Otter number 54 is unique in being the only civilian Otter sold by DHC to South America. It was originally registered HK-399-X to Taxi Aereo de Santander Ltda of Colombia and delivered on 27th January 1955, the “-X” suffix being dropped after a period of test flying. The Otter was delivered by DHC test pilot Bob Fowler, accompanied by technical representative Crawford Byers. Bob Fowler describes the delivery: “As this was the first Otter to go to South America, we hoped to get its operation off to a good start. It was snowing when on 27th January 1955 we flew from Downsview to Toronto International Airport to clear out-bound Canadian customs, and then after clearing US customs in and outbound at Buffalo Airport, New York we again departed (VFR) in snow for Greater Pittsburgh Airport, and landed there after dark, almost frozen as Otter 54 had no heater for its career in Colombia”.
“We then flew next day to Fort Rucker, Alabama home of the US Army Aviation Corps and stayed there the nights of 28th and 29th January to familiarize the Army with the Otter, which they had just ordered in quantity as the U-1A. After two nights in Miami with thunderstorms, on 1st February we flew to Kingston, Jamaica and landed after flying around the coast of Jamaica due to solid thunderstorms over the whole island. On 2nd February with both of us wearing a seatpack and oneman dinghy, we set off for Barranquilla on the north coast of Colombia. With one engine, the only thing of interest during five hours of looking at the sea was a beautiful view of the snow-covered 20,000 foot peak of Santa Marta on the coast of Venezuela. February 3rd we took off for Bucaramanga, and after searching for over an hour finally found it in very rugged and smoky mountain country”.
Taxi Aereo de Santander Ltda., was formed in 1948 as an air taxi concern operating Stinson Voyagers and later Cessna 180s from its base at Bucaramanga, the industrial capital of the Province of Santander in the north-east of Colombia, located in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental mountains. At that time, airfields in the region were too small for any larger equipment. A progressive expansion programme brought three DHC-2 Beavers into the fleet and then the Otter, and with the introduction of these rugged aircraft, the company's network was expanded to operate on a regular basis to Gamarra, Barrancabermeja, the country's main oil refinery, and to the border capital of Cucuta, in the Norte de Santander Province, where passengers could link with the trunk carriers of the day. After another Colombian operator LANSA ceased operations in 1954, the company decided to expand operations. Five DC-3s were purchased and a network of routes established from the Bucaramanga base to Bogota and to more distant points in northeast Colombia.
In 1960 the company augmented its fleet with three Curtiss C-46s, converted to passenger use and designated “Super C-46T”. The company was re-named Lineas Aereas Taxader and possibly because it was getting into larger aircraft, the Otter was advertised for sale. The purchaser was a bush pilot from Yellowknife named Robert Engle, who acquired the Otter from Lineas Aereas Taxader for US$44,000. On 18th October 1961 he applied for the marks CF-NWA but these were not available and he was allocated CF-NTR. He was also given a ferry permit for the Otter from Bucaramanga to Calgary, where it was to be overhauled by Field Aviation.
Mr Engle contracted Denny McCartney of Vancouver, an aircraft engineer who specialised in such types as the Otter, to check over his new purchase and they travelled down to Colombia to take delivery of the Otter. When the inspections were complete, they took off in HK-399 from Bucaramanga on 29th November 1961 and flew north over the Magdalena River to Barranquilla on Colombia's north coast. The next day was stormy and they had to stay put, but on 1st December they flew along the coast to Panama, landing at Panama City Airport for an overnight. They departed 2nd December and headed north but had to make a precautionary landing in Costa Rica, at a private strip belonging to United Fruit Growers, to check and refill with oil. Some pilots, according to Mr McCartney, refer to Otters as “oilers” because of their oil consumption. They continued on to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua where they refuelled, continuing on for their next overnight at Tapachula, Mexico. December 3rd they flew to Acapulco, where the following day was spent carrying out an inspection of the Otter. December 5th saw the delivery flight progressing from Acapulco to Mazatlan for another overnight. December 6th saw the departure from Mazatlan, another precautionary landing at a small strip to check the oil, onwards to Ciudad Juarez to check out of Mexico and the arrival at El Paso, Texas. December 7th's routing was from El Paso to Albequerque, New Mexico and on to Denver, Colorado. Here there was another inspection of the Otter and a change of registration from HK-399 to CF-NTR. December 9th they left Denver and with one stop for fuel and oil in Wyoming, arrived at Great Falls, Montana. 10th December 1961 saw the final sector from Great Falls to Calgary, Alberta where the Otter was entrusted to Field Aviation for complete overhaul.
