The second Otter built, CF-GCV, made its first flight from Downsview on 2nd May 1952 and joined the prototype in the flight test programme, flying as CF-GCV-X. It was used by DHC to certify the Otter as a float plane. Like the prototype, it had been constructed with a pointed vertical fin, which caused stability problems and in September 1952 the fins on both these Otters were changed to what became the standard production fin, allowing the Otter to achieve commercial certification in November 1952.
In July 1952, GCV piloted by Russ Bannock, DHC's Sales Director, was flown to Goose Bay, Labrador where it was demonstrated to some of the RCAF's “top brass” and was undoubtedly instrumental in the RCAF's order for Otters. After the DHC-3 achieved commercial certification in November '52, GCV continued in use from Downsview as a demonstrator.
In August '53 Russ Bannock flew GCV to St.John's, Newfoundland to demonstrate it to Eastern Provincial Airways (EPA) and so impressed were they that they bought the Otter. GCV's first task with EPA was on a Canadian Marconi contract flying out of Goose Bay until the end of October '53. On one occasion, it broke loose in a gale, damaging the tail. Parts were ordered from DHC, but had to be made especially as GCV was a prototype aircraft. Trans Canada Airlines had difficulty fitting the parts into one of their North Star aircraft, but they were eventually squeezed into the aisle between the passengers and flown to Goose Bay, where the Otter was repaired.
Even though the Otter had been delivered to EPA in August '53, its official sale date from DHC to EPA was 18th December 1953 and GCV was registered to EPA on 5th January 1954, based at Gander. EPA had a winter mail contract from the post office, and the Otter was used on this alongside the company's Norsemen, Beavers and Cessna 180. The contract ran from January until April/May and covered the towns and settlements around the island of Newfoundland as well as in mainland Labrador. During the summer months, the mail was brought in by ship, but with the winter freeze up of the coastal waters, the mail had to be flown in.
On 20th February '54 Beaver CF-GBD crashed into the mountains on a mail delivery flight to Parson's Pond and Port Saunders on the west coast. As Marsh Jones writes in his much recommended book on EPA (“The Little Airline That Could”):”The following morning I departed Gander in Otter GCV with a load of mail for Flowers Cove. Bill Easton and an aircraft engineer George Furey came along to assist and survey the damaged Beaver. We landed our mail at Flowers Cove then flew south to the crash site, located about 200 yards up on a snowy slope from a good size pond which we called Benny's Pond. We landed and while George Furey was assessing the damaged aircraft we lugged the mail down a snowy slope to the Otter. After take-off we delivered the Beaver's mail to Parsons Pond and Port Saunders, then returned to Gander”. The Otter was then used to fly the necessary spare parts, tools, camping gear, provisions etc into the accident site, and to keep the camp supplied while the Beaver was being repaired, which took until 9th May '54.
In winter 1955 Otter GCV was again used on the post office mail contract, in the course of which it encountered some difficulty. Again, to quote from Marsh Jones excellent book: “On 28th February '55 I departed Gander with Rex Clibbery (our Canso captain) and a load of mail for Charlottown and Black Tickle in southern Labrador. A refuelling stop was made at Roddickton and the first mail stop was made at Charlottown, at the head of St. Michaels Bay. With excellent weather we proceeded up the coast to Black Tickle. A circuit was made for ice observation, and as everything looked normal, we landed heading out the bay along the line of tree top markers. During the turn to taxi back to the inner bay after landing, the skis broke through the ice and the aircraft settled on the upper struts of the under-carriage. What a predicament!”
“Black Tickle is completely devoid of trees and my immediate thought was to build a platform over the area where we had broken through, but what would we use for material? One of the numerous bystanders suggested that there might be planks in Guy Earl's shed on his fishing premises. I told the man to bring over all the long planks and poles he could find plus nails and ropes and a block and tackle. We then unloaded the mail. We ended up with more than enough material and built a long platform around the nose of the aircraft, on which we erected an “A” frame lean-to over the propeller hub and a long line going out to a 'deadman' secured in the ice. On this we secured our block and tackle and before dark we had the aircraft skis well clear of the ice, with planks laid under them to support the aircraft until, after a night of freezing temperature, the aircraft could be lowered back onto its undercarriage again”.
