Canada’s flying one tonne truck: The de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter

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A de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter utility floatplane operated by Northway Aviation Limited of St. Andrews, Manitoba, Fishing Lake, Manitoba, September 2005. Mark Swaffer via Wikimedia.

Welcome, my reading friend, welcome. Yours truly would like to commemorate with you the 70th anniversary of the first flight of an excellent Canadian aircraft, the de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter, a flying machine present in the collection of the splendiferous Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, in the form of a Canadian Armed Forces CSR-123 / CC-123 Otter.

De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC) of Downsview, Ontario, a well-known aircraft manufacturer mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2017, began the development of a bush or light transport plane superior in dimensions to the supremely successful DHC-2 Beaver before the end of the winter of 1948-49. This being said (typed?), there did not seem to be an obvious market for that DHC-3 King Beaver.

The year 1950 proved to be a turning point in that regard. That year, the Ontario Provincial Air Service (OPAS) pledged to order 20 examples of said King Beaver if DHC agreed to produce the aircraft. The invasion of South Korea by North Korea in June 1950 also provided the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) with the moolah needed to consider replacing its Noorduyn Norseman light transport planes, which dated back to the Second World War. As the RCAF and OPAS requirements were very similar, the Department of Defence Production agreed to fund part of the King Beaver’s final development program.

A prototype of that aircraft, renamed Otter at an undetermined date, made its first flight in December 1951.

For some reason or other, OPAS only purchased 10 or so aircraft. The RCAF, on the other hand, received about 70 over the years.

It should be noted that OPAS used some of its Otters to develop early forms of its aerial forest fire fighting equipment.

We should also mention that Canadian Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company Limited of Longueuil, Québec, a firm mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018, converted the vast majority of the American-made Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engines mounted on the Otters. The first aircraft used around 50 engines purchased in Sweden, however.

The Otter’s performance did not go unnoticed across the Canada-United States border. While the United States Army stated it was impressed, the controversy surrounding the purchase of the Beaver was still fresh in its memory.

You see, around June 1949, the United States Air Force (USAF) had decided to purchase a few search and rescue aircraft to support its squadrons based in Alaska. The military sales manager of DHC who was a Canadian Second World War night fighter ace, a gentleman mentioned in May 2019 and January 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, learned the news while reading a magazine article. Russell “Russ” Bannock, born Slowko Bahnuk, flew to Alaska in a Beaver. The American pilots were very impressed. In fact, their commander wanted a dozen Beavers.

Bannock then went to Washington, District of Columbia, for demonstration flights. The USAF was so impressed that it considered signing a contract for about 110 aircraft. That request sparked a storm of protests. Spurred on by American aircraft manufacturers and the aviation press, the United States Congress was forced to intervene. Comparative tests would have to take place before signing a contract.

Luck smiled again on DHC at the beginning of 1950. The United States Army then wanted to buy a new light transport plane. Having learned the news while reading another article, Bannock performed demonstration flights. The American military were speechless. What followed was predictable: draft contract, protests from the American aviation industry, and comparative tests requested by the United States Congress. The United States Army and USAF having decided to order the same aircraft, they organised tests which took place in January and May 1951. The Beaver prevailed over its many American adversaries.

The USAF tried to block the acquisition of the Canadian aircraft by the United States Army, however, on the pretext that its weight exceeded the limit negotiated between the two services. As discussions led to an increase in that limit, DHC was awarded the first in a series of contracts with the United States Army. For the first time in peacetime history, the United States had taken delivery of a foreign-designed military aircraft.

Between 1951 and 1959, the USAF and United States Army purchased approximately 980 de Havilland Canada L-20 Beavers, subsequently redesignated U-6 Beavers. These orders were a turning point for DHC, which became increasingly dependent on its main customer, the United States Army, but back to the Otter and the interest shown by said army.

Comparative tests involving 2 helicopters were to take place in the spring of 1954. While Bannock visited Washington, the officer in charge of aviation in the United States Army suggested that an Otter be present during the tests, for comparison of course. As the aircraft supplied by DHC proved to be far superior to the official competitors, the United States Army therefore wanted to order Otters. Equally impressed, the United States Navy (USN) also wanted to get some aircraft.

The timing was not quite right, however. The administration headed by Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, a gentleman mentioned in several / many issues of our you know what since March 2018, had actually cut the defence budget. Regardless, the military persisted and signed the first of a series of contracts. The United States Army and USN ultimately received approximately 205 U-1 and UC-1 Otters, all subsequently redesignated U-1s. The first of these aircraft entered service around March 1955.