Robert (Bob) Engle had started out flying for Max Ward, flying his Otters out of Yellowknife, but decided to strike out on his own and in 1960 formed Northwest Territorial Airways with a single Beaver as its first equipment. He needed some waterfront in Yellowknife to get his operation going, and acquired Canadian Pacific's old building, which was then being used by La Ronge Aviation. Otter CF-NTR joined the fleet after its overhaul at Calgary, and also acquired was a Beech 18 on floats. Northwest Territorial graduated to DC-3s on scheduled services, then Lockheed L188 Electras and then jet equipment, becoming one of the major carriers in the Northwest Territories. In its early years however it was a typical bush operation, providing a full range of bush services from its Yellowknife base, with the Otter a key part of the early fleet.
Denny McCartney again made the Otter's acquaintance some time later, when it was used to assist in the recovery of Beaver CF-HGY of BC-Yukon Air Services, which had crashed into trees on the bank of the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories. The recovery of the Beaver is described in Denny McCartney's excellent book “Picking Up The Pieces”. After a major repair job at the accident site, the Beaver was made airworthy and set off for Watson Lake but suffered engine failure en route and had to set down on a small lake beside the Coal River. It needed a new engine. Fortunately Bob Engle was in the area at the time with Otter NTR, which was used to fly a new engine to the downed Beaver. Mr McCartney was able to repay the favour by inspecting and servicing the Otter, which was then operating on a contract from the Canada Tungsten Mines airstrip.
CF-NTR continued to fly for Northwest Territorial Airways for most of the 1960s. It was damaged in an accident at Yellowknife on 13th September 1968 while tied up to the company dock. Wardair Twin Otter CF-VOG was being taxied to the Wardair dock when its pilot somewhat lost the run of his machine and crashed into the Otter. As the accident report puts it, the Twin Otter pilot was at the time “attempting to arrest its forward motion”. The nose of the Twin Otter was pushed in, the floats damaged, and both engines over-tempted. One wing of Otter NTR was crumpled and its floats and tail plane damaged. Repairs were carried out by Field Aviation in Calgary.
A year later, CF-NTR met with a much more serious accident, which ended its career with Northwest Territorial. On 1st August 1969 the Otter was engaged in water bombing a forest fire at Wholdaia Lake in the Northwest Territories. The aircraft was climbing away from the lake after a water pick-up when at about 300 feet the engine quit with a loud bang. The pilot immediately dumped the water load and turned back towards the lake. The Otter landed on the right float while still in a turn, bounced, stalled and struck heavily on the left float. The float struts collapsed, the nose sank until it contacted the bottom of the lake and the Otter flipped over and came to rest on its back, lying in eight feet of water. The accident report noted that the pilot had commenced flying at 0315 hours that day, and as water bombing a forest fire is a low-level operation demanding great concentration, by the time the accident occurred fatigue would have dulled the pilot's alertness. The stoppage of the engine in this aircraft type as a result of backfire is symptomatic of fuel exhaustion, the report noted. The salvage of the wrecked Otter was sold to a company called Minto Airways Inc., of Seattle. Lawyers acting for the buyers incorporated a company in Canada called Minto Airways Ltd and applied to have the Otter registered to this company. The Department of Transport replied that before that could happen, the aircraft would have to be repaired, inspected and certified and this proposal did not proceed further.
Ownership of the Otter was eventually acquired by a Mr Harold Bradfeld, a resident of South Dakota. The aircraft was rebuilt and registered N3904. The new owner did not operate the aircraft himself, but leased it out. It first went to Eagle Air Inc of Sitka, Alaska and was flown out of Sitka for a time. Its next operator was a company based in Seattle called Western Rotorcraft Inc., who specialised in converting aircraft to turboprop power. During 1972 the Otter was converted by the installation of a Garrett AiResearch TPE-331 engine, becoming the first turbine Otter. It appears however that the testing at Lake Union, Seattle did not go too well, and that the concept of a turbo Otter at that stage was ahead of its time. The R-1340 piston engine was re-installed and the lease was terminated in 1976, and the Otter was then put up for sale.
In July 1976 Harold Bradfeld sold the Otter to Kachemak Air Service Inc., of Homer, Alaska, to whom it was registered, retaining the registration N3904. It was flown from Lake Union, Seattle north to its new base at Homer, which was to be its home for the next 24 years. That winter, the Otter was flown south to Arizona, where William de Creeft, the company's owner, was visiting friends at Camp Verde. The Otter was then flown to Wickenburg, Arizona where it was repainted by Avart into the most attractive overall red scheme with black speed line, which it was to wear from then on. It then flew back to Alaska and into service with Kachemak Air Service.
Homer is located on Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. During the summer months, the Otter operated on floats from Beluga Lake, and on wheels from the nearby Homer Airport during the winter. A minor but dramatic incident was recorded on 26th October 1982 at Homer. After removing the floats and re-installing the wheels at the end of the summer season, the pilot received permission to take off on a roadway bridge that spans Beluga Lake at Homer. The purpose of the flight was to ferry the Otter to the nearby Homer Airport. On take-off N3904 veered left due to a wind gust and when the pilot corrected with right brake, the nose tucked down. This allowed the propeller tips to come in contact with the ground. The take-off was continued and the Otter landed at Homer Airport without further incident.