“The area where we had broken through had been a large crack in the Bay ice about ten feet wide which had frozen over. With a light layer of snow it was impossible to see and unfortunately no one had bothered to mark it as unsafe. The following day, March 1st, was clear and cold and there was now at least eight inches of hard slush ice under the aircraft. We lowered the Otter onto the platform and pulled the aircraft clear of the area. On inspecting the aircraft it was found to be free of damage and after heating up the engine we started up with no difficulty and taxied back to the inner bay where we secured the aircraft for the night. The weather was not suitable for flight the next morning, however we utilized the time in returning all the material and gear to Mr.Earl's shed. We departed Black Tickle in marginal weather on 3rd March and with another refuelling stop at Roddickton, landed at Gander in mid afternoon”. After that excitement, the Otter continued on the post office contract until the end of the season.
EPA had also received a government contract to support construction of the Mid Canada Line of radar stations. It was one of several operators who benefited considerably from the construction of the radar defences of North America. The Pine Tree Line, Mid Canada Line and DEW Line were, particularly in eastern Canada, relatively inaccessible by land transport and so the airlines became a necessity for their construction and re-supply. The revenue generated by these projects was of great assistance to such young companies as EPA and allowed them to grow both in experience and equipment. EPA's contract with the Department of Defence involved two Cansos CF-HFL and CF-HGF and Otter GCV, which occupied the aircraft all that summer of 1955. The Cansos were used mainly to move petroleum products to the sites where the radar stations were being constructed. In conjunction with this, the Otter moved general freight, provisions and personnel from the base at Knob Lake (Schefferville), Quebec. GCV was particularly active, flying upwards of 550 hours that summer.
1956 saw a similar pattern of operation for the Otter as in the previous year. During the winter it was engaged on the mail contract, and in the summer based out of Knob Lake on the Mid Canada Line contract. On 6th July '56 Canso CF-HFL ran short of fuel and force landed on a lake fifty miles north of Knob Lake. It was located after a two hour search by Otter GCV and 20998, a USAF C-124 Globemaster. The Otter then flew in fuel for the Canso. In November '56, GCV returned to DHC at Downsview for overhaul and repaint. It was painted 'stearman vermillion red' overall with white cheatline and black trim.
In the early part of 1957, GCV was extremely busy with a Department of Defence contract resupplying the Hopedale and Cartwright radar stations in Labrador. On 14th March '57 en route from Hopedale to Site 206 (Lakehead), the tail ski broke off on landing, causing some damage to the rear fuselage, which was repaired on site. During the summer of 1957, the Otter was again based at Knob Lake for POL and construction support of the Mid Canada Line. By the end of the summer the construction phase was complete and the Otter went back down to Newfoundland. On 31st October '57 it suffered some damage at Quidi Vidi Lake, St.John's and was repaired on site.
CF-GCV's next posting in spring 1958 was to Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in the Northwest Territories, where EPA had received a contract to supply and service a Pinetree Line radar site on Resolution Island which lay off the southern tip of Baffin Island at the junction of the Hudson and Davis Straits. Resolution Island, some 180 miles from Frobisher Bay, had a 1,500 foot gravel landing strip, which made the Otter an ideal aircraft to rotate personnel to and from the radar station and fly in supplies. On 14th October '58 GCV flew from Frobisher that morning on a supply flight to Resolution Island and took off in the early afternoon for the return sector, carrying the pilot and four passengers. It was to be a day of remarkable drama.
While in the cruise, the pilot noticed the oil pressure needle fluctuating and the oil pressure dropped sharply. He instructed the passengers to put on their life jackets. The situation deteriorated, with white smoke coming from the engine, which was running rough, vibrating and rapidly losing power. At this stage the Otter was over Lower Savage Island and the pilot, knowing they were going down, put out a mayday call and sought a place to land. As the sea ice was very rough, he selected a small lake on Lower Savage Island and decided to land on the wheels, to maintain directional control, and to try and put the Otter after landing on the beach. The Otter touched down on the frozen small lake and rolled for some 300 feet. Unfortunately however the aircraft then broke through the ice, requiring a very rapid evacuation by the pilot and his four passengers, who reached the shore with some difficulty. The cockpit was soon completely submerged and then the fuselage filled with water and sank, leaving only the tail protruding above the ice.