And yes, the designation U referred / refers to so-called utility aircraft. What about the Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady,” you say, my reading friend? How can a spy plane known around the world fall into the utility category? That designation was a deception, a ruse, a subterfuge, but back to our story.

Even more than in the case of the Beaver, the production of the Otter was intended for military users. Excluding Canada and the United States, DHC’s client list included 10 countries in Africa (Ghana and Tanzania), America (Argentina and Chile), Asia (Burma (in 2021 Myanmar), India and Indonesia), Europe (Norway and United Kingdom) and Oceania (Australia) which received around 85 aircraft.

This being said (typed?), more than one potential civilian and / or military customer decided to buy twin-engine aircraft instead of the Otter, deemed a tad big for a single engine. The company took note of these decisions.

At least one of these sales raised some controversy. Around 1958, the then pro-Soviet government of Indonesia wanted to acquire a dozen Otters, but its dollar reserves did not allow it to buy more than a pair. The federal government approved that contract, along with another, for approximately 170 trucks supplied by Ford Motor Company of Canada Limited, a firm mentioned in December 2018 and October 2019 issues of yadda yadda. The American and Australian governments opposed these sales. They had actually halted all arms deliveries in the hope that rebels would soon overthrow the Indonesian government.

Anxious not to put jobs at risk, Prime Minister John George “Dief” Diefenbaker, a gentleman mentioned in a few issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2020, as well as his Cabinet, disregarded that opposition. Ultimately, the rebellion failed to achieve its goals.

And yes, said rebellion was supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.

DHC’s management was so interested in the possibility of obtaining additional orders that it discussed with the Indonesian government in 1961 the possibility of building an assembly plant in that country. That project went nowhere.

It should be noted that the Federal Government gave away a small number of Otters as gifts, including 7 new aircraft to Indonesia, 5 used RCAF aircraft to India and 8 new aircraft to Tanzania. That last case deserves to be explained.

Ordered shortly before the mid-1960s, these Otters were originally to be delivered to the United Nations’ Fund for the Development of West Irian, a territory formerly known as Dutch New Guinea. The Indonesian government had recently taken control of that last vestige of the Dutch presence in the region, however. That success worried somewhat the Australian government, which then controlled Papua New Guinea, a territory with a common border with Dutch New Guinea.

Adding to the tension, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara was using the Otters it already had to support guerrillas operating in territories on the island of Borneo which were part of Malaysia, a country friendly to the United Kingdom and a member of the Commonwealth. And yes, the main part of the island of Borneo belonged to Indonesia. The arrival in the region of 8 more Otters thus caused a bit of commotion within the British government. It protested and obtained the cancellation of the contract. Unsure of what to do with the Otters destined for the United Nations’ Fund for the Development of West Irian, the federal government donated them to Tanzania, another member of the Commonwealth.

Ultimately, DHC made around 465 Otter between 1951 and 1967, including about 360 destined for military users.

It is worth noting that DHC transformed an RCAF Otter into an experimental aircraft as part of a research program funded by a federal agency, the Defence Research Board. Begun in the second half of the 1950s and completed around 1965, that program made a major contribution to the development of the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter twin-engine short take-off and landing transport plane, a world-famous aircraft mentioned in an October 2021 issue of our you know what.

Aware that a reengined version of the Otter might be of interest to some users, an aircraft modification, repair and sales specialist founded around 1977, Airtech Canada Limited of Peterborough, Ontario, launched a version equipped with a powerful Soviet piston engine manufactured under license by a Polish state-owned company, Wytwórnia Sprzętu Komunikacyjnego. That version, relatively rare it seems, was introduced in the first half of the 1980s.

The American firm Vazar Aerospace Incorporated, for its part, delivered its first Otter equipped with a turboprop engine around 1989-90. That American firm mentioned in a June 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee seemed to continue that work in 2021. Vazar Aerospace may, I repeat may, have converted a hundred Otter in the last 30 years, which is not bad at all.

It should also be noted that the aforementioned Bannock, ex-president of DHC, and Richard Duncan “Dick” Hiscocks, ex-vice-president of engineering of DHC, played a vital role in the development of the Cessna Model 208 Caravan, an American utility aircraft designed to replace the Otter. That highly successful aircraft, tested in December 1982, flew / flies all over the world, including Canada (about 125 aircraft registered as of late 2021).

Would you believe that Cessna Aircraft Company / Textron Aviation Incorporated produced over 2 600 Caravans between 1982 and 2021? In fact, that flying pickup truck could remain in production for a while yet.

A lost opportunity for DHC and / or the Canadian aerospace industry, you say? That is not impossible. After all, DHC engineers did some work on an Otter replacement at some point.

Until we quarrel again.


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Rénald Fortier