Otter 126 was delivered to the British Commonwealth Trans Antarctic Expedition, to be operated on its behalf by the Royal Air Force, on 11th July 1956, with RAF serial XL710. It had been painted international orange overall with black trim by DHC, emerging from the paint shop at Downsview on 30th April '56, it was finally completed on 2nd May and made its first flight on 6th June '56 and was formally handed over on 11th July '56.
In the 1950s considerable scientific exploration was in progress in the Antarctic, with missions from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand and the United States, all supported by aircraft. In 1955 the British Commonwealth Trans Antarctic Expedition was founded, a joint venture between Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, led by Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary. The Expedition was to make the first surface crossing of the Antarctic continent, from Shackleton Base on the Weddell Sea via the South Pole to the Scott Base on the shore of the Ross Sea.
The Expedition was formed into a limited company, and the four Commonwealth governments contributed some £187,000. The balance of the money required, about £300,000, was donated and solicited from industry, private donations and sale of press rights. The RAF agreed to provide assistance in the form of four aircrew, two Auster aircraft, the main radio communications equipment and the radio beacons. The RAF personnel were Squadron Leader John Lewis, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Haslop, Flight Sergeant P. Weston and Sergeant E. Williams. The Expedition required a larger aircraft than the Auster to support it. The Otter was selected and number 126 purchased and handed over to the RAF for operational purposes.
Sqn Leader Lewis went to Downsview to collect the Otter. Prior to delivery it was fitted with a 177 gallon long-range tank, giving it a total capacity of 355 gallons. It was ferried from Downsview via Goose Bay, where it passed through on 14th July '56, Bluie West One in Greenland, Keflavik in Iceland, Kinloss in Scotland to De Havilland at Hatfield, England. It was later flown to Leavesden, where it had additional radio equipment installed, skis fitted and was “winterized” and crated in preparation for the long voyage south. Modifications to the basic Otter included a heavy duty battery, a change in the electrical system from 12 to 24 volts, the installation of a radio compass, radio altimeter, SARAH beacon and receiver and a Bendix Polar Path compass and gyro system.
As one of the mechanics who worked on the aircraft at Leavesden, where the De Havilland Services Department Civil Repair was based, later wrot :”While we were finally packing the aircraft for despatch to the ship, SS Magga Dan, the box containing the wings was loaded in a vertical position onto the lorry just outside the hangar. The bell rang for afternoon tea-break but before it was over there was a loud crash from outside. A strong wind had blown the box to the ground. Inspection revealed that the only damage was to one wing, where the leading edge was dented by one of the packing supports. We worked until 8.30pm to replace a section of skin, and the painter did a good job of matching the orange paint by the light of mercury vapour lamps. However, the delivery was still delayed. About three miles down the Watford Bypass, the police refused to allow the lorry to continue because of the high crosswind”.
Eventually the Otter was loaded aboard the “Magga Dan”, which set sail from London on 15th November 1956. An earlier contingent of the Expedition had already set sail on the “Theron” with the two Auster aircraft (these being Auster T7s WE563 and WE600 which had been modified by Auster Aircraft Ltd for the Antarctic role and painted bright orange). During the voyage the Otter's rudder was damaged by a large wave, but was repaired. On arrival at Shackleton Base, the wings were fitted to the Otter on 9th January 1957 and it was then test flown in preparation for use on coastal and inland reconnaissance sorties. The plan was for the expedition, led by Sir Vivian Fuchs, to leave from Shackleton Base via an en-route base to the South Pole and then onwards to Scott Base on the other side of the continent. The en-route base was to be constructed before the contingent set off.
Starting in January '57 the Otter made a number of reconnaissance flights before locating a suitable site for the base. The aircraft was greatly assisted in these long flights by its 14 hour endurance capability. The site was originally called Depot 300 (its distance in miles from Shackleton Base) but was later re-named South Ice Base. The Otter flew in all the supplies necessary to build and equip the base. The terrain between the Shackleton and South Ice bases was difficult and treacherous. It included a mountain range and tracts of flat land with huge concealed crevasses. XL710 was also instrumental in surveying the route for the overland party and for supplying and supporting it. A SARAH (Search and Rescue Aircraft Homing) beacon was established at the South Ice base, enabling the Otter to home in on the base in bad weather.