As luck would have it, a USAF KC-97 Stratocruiser callsign “RONSON 29” rapidly came to the aid of the downed Otter. As major Robert C.Schmidt of Strategic Air Command's 40th Air Refuelling Squadron/40th Bombardment Wing later wrote of that “remarkable day”: “We had departed Goose Air Base on the morning of the 14th headed for Thule, Greenland. We were cruising at 15,000 feet and had just passed 90 miles east of Lower Savage Island when we heard the mayday call and headed for the island, having received ATC clearance to conduct a search. We made several passes over the island at two thousand feet and noticed an object sticking out of an ice-covered lake. We spotted the red tail of the Otter and men waving their arms frantically from a rock adjacent to the lake. We dropped survival kits and notified Frobisher Bay of the exact position.” Major Schmidt commended the Otter pilot (“one heck of a fine fellow and an outstanding pilot”) for putting his aircraft down on the only available landing area in the vicinity.
The historical report of the USAF's 920th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, callsign “Footloose”, based at the radar station on Resolution Island, also tells what happened, all times quoted being Zulu/Greenwich time, the local time being four hours earlier: “At 1635Z Otter CF-GCV departed Resolution Island for Frobisher Airport. At 1709Z RONSON 29 a KC-97 en route from Goose to Thule called Footloose Control and stated that the following call had been received from GCV at 1707Z on 121.5 “Mayday, on fire, landing at Lower Savage Island”.
Efforts by Footloose to contact GCV were unsuccessful. At 1711Z Footloose assumed control of RONSON 29 and first vector for Savage Island was given. All agencies at Frobisher and Goose were alerted while RONSON 29 was en route. The KC-97 arrived over Lr.Savage Island group at 1740Z and five minutes later reported sighting GCV. At 1756Z RONSON 29 sighted five survivors and reported that GCV was half submerged in the centre of a lake about three miles inland.
Terrain was reported as very rough and rescue by fixed wing aircraft impossible”. “Footloose requested RONSON 29 to orbit the scene as long as possible and to drop as much survival gear as they could. At 1800Z Frobisher notified Footloose that they were loading a C-54D 72617 of the 4087th Transport Squadron, SAC, with survival gear to drop at the scene and estimated off in 30 minutes. At 1827Z RONSON 29 successfully dropped two E-1 kits and sighted survivors opening them. At 1910Z RONSON 29 reported second successful drop of two E-1 kits which included notes from Footloose advising survivors of rescue plans. At 1846Z C-54 72617 was airborne from Frobisher and at 1927Z Footloose assumed control of Air Force 72617. At 1938Z the C-54 had radio and visual contact with the KC-97 and had sighted survivors. By 1950Z the C-54 had completed two successful drops. Survivors were now in possession of blankets, food gasoline, sleeping bags, exposure suits and a radio. By 2009Z RONSON 29 and Air Force 72617 had departed Lower Savage Island for Goose Air Base. At 2313Z Footloose requested Air Force 72488, another C-54 of the 4087th Transport Squadron, which is based at Ernest Harmon AFB, Stephenville, Newfoundland, to attempt to contact survivors when over Lower Savage Island. Air Force 72488 reported negative contact but sighted several flares. At 1247Z the next day (15th October '58) MATS C-118A 33242 arrived over Lower Savage Island after being diverted from course by Footloose. The C-118 reported successful radio contact with survivors.
They reported everyone was OK but very cold and they had no way to build a fire”. Rescue came later that day in the form of the US Navy supply ship “Greenville Victory”, a vessel which already had quite a connection with Otter aircraft, having been part of the Naval task force which had sailed to Antarctica in 1955 and subsequent years in support of the 'Deep Freeze' operations. The vessel managed to come to within two miles of the island and then launched a motor boat with a rescue party. The pilot of the Otter and one passenger were located on the beach and brought back to the ship for hot soup and biscuits to revive them. The motor boat with the rescue party then returned to the island, accompanied by the pilot, as they had to make their way inland to the lake where the Otter was, and where the other three passengers had established a camp.