A major source of business for the Otter was the local fishing industry, ferrying fishermen to and from the outlying fishing grounds. Pilot de Creeft transported fishermen active in the late 1970s, and subsequently their children and grand-children, so long was the Otter in service. The Otter flew alongside the company's Beaver N9762Z. Other taskings included support of the oil industry, supplying exploration camps with food and fuel, and moving the camps from place to place. Similarly, government scientists and geologists on surveys were provisioned and moved, as well as Fish & Game personnel. Native villages in the locality were supplied, as were logging camps. The Otter and the Beaver serviced the needs of the bush country for hundreds of miles around their Homer base. Occasionally there were trips further afield, one example being a medevac flight in the Otter to Chignik to pick up a patient who was then flown to Anchorage.
As the years passed by, as with other Otters elsewhere, demand for this type of general charter work reduced, and support of the tourist industry became the primary source of business. Building materials were flown in to sites where camps and lodges were being established. As the company's website informed: “Our Otter carried every stick of lumber, every brick, every stick of furniture to build and furnish the delightful Loonsong Lodge”. The Otter was used for brown bear viewing to the McNeil River bear sanctuary, for transporting backpackers, fishermen, kayakers and general cargo hauling throughout the region. It brought hunters to the Mulchatna region to the west of Homer. During the 1990s however the company found it difficult to continue trading profitably with the two De Havillands. The Beaver was sold, and reduced operations continued with the Otter until November 2000, when N3904 was taken from Beluga Lake for the last time, and put on wheels in preparation for a sale. This however was not the end for Kachemak Air Service, which continued in business with NC9084, their 1929-vintage Beech Travel Air.
Bill and Barbara de Creeft with "Big Red" at Beluga Lake base. Photo: Neil Aird © 11 September 1995
The Otter was sold in December 2000, an event which made the local media. As the Homer News reported “Big Red is gone, and something about that makes Beluga Lake a bit less colourful. Homer pilot Bill de Creeft, owner of Kachemak Air Service, has sold the bright red de Havilland he has owned and operated since 1976. Other Otters will continue to use the lake but de Creeft was a familiar sight, even something of a flying landmark, drawing interest from Homer residents and visitors alike”. The Otter was sold to Chinook Air LLC of Fairbanks and moved to its new base at Wasilla, north of Anchorage, from where it was used to service a lodge, being operated on behalf of its new owners by Grasshopper Aviation, based at Wasilla. This operation continued for two years, until 28th December 2002 when the Otter crashed at Nikolai, Alaska. The purpose of the flight that day was to deliver a load of fuel oil to a remote lodge located at Mystic Lake, about 35 miles east of Nikolai. The flight to the private airstrip at the lodge was uneventful and the Otter was on the ground there for 45 minutes while the fuel oil was unloaded. The accident happened as the Otter was taking off empty for the return flight to Wasilla.
The pilot reported that just after an uneventful westerly take-off from the one thousand foot by thirty foot snow-covered airstrip, as the Otter climbed to about 800 feet above the ground and the airspeed increased to about 55 knots, he heard a very loud bang, followed by a loud rattling noise. The pilot said that as was attempting to turn the aircraft around and return to the departure airstrip, he experienced considerably difficulty in maintaining longitudinal directional control using the airplane's rudder pedals. Using a combination of aileron control and the remaining amount of rudder control, he was able to manoeuvre the airplane for an easterly landing on the airstrip. The pilot said that as the airplane passed over the approach end of the airstrip, the aircraft drifted to the right and he initiated a go-around. The airplane subsequently collided with a stand of trees on the north side of the airstrip and sustained substantial damage to the wings, fuselage and empennage.
The insurers hired a Bell 204 helicopter from Big Lake, Alaska to retrieve the wrecked Otter. It flew to the scene of the accident at Nikolai and airlifted N3904 to Talkeetna, from where it was trucked back to Wasilla. At the time of the accident, it had some 16,500 hours on the airframe. It was put up for sale and purchased by a Mr Ed Tuohy of Tucson, Arizona. He had a hangar at the small airfield at La Cholla, near Tucson and was in the business of fixing up wrecked aircraft, having already dealt with a few single Cessnas which he had retrieved from Alaska. On 23rd May 2003 he put a advertisement on the 'Barnstormers' website, advertising the Otter for sale “DHC-3 Otter project. For sale. Damage to tail, left main gear, gear box and carry thru spar at least. Firewall back only for $125,000. Excellent for turbine mod to your specification”. At that stage the Otter was still in Wasilla, Alaska but he was making arrangements to truck it back to Tucson to his base at the La Cholla airfield. It subsequently passed through Tok, Alaska on the back of a truck, headed south. As at May 2004 the Otter was still advertised for sale, as a rebuild project or for parts.
History courtesy of Karl E. Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter: A History (2005).