Glacier game changer

Supreme dream machine and bush plane of the northland

While the last of the DHC–3 Otters were built in 1967, the popularity of the “King Beaver” among air taxis in northern latitudes today makes one wonder why only 466 were built.

Turbine Otter

Photography by Paul Roderick Ultima Thule’s red and yellow Turbine Otter is well known in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Paul Claus with his grandson in the family Otter. A Turbine Otter on the West Fork of Ruth Glacier in the Alaska Range on a June afternoon, with Rooster Comb peak in the background. The versatile Otter on wheel skis in the Western Brooks Range. Icelandic horses hang out peacefully en route to Apricity Alaska Homestead on the other side of the Alaska Range in Talkeetna Air Taxi’s Turbine Otter.

Sightseeing and climb-support companies based in Alaska rave about the capable aircraft, which was originally used for military purposes and search and rescue missions in Canada. The single-engine, high-wing, sturdy bush plane holds up to 11 passengers and offers outstanding short-takeoff-and-landing performance, even in snow-laden strips. K2 Aviation and Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) have filled the ramp with these aircraft, replacing the Cessna 185 and de Havilland Beaver that originally were the workhorses of the Alaska Range.

K2 Aviation was the first to receive a concession from Denali National Park to land an Otter on skis in the park. The reasoning behind changing a former rule by the park superintendent was that an Otter could take more passengers in a single flight and more passengers could be inspired by the beauty of the mountainous landscape of glacier rivers and sheer granite faces. The turbine-conversion Otters used in the park are quiet, and they have sturdy gear for landing on glaciers later in the season when the conditions tend to get rough. They can take off in less than 1,200 feet and are able to take heavy loads, whether it be a load of passengers, cabin kits, rafting and climbing groups, or even livestock, such as small horses. Now 11 Turbine Otters fly into Denali National Park, five of them operated by K2 and six by Talkeetna Air Taxi.

Suzanne Rust of K2 Aviation remembers what a game changer the Otter fleet became for the company, which originally operated a Super Cub as well as a Cessna 185 on skis. In the 1990s, climbers were limited to freeze-dried food and minimal gear for ambitious climbing missions up North America’s highest peak. A trip to Denali’s 20,310-foot-high peak requires two weeks because of altitude acclimatization and the demands of cold weather, even in the summer months. With camps, snowshoes, skis, sleds, ropes, food, and fuel, a group of four requires a lot of stuff. Loading one group with all their gear into the Otter increased ease of operation and safety tenfold.

Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Lodge in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was one of the first to buy a converted DHC–3 with a 1,000-horsepower turbine engine by Garrett Aviation in Texas. Claus says that even after flying the Otter for thousands of hours, he is still learning about its amazing capabilities. He has landed at 15,000 feet with crews of science camps, including massive amounts of research gear, with better performance than a Super Cub. Claus says the reverse thrust function of the Turbine Otter has averted disaster more than once when landing on the short and sometimes icy strip near their family lodge, where one end of the runway drops off into a large glacier-fed river. Claus has performed demonstrations at the popular Valdez STOL Competition and Fly-in Air Show. Although there is no competition category for the larger Otter, the Otter has outperformed even the most tricked-out Piper Super Cubs.

The Turbine Otter conversion kit has made it a reliable aircraft for Talkeetna Air Taxi, which was the first to pass the required FAA safety test to fly IFR into the Alaska Range. The rapid weather changes in the Alaska Range have historically made for stressful decision making for pilots, but the Otter’s ability to climb up and out of the weather, file a IFR flight plan with Anchorage Center, and shoot an approach into Talkeetna has provided not only a broader safety margin, but more revenue flights for the company. Talkeetna Air Taxi is popular with adventure groups, including mountaineers and climbers, rafters, and even a remote horse farm on the other side of the Alaska Range. Paul Roderick, TAT owner and operator, says Otters make it easy to load and unload bulky cargo and have a large center-of-gravity envelope. In addition to the busy summer months of scenic flights in the Alaska Range, winter months and frozen lakes make for ideal conditions to fly heavily loaded skiplanes with cabin kits for hardy builders.