This was quite a difficult undertaking, as it was by then dark, freezing cold, and the terrain between the beach and the lake was uneven and treacherous. The rescue party carried battle lanterns to light the way and also rifles and side arms, as polar bear tracks in the snow were plentiful. On arrival at the camp, they found the three passengers in high spirits, having made good use of the USAF dropped survival gear. Before they set off to return to the motor boat, they shone their lanterns across the lake, illuminating the tail of the Otter, which was all that remained of the aircraft above the ice. It must have been an eerie scene in the stillness of this very remote spot.
Having trecked back to the motor boat, they sailed back to the “Greenville Victory”. At 0551Z on 16th October, Footloose was advised by Air Force 72674, another C-54D of the 4087th Transport Squadron, that all survivors were aboard the ship in good condition and rescue operations were completed. The “Greenville Victory” then resumed course for Thule, Greenland. At Thule the survivors met up with the crew of the KC-97 which had first come to their help and could even view movie footage of the incident taken by one of the Stratocruiser's crew. The pilot of the Otter and his passengers were flown by the USAF from Thule to Torbay, Newfoundland, where they arrived on 22nd October, none the worse for their dramatic experience. The pilot of the Otter that day was Jim Rowe, who would subsequently lose his life in the crash of EPA Otter CF-MEX (332) in Greenland in August 1961.
That crash at Lower Savage Island marked the end of GCV's career with EPA, who regarded the Otter as a total loss “due to submersion and the remote location of the accident”. EPA purchased another Otter, CF-LEA (286), to replace GCV, which was delivered on 6th November 1958, and in the meantime they used Beaver CF-GQU on the contract to re-supply the Resolution Island radar site from Frobisher Bay. The wreckage of GCV was turned over to the insurers, who sold it to Mr Frank Ferrer, a US citizen from Miami, Florida but then living in Montreal, who was flying as a pilot with one of the American carriers who were servicing the DEW Line sites at the time. Mr Ferrer managed to retrieve the Otter from Lower Savage Island and transport it by ship to Frobisher Bay, where it was restored to flying condition. On 30th June 1959 a ferry permit was issued for a flight from Frobisher Bay to St.Jovite, Quebec base of Wheeler Airlines Ltd, to whom Mr Ferrer had leased the Otter. CF-GCV was registered to Wheeler Airlines Ltd and entered their service.
In July 1959, Wheeler Airlines secured the contract to re-supply the eastern sector of the DEWLine radar sites, taking over from EPA, and already had a number of Otters working on the contract, in conjunction with the company's larger aircraft. Its DC-4s flew regular flights from Montreal north to Frobisher Bay, and the Otters then flew out of Frobisher to the radar station on Resolution Island and other sites. Otter CF-GCV returned to Frobisher Bay and resumed where it had left off while with Eastern Provincial, supplying the radar station on Resolution Island. In April 1960 Wheeler Airlines underwent a major re-organisation. The heavy transport division of the company and all its larger aircraft were sold to Nordair. The company was re-constituted as Wheeler Airlines (1960) Ltd and continued with its bush operations. CF-GCV and the company's other Otters were registered to the new operation, and GCV continued flying from Frobisher Bay.
On 29 June 1960 GCV was yet again en route from Frobisher to Resolution Island, where the weather was clear except for a fog bank which covered part of the runway. The airstrip at Resolution was a 1,500 foot gravel strip and was on much higher ground than the surrounding terrain. The flight was uneventful until the Otter was on final approach from the west to the gravel strip. Severe downdrafts were encountered at this point, which forced the aircraft below the level of the runway, requiring the pilot to use take-off power to regain the height which had been lost. The use of this extra power resulted in increased airspeed that was sustained after power had been reduced up to the point of touchdown. The touchdown was within the first 200 feet of runway, and brakes were applied before the tail made contact with the ground. The wheels sank into a soft spot on the runway and the aircraft pitched forward, coming to a stop when the propeller blades touched the ground. At this point the tail dropped heavily. The fuselage was broken about ten inches behind the rear door.
