he lit up again and asked the proverbial question: "Where you guys wanna go?"
"Seeger Lake," I said authoritatively, wondering if he'd checked with the dispatcher before he took off.
"Got a map in here somewhere," he muttered, and began to grope in the cockpit. This was many years before GPS navigation.
Seconds later he withdrew a half-disintegrated chart which did not include Seeger Lake.
"Got it on your map?" He grinned.
Regrettably, my 1:50,000 scale topo map began well north of our intended destination, and I immediately made this abundantly clear to Ray.
"No matter, I can find it without a map. Near the tote road, ain't it?
"Yeah," I whispered, with hopes he knew where he was going, and was just pulling my leg.
Yes, 17-foot canoes will fit through the twin side doors. That's me in the white hat.
Then, without a word he repeatedly tapped the fuel gauge and squinted at the needle. "Got just enough gas if we don't screw up," he beamed. Then his mind changed trains and he focused on our three canoes and mound of camping gear.
"Where ya gonna put those three boats?" He questioned.
"In your airplane," I answered.
With that, he perched lazily against the wharf, lit up another cigarette and began a dissertation on how he'd flown Twin Otters for 20 years and never, ever saw anyone put three canoes inside. "One's easy, two'll go. But the only way that third one will fit is if you saw it in half."
Amiable and open-minded, Ray was content to sit on the dock and puff away while we, and his co-pilot--a kid of about 20--did the legwork.
Unloading the big twin. Note that the pilot backed onto the "beach."
Theoretically, the Twin Otter is a 21 passenger airplane. There are 15 seats on the right fuselage wall and six on the left, near the wide French doors. But most working Twins have the starboard seats removed to provide cargo space for bulky equipment. This leaves room for six passengers plus gear. The unorthodox arrangement of our Twin--five seats on the left and one lone seat opposite the right emergency door--went unnoticed until the three canoes were nested and stacked tightly against the starboard wall.
I immediately relayed my concern to Ray, who was just lighting up again.
Ray looked on with mild curiosity and gazed at the small cubby hole around the solitary seat. "Hell, Cliff, you're a little guy, you can fit in there. Just duck down; it's only a twenty minute flight."
Weakly, I nodded okay.
Finally, everything was in order and Ray came in to look. As he cinched down the long Herc (cargo) straps, a canoe suddenly shifted and nearly punched out a window.
"Hmmm..." said Ray, "You guys use Herc straps on your boats?"
"Nope, not ever."
"Hell with 'em, then!"
This was followed by more profanity when Ray noticed that my seat belt was firmly pinned beneath a seat rail by the weight of three canoes and mounds of camping gear. Momentarily, he scratched his head then said: "We could unload the airplane...or, Cliff, you could ride without a seat belt. Whatcha think?"
Everyone was getting antsy so I nodded approval and climbed aboard. Getting to my perch wasn't easy--I had to crawl through the cockpit onto the right pontoon, then re-enter the airplane through the emergency door by my seat. I would ride, without a seat belt, with my head ducked into the belly of an Old Town Tripper canoe. Oh well, I could endure anything for 20 minutes.
I climbed aboard and slammed the door, which surprisingly refused to lock.
"Uh, Ray...the door won't stay shut!"
"Don't worry," he beamed. "Just hold her tight till we're airborne."
Watching a big twin take off is a delight. See that little door under the wing. That's where I'm seated... holding the door--that won't latch--tight!
Minutes later, we were cruising down the lake, full throttle, flaps down. Momentarily, I let up my death hold on the door handle and it flew ajar, spraying water into the airplane. "Jesus Christ," I screamed as I yanked shut the door and terrifyingly hugged the Old Town's thwart. I screamed at Ray but it was too noisy to hear. Then I prayed I wouldn't be thrown out of the airplane. Finally, we were aloft, flying south towards Seeger lake, hopeful we'd find the place before Ray ran out of gas.
Exactly 19 minutes later, the plane dropped into Seeger Lake and taxied straight towards our dusty Chevy Suburban. Ray shut down the engine, tapped the gas gauge again and smiled broadly. I gratefully released my death hold on the door handle and canoe thwart.
"Thank God you finally set her down," I called. "I couldn't hold that door shut much longer!"
"I told ya to hold her tight when we took off, Cliff. Hell, there's a ton of force against that door when we're airborne. No way could you fall out. Good thing though that you grabbed her tight when we set down!"
*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers."
*My teen book, "Justin Cody's Race to Survival" mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!
*My classic book, CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, details a wealth of proven camping procedures and comfort tips that only the experts know.
My 90 minute video, THE FORGOTTEN SKILLS details the most important camping skills. If you can do them all you'll be a hero to your friends!