Three years ago, Talkeetna Air Taxi received a unusual request to transport Icelandic horses to a remote region across the Alaska Range called Big River. Morgan Beasley and Margaret Stern of the Apricity Alaska Homestead were building upon their herd of Icelandic horses. They needed an aircraft big enough to fit two stallions for an hour and half flight. The pony-size horses were trailered up from British Columbia. The trainers had spent an extra month or so training the horses and thought providing a bale of hay during the flight would keep them occupied and content. The TAT crew built a ramp and spent an hour walking the horses up and down it to get the horses acquainted with the confined space, which was not much different from a horse trailer.“We fired up the Otter, taxied, and took off with the trainers and Morgan Beasley on board,” Roderick said. “They were some of the most easy-going passengers we had all summer. They basically just ate hay.” After an uneventful landing on the 1,800-foot-long rocky strip, “We unloaded the first horse and then the other one just jumped out,” he said. “It did not like being in there alone.”

Danial Doty, a pilot and mechanic for Talkeetna Air Taxi, raves about the reliability of the Turbine Otter and ease of maintenance. The turbine engine doesn’t take nearly the maintenance of the larger radial engines like the Pratt & Whitney R-985 of the Beaver. “The 985 definitely takes a lot of hands-on attention to be happy for both the mechanic and the pilot,” she said. “The Turbine Otter, well, once they are started, they run really well.”

Otters have big wing spans—nearly 60 feet—and pilots have been known to do some damage trying to fit too many in limited space on the ramp. Yet, the benefits of the ease of loading tourists into the Otter with lots of elbow room to spare makes it a comfortable ride up into the rocky spires and rugged glaciers of the Alaska Range.

The Otter’s quiet engine is another advantage over its predecessor, the Cessna 185. Everyone knows when 185s come and go—and not everyone likes airplane noise when trying to take in the serenity of Denali National Park. Dave Hicks of N2 Alaska, who flew for TAT in the 1990s, has been stuck overnight more than once with his Cessna 185. Snowshoes, shovels, and stove are essential items on board as well as a passenger willing to pack out an airstrip in deep snow.

In the 1990s, glacier runway environments were far less travelled, and some days the rustic Sheldon Mountain House became the shelter for the night. Roderick says there is not much that would keep an Otter from getting out of the range, as the wide skis, powerful engine, and STOL kit make it a remarkable performer.

However, the overhead and operational costs of the Turbine Otter can be daunting, especially with up to six on a flight line. Maintenance can also be challenging since so few DHC–3s were produced. Keeping ahead of the game is key. Companies like K2 and TAT have maintenance staff who are masters of online research of parts. They keep a keen eye on what parts regularly need to be replaced, and they purchase and stockpile them for future use. The tailwheels on Otters landing on glaciers tend to take a beating, and the conversion to 1,000 horsepower may also take a toll on the body of the aircraft. Strict FAA maintenance rules and regulations keep the maintenance side of the business busy, and mechanics are often at the Talkeetna post office eager for boxes of valuable parts to arrive, especially in the summertime.

Without a doubt, the sound of the DHC–2 Beaver’s radial engine, along with its rustic charm and irresistible interior, cannot be replaced, not even with the Turbine Otter. Dave Lee of Sheldon Air Service squeezes loads of climbers and gear into the lovely Beaver—and his flights may enjoy the lower altitudes and sights of the Alaska Range with passengers elbow to elbow, knee to knee. But these days the Beaver, 185, and Super Cub are limited to single-pilot operators like N2 Aviation and Sheldon Air Service.

What does the future hold for aircraft companies that are secretly drawing up designs for aircraft that could replace the Otter? Perhaps the Turbine Otter will still be the preferred aircraft, lifting the spirits of passengers, soaring among granite spires with timeless glacial rivers below.

Katie Writer is an Alaska pilot and journalist who enjoys the slow speeds of her Piper Super Cub for aerial photography.

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