The prop blades were bent at the tips, the tail landing gear was torn away and the skin on both sides of the rudder was bent and buckled. Temporary repairs were effected on site and a ferry permit issued on 8th July 1960 for a flight from Resolution Island to Montreal, where permanent repairs were carried out over the winter. That incident ended GCV's career with Wheeler Airlines and on 4th April 1961 the aircraft was registered to Canavia Corporation of Montreal in connection with its sale to Pacific Western Airlines, to whom it was registered on 1st December 1961.
Having served all its career up to this point on Canada's east coast, the Otter headed west and for the next six years faithfully served Pacific Western Airlines, providing a full range of bush services. In 1966 it was based at Fort Nelson, BC on forest fire duties. The Otter was eventually sold by Pacific Western to Thunderbird Airlines Ltd of Prince George, BC to whom it was registered on 29th January 1968. There was a change of name to Northern Thunderbird Air Ltd on 9th August 1974 but the Otter continued flying out of its base at Prince George. On 15th October '74 the Otter suffered another mishap, when it went through the ice of Ominica Bay in Williston Lake, to the north of Prince George.
GCV had taken off from McKenzie with twelve Native Indian school children on board, who were going to Ingenika. In the area of Ominica Bay, visibility was about four miles, but suddenly light snow conditions turned into a very heavy snow fall, with visibility reduced to one quarter mile. Rather than taking a risk with his precious load, the pilot decided to set the Otter down on the ice covered lake and wait for an improvement in the weather. All was well until near the end of the landing roll when the ice gave way and the aircraft began to sink in the water, not for the first time in its career!
The pilot quickly removed the wet children from the machine as it sank, and took them to the shore where a fire was started to warm and dry them. Then he guided them on a two mile hike through the woods to a logging camp where the children were given a good meal and put to bed. Thankfully a happy ending for the children, but the unfortunate GCV had almost completely sunk into the lake and was locked into the ice, with only its tail visible, an eerie repeat of its earlier submersion on Lower Savage Island.
The recovery of the Otter was undertaken by Denny McCartney and is fully described in his most excellent book “Picking up the Pieces”. He describes how, the following January he proceeded to the lake and with his helpers erected an “A” frame from sturdy logs, which was used with a pulley to raise the sunken Otter, having first cut the ice from around it. Then the ice had to be cleared out from inside the aircraft, and the whole aircraft and engine thoroughly checked and made airworthy. Then a section of ice was carefully checked for security and an airstrip was marked out with small evergreens as a guide for the pilot in his take off run to fly back to base at Prince George, a flight made without incident. At the time of this incident, this hard-working Otter had accumulated 12,140 hours total airframe time.
That incident marked the end of its career with Northern Thunderbird Air. GCV was sold to Silver Pine Air Services of Pine Falls, Manitoba, who sold it on to Walsten Air Services of Kenora, Ontario in 1976. After six years on the ground and a lengthy rebuild by Northern Servicentre at Reddit, Ontario C-FGCV flew again on 11th June 1980 and joined the fleet of Walsten Air Services, flying from Kenora on charter work. It was normally active during the summer months only, flying tourists, hunters, fishermen to remote parts of the province. During the winter months, it was stored at Reddit, Ontario. GCV was equipped with Bristol 7850 floats, a type normally used on Beech 18s, one of which was also in the Walsten fleet. On the Otter, the ventral fin was replaced with two vertical fins on the horizontal stabilizer, to provide increased stability with the larger floats.
GCV continued to serve Walsten Air Services for many years, and on 19th June 1994 was involved in a minor incident. The Otter was landing at a lodge at Forest Lake, north of Vermillion Bay, Ontario when during the approach it struck and severed an un-marked low-level power line which served the fishing lodge. It landed without further incident. GCV's fifteen years of yeoman service for Walsten Air Services came to a tragic end on 20th September 1995. That morning the pilot took off from Kenora and flew to Stewart Lake, some sixty miles west of Dryden, to pick up five passengers and their equipment. The passengers were all anglers on a fishing trip, all being close personal friends coming from Cross Plains, Wisconsin. The Otter flew the party to an outpost camp at Salvesen Lake, Ontario about fifty miles north-west of Kenora. Tragically the Otter crashed during the landing when it flipped over and became submerged, killing all six on board. The remains of the Otter were taken to Walsten Air's facility in Kenora.
Full history courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).