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  • Joey Karrigan

The de Havilland Otter: The Workhorse of the North

Updated: Feb 25

Introducing de Havilland Canada

The de Havilland Canada company had, since WWII, “made itself one of the most successful aircraft manufacturers in the world” (Sean Rossiter, Otter & Twin Otter, 1) by an industrial ingenuity that designed each plane to surpass the payload of the former while taking off from a 1,000-foot dirt strip. With importance placed on Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) performance, which also allows planes to fly slowly with heavy loads, the DHC-3 Otter has become the quintessential bush plane, staying in demand more than 50 years after it first took flight in 1951.


Photo Credit: Melissa Karrigan

The Origins of the DHC-3 Otter

The DHC-3 Otter is based upon the design of the highly successful DHC-2 Beaver, which distinguished de Havilland Canada as producer of some of the world's best Short Takeoff and Landing aircraft. The DHC-2 Beaver is considered by many to be the best bush plane ever built, having the ability to get in and get out of some of the most remote locations in the world. The Otter was designed to be the same, but with a greater payload capacity, larger cabin, and the ability to carry more passengers.


Due to their unique design emphasis on Short Takeoff and Landing, Otters rank among the most versatile aircraft in the world, having been used “as fire-fighting water-bombers and as interurban air buses. Able to out-perform the helicopters of the time, U.S. military Otters have explored Alaska and Antartica. Otters have made both war and peace, as front-line supply haulers in Vietnam and as the backbone of United Nations peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East” (Otter & Twin Otter, Front Dust Jacket).


Photo Credit: Viking Air

The Advantages of the Otter—The Quintessential Big