Otter number 68 was the first of six Otters delivered to Philippine Air Lines (PAL), on 18 February 1955 with registration PI-C51. Following its test flights at Downsview, it was packed into a crate, shipped to Manila and re-assembled. In June 1955 it entered service with PAL on a “rural air service”, for which six otters would ultimately be acquired.
The Republic of the Philippines comprises some 730 inhabited islands, and thousands of coral atolls, in the Pacific forming a splintered tri-angle between Taiwan to the north and Borneo to the south. The two largest islands are Luzon to the north (on which is located the capital city, Manila) and the island of Mindanao to the south. It is a land of dense rain forests, swift rivers and active volcanoes. The country has considerable natural resources, being a leading producer of sugar, hemp, tobacco and coffee. The forests yield various types of timber; the mines coal, iron, copper, gold and lead. The difficulty in the 1950s was that land transportation for the exploitation of these resources was rudimentary. One of the objectives of PAL’s “rural air service” was to open up the economic wealth of the country and at the same time to bring the amenities of civilisation to the village communities.
The difficulty lay in the lack of suitable airfields. There were only three airports able to take PAL’s Convair 340s and their DC-3s could fly into about thirty more. Further airline penetration to the smallest islands, the remotest lumber camps, the most isolated pineapple plantations seemed at first to be attainable only through a costly helicopter operation. Fortunately for PAL, the Otter was considered as a candidate and following a visit to Downsview by the airline’s executives in December 1954, an initial order for three Otters was placed. PI-C51 was delivered in February 1955, PI-C52 and 53 in March 1955, all being shipped to the Philippines and re-assembled there. Three more Otters (PI-C54, 55 and 56) were to follow in 1956.
Initial development of the Otter operation was on the southern island of Mindanao. One Otter was based at the Convair terminal of Cagayon de Oro and a second at Davao. There was a permanent captain for each aircraft, with a reserve captain provided on rotation from the DC-3 crews. The Cagayon based Otter flew to Gingoog and Buenavista daily; three times a week the flight was operated twice daily. On the other three days the Otter turned west and flew to Iligan, Malabang and Cotabato. The Davao based Otter tied in with these schedules, linking Davao to Bislig, Lianga and Buenavista, extending every other day to Surigao on the northern tip of the island. There it connected with the third Otter, which was based at Cebu, and which operated four times weekly to San Carlos and Bacolod, and three times weekly on the one hundred mile sea crossing to Surigao.
Of the twelve stages served on this initial network, only three were longer than 40 miles. This was a practical application of DHC’s belief that the Otter could show superior economy to helicopters of the time over stages greater than 15 miles. Most of the points served with the Otters could not accommodate the DC-3s. The strips provided for the Otters were cleared specifically for the operation – few were longer than 400 yards, no wider than a main road, and were usually surrounded by jungle.
The Otter operation appears to have been unprofitable, at best breaking even, but its main purpose was to develop these outback routes and provide a service to the communities. The Otters fed traffic to the DC-3 services. Modest fares were applied from the start to encourage traffic. This succeeded and good load factors were quickly built up, the Otters normally carrying their full complement of eleven passengers, or else a mixed load of passengers and freight. Even in the initial stages of this operation, the utilisation rate was better than four hours a day – built up in a series of short flights, with passengers and cargo changing at every stop. All services operated with full tanks from base, sufficient for the return flight on most routes, without penalising the payload capacity. Thus no outstation refuelling facilities were required, which in any event usually comprised no more than a thatched hut.
The benefits of these Otter services were clear. The land journey from Gingoog to Buenavista took five hours by car and cost 40 pesos. The Otter took 20 minutes and the fare was 9 pesos. Bislig to Davao was a 50 minute Otter flight – the alternative was a week on a coastal freighter, which sailed once a month. North from Lianga, the flight to Buenavista took 30 minutes by Otter and there was no land communication except a three day foot trail. Little wonder that the Otters were well supported! As well as the scheduled services, the Otters were also used in search-and-rescue operations and in medical evacuation flights to airfields not accessible to heavier aircraft.
With the initial success of the Otter operation, three more aircraft were ordered, PI-C54 delivered in August 1956; PI-C55 in October 1956 and PI-C56 in November 1956. With these additional aircraft the “rural air service” was expanded and eventually connected 17 cities and towns with the trunk-line airports. By 1958 the Otter fleet was carrying over 800 passengers per week. Given the inhospitable nature of the terrain, it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later the Otter fleet would be reduced by attrition, and four of the six Otters were indeed written off. In 1959/60 five Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneers (another dedicated STOL type) were acquired to replace the Otters but these proved most uneconomical and by 1963 had all been sold.
Scheduled operations with the Otters continued until the crash of PI-C51 on 20 May 1964 at Sibuko Point, Zamboanga del Norte. The Otter was on flight F26/25 from Siocon to Zamboanga, a 54 mile sector. F26/25 was a scheduled domestic flight originating at Zamboanga Airport at 0650 for Siocon, where it landed at 07:30. Conditions in western Mindanao were unfavourable for VFR flight that day. Due to these conditions, the pilot decided to return direct to Zamboanga instead of flying the schedule, which would have been Siocon-Liloy-Dipolog-Liloy-Siocon-Zamboanga. The Otter took off from Siocon at 08:10, hugging the coastline, and continued VFR into unfavourable weather over the jagged shoreline, with practically zero visibility in heavy rain and squalls, until it crashed at Sibuko Point at approximately 10:00 hours. The Otter hit a tree at 200 feet in a left bank. The left wing was severed from the aircraft. The nose section then hit another tree before crashing to the ground. The pilot and his ten passengers were killed and the Otter destroyed. It had total time of 7,197 hours . It was the fourth PAL Otter to crash.
Shortly after this accident, the CAA suspended the operation of the Otters until they were fitted with ADF equipment and more powerful HF radios. In the event, the Otters did not return to scheduled services but the two surviving aircraft were then used on charters until they were sold.
Full history up to 2005 courtesy of Karl E Hayes © from DHC-3 Otter - A History (CD-ROM 2005), now with added and updated information which Karl has supplied for the benefit of the website.