The two Austers, much smaller aircraft than the Otter, were primarily used only for reconnaissance work. The RAF Otter did have the company of kindred spirits in the shape of US Navy Otters of VX-6 Squadron, which were supporting their country's Antarctic programme. A Navy Otter visited Shackleton Base, as the United States was constructing a station called Ellsworth some fifty miles west of Shackleton. Conditions in Antarctica were harsh, but the Otter survived its tour of duty relatively unscathed, despite some close calls. On one flight from the South Ice base back to Shackleton, with a midnight take-off from South Ice in temperatures of 40F below zero, the last 200 miles of the flight were conducted between cloud layers, with the night sun obscured. A 'whiteout' situation developed - a condition of diffuse light when no shadows are cast, due to a continuous white cloud layer appearing to merge with the white snow surface, with no visible horizon. When about 50 miles out from Shackleton, contact was established with the SARAH beacon and the pilot commenced descent. Moments later, the Otter bounded upwards as its skis hit the top of some snow-covered hills which, in the whiteout, had merged with the clouds to become invisible. These hills became most appropriately known as the 'Touchdown Hills'. The Otter had, quite literally, made its mark on the local geography.
During the Antarctic winter of 1957, the Otter was laid up. The rudder was removed and the aircraft and engine sealed. A pit was dug at Shackleton Base and the aircraft placed in it, with the rear fuselage propped up so that the attitude of the wing was horizontal with the ground. This prevented lift in the high winds. Timber wind breaks and wire mesh fences were built around the aircraft. In September '57 the Otter was again readied for service, and used to establish camps along the route to the South Ice Base. On one flight it was loaded with a twelve foot sledge, ten dogs (which took readily to travel in the Otter) and food and equipment for two men for thirty days. When the expedition was en route, the RAF detachment closed down the Shackleton Base and moved camp to the South Ice Base. Preparations were made for the forthcoming epic flight across the continent, from South Ice Base to Scott Base, a distance of some 1,400 miles. With its auxiliary tank, XL710 had a range of 1,600 miles in still air conditions, which placed a premium on exact navigation. An astro compass was mounted on the cockpit coaming in front of the second pilot's position and with this the true course could be checked using the sun. The Bendix Polar Path gyro acted as the master direction indicator, checked for heading precession every twenty minutes with the astro compass. An ordinary directional gyro calibrated for 80 degrees South acted as a standby gyro. A drift sight mounted on the inside of the cockpit door used in conjunction with the radio altimeter gave drift and ground speed On 29th December 1957, after the expedition had departed South Ice Base en route for the South Pole, the Otter took off from the deserted base for its trans Antarctic flight but encountered bad weather. Quite apart from the navigational difficulties, one of the purposes of the flight was to report on the state of the terrain for the benefit of the ground party, and as this proved impossible on account of low cloud, the Otter returned to South Ice Base, where the somewhat demoralised RAF crew had to re-open the base. They sat it out awaiting better weather, and on 6th January 1958 at 1148pm launched again. This time luck was with them and just over two hours later they passed over the overland party on its journey to the Pole. The crew sighted South Pole station at 1628, having picked up the Pole homing beacon 30 miles out and flew directly over the station at two thousand feet. Almost exactly eleven hours after take-off, at 2249 hours, XL710 touched down at Scott Base after a flight of 1,430 statute miles. Two United States Navy Otters from the base at McMurdo flew out to greet the RAF Otter and flew in formation with it right down to the runway at Scott Base, before climbing away. International recognition quickly followed this epic flight - the first single- engined aircraft to fly non-stop across the continent of Antarctica.
After arrival at Scott Base, the Otter continued to support the expedition on its overland journey from the South Pole into Scott Base, which marked the end of the expedition. This did not however end this remarkable aircraft's Antarctic career. As the RAF had no further use for the Otter, it was transferred to the US Navy on 4th March 1958. It was officially accepted by the Navy on 2nd July '58 and allocated serial number 147574. Its total airframe time at that stage was 345 hours. It was operated by VX-6 Squadron as part of their fleet of Otters in the Antarctic until stricken from the Naval inventory on 30th April 1960, after which it had flown 156 hours with the Squadron, increasing its total time to 501 hours.
The next operator of this Otter was to be the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). New Zealand had its own scientific mission in the Antarctic, supported by the RNZAF. Following the crash of their DHC-2 beaver NZ6010 on 15th January 1960, a replacement aircraft was required. It was decided that an Otter was a most suitable type, and the US Navy was approached to see if a surplus Otter was available. The Navy replied that it could fulfil this request, which led to 147574 being transferred to New Zealand. The US Navy dismantled the Otter and crated it at Scott Base, from where it was towed on a sledge across the Ross Ice for loading. While in transit, it was damaged in an accident with a bulldozer. It was shipped to Lyttleton, New Zealand on board the 'USS Arnreb'. A party from Wigram Air Base went across to uncrate the aircraft and tow it back to Wigram across the Port Hills on its main undercarriage.
The Otter remained at Wigram until 13th October 1960, when it was towed by road to Harewood Airport, Christchurch and airlifted from there by USAF C-124 Globemaster to Wellington, where all damage was repaired and it was completely overhauled by the De Havilland Aircraft Company of New Zealand Ltd during November 1961 at Rongotai. The Wasp engine was overhauled at No.1 Repair Depot, Woodbourne. It made its first flight as an RNZAF aircraft that month, taking off from Wellington Airport. It carried RNZAF roundels but no serial, although NZ6081 had been allotted. It still carried the same overall orange colour scheme it had worn during its RAF days, indicating that the US Navy had operated the Otter in that scheme as well.
On 25th May 1962 NZ6081 was flown from Woodbourne back to Wigram, where it was placed into storage. The Minister of Defence was asked about the future of the Otter the following month. He stated that the aircraft was originally bought as a support aircraft for New Zealand's Antarctic activities. As the tasks envisaged for the Otter were being undertaken with assistance from American forces in the area, the Otter would not be used for its original purpose. The Minister also stated it would be necessary to have light radio communications fitted before the Otter could be used for other tasks, such as transport and Army co-operation. A change of policy and the eventual disbandment of the Antarctic Flight rendered the Otter surplus to requirements and after some deliberation as to how it could be employed, it was decided to sell the aircraft.
The Otter was put up for sale by tender, the airframe having at that stage 508 hours. The successful purchaser was Georgian Bay Airways of Canada and on 14th June 1963 the aircraft was taken over by the de Havilland Aircraft Company of New Zealand Ltd on behalf of the purchaser. The Otter was removed from long-term storage at Wigram and registered to the De Havilland Aircraft Company on 9th July 1963 as ZK-CFH, and as such made one ferry flight, from Wigram to Wellington, increasing its flying time to 510 hours 25 minutes. At Wellington it was dismantled and crated for shipping to Canada, the New Zealand registration being cancelled on 1st August 1963.
The crated Otter was shipped to Canada and taken to Parry Sound, Ontario where it was re- assembled and registered CF-PNV to Georgian Bay Airways Ltd. It was also painted into their colour scheme. It made a test flight of one hour forty minutes at Parry Sound on 5th January 1964. It was ferried to Toronto International Airport on 12th January '64 for some work by Genaire, including weight and balance checks. It was then flown to Moosonee, Ontario where it was based, flying for Georgian Bay Airways on amphibious floats along the Hudson and James Bay coasts, hauling Eskimos and their dog teams, as well as trade goods and groceries. For a time it was leased to the Eaton Company, who ran a chain of department stores, but who had an island in the Georgian Bay area and who used the Otter to go back and forth to Toronto.
By 1970 the Otter had been purchased by La Ronge Aviation Services, and was based at La Ronge, Saskatchewan. Sadly, on 14th May 1976, at 1225 local time, while taking off from the airfield at Lynn Lake, Manitoba the aircraft pitched up due to improper loading, stalled and crashed onto the runway. Only minor injuries were sustained by the pilot and eight passengers, but CF-PNV was badly damaged and never flew again for La Ronge. The next owner of the aircraft was Cox Air Resources Ltd of Edmonton, the company of Ray Cox, who was at the time developing a turbine conversion of the Otter. The prototype of the Cox Turbo Otter CF-MES (421) made its first flight on 26th September 1978. Certification by the airworthiness authorities was expected to follow shortly thereafter, at which stage a plant was to be opened at Edmonton to convert Otters at the rate of 18 a year. In anticipation of this development, Ray Cox acquired two crashed Otters to rebuild and convert to turbine, one being number 126, which he bought from La Ronge Aviation Services, and the other being number 380, a former RCAF Otter which had crashed in June 1971. These two Otters were held in store until certification of the prototype was achieved, at which stage commercial exploitation of the turbo Otter could begin.
Unfortunately, due to continuing engineering problems and funding difficulties, Canadian certification proved impossible to obtain and Mr Cox moved his operation south of the border. A new company, Cox Aircraft Corporation, was established at Renton Airport, Seattle and the prototype Cox turbo Otter was transferred to the US register as N4247A in June 1981. The certification of the Cox turbo Otter proved to be a lengthy affair, dogged by technical problems and a lack of funds. To avoid pressure from the creditors, Otters 126 and 380 were kept in a remote location known as Graham's Farm south of Seattle. Test flying of the prototype continued from Renton before the project moved to Boeing Field, Seattle. N4247A was flying from there when disaster struck on 19th December 1984, the Otter crashing into a residential neighbourhood at Alki Point, five miles from Boeing Field. It was a major setback from which the project never recovered. Ray Cox tried to continue with another company, Cox Aircraft Company of Washington Inc, but the financial pressures were too great. The assets were sold, including the two Otters 126 and 380. They were sold to Taquan Air in Ketchikan, Alaska who sold them on to Harold J. Hansen of Seattle, who for many years had been involved in restoring crashed Otters and in trading in Otter aircraft.
Another important player in the business of restoring Otters and other bush aircraft is James B. Hayton whose business, North Sound Aviation Inc (“Quality Aircraft Rebuilding since 1966 - Specialising in Cessna 180/185 and de Havilland Beaver and Otter”) is based at Sedro Woolley, some two hours drive north of Seattle, located in a truly beautiful setting on a remote farm south of the Canadian border. The fate of Otter 126 became inextricably linked to Mr Hansen and Mr Hayton, as did the fate of Otter number 380. Mr Hanson and Mr Hayton had something of a disagreement concerning these two Otters. As Jim Hayton explained his case, some years ago he did work on an aircraft for Harold Hansen, who asked him if he would accept Otter number 115 in payment for his services. This was an Otter which had crashed at Koyuk in Alaska, which Mr.Hansen had retrieved from its crash site and brought back to Seattle for rebuild. Mr Hayton agreed and Mr Hansen duly delivered Otter 115 on a truck to the Hayton facility at Sedro Woolley, where it lay for a time awaiting an opportunity for Jim Hayton to get to work on rebuilding it. One day Mr Hayton arrived home to find Mr Hansen driving out of his gate with Otter 115 on his truck. Somewhat taken aback, he inquired of Mr.Hansen where he was going with his (Mr.Hayton's that is) Otter. Mr Hansen replied that he had found a use for the aircraft and intended taking it back, but instead he would give Mr Hayton two Otters, these being 126 and 380, which Mr Hansen had acquired after the Cox company had ceased work on the turbine Otter project.
True to his word, Mr Hansen subsequently arrived at Sedro Woolley with the two Otters, which were not in the best of shape, and which lacked paperwork of any sort. Without this paperwork they were not of much use to Mr Hayton, who could not deal with them. After some discussion, Mr Hayton said he would accept the two Otters in settlement of the money due to him, but only if proper documentation and title was supplied. Mr Hansen set about this task and in December 1997 the two Otters were registered to him, 126 as N63535 and 380 as N6363D but at that stage Harold Hansen claimed the two aircraft were his and demanded that Mr.Hayton return them, which he refused to do.
Harold Hansen's case was different. He denied that he ever owed any money to Jim Hayton. He further claimed that Mr Hayton owed him money for work he had done, in particular $2,000 for collecting the fuselage of crashed Harbour Air Otter C-FQRI (326) and delivering it to Sedro Woolley for Mr Hayton. Furthermore, he claimed Mr Hayton had agreed to buy Otter 126 from him for $5,000 which he alleged was never paid. Pending the resolution of this dispute, Otters 126 and 380 remained at Sedro Woolley, in company with the wrecked C-FQRI (326), the remains of Otter 455 (registered to Jim Hayton as N90758), the fuselage of 271 (C-FMPW) and parts of the wreck of 459 (C-FDJA). On 31 October 2011 Otter 126 was registered to Donna E. Hansen, the daughter of Harold Hansen, still as N63535. As far as is known, this Otter is still stored at Sedro Woolley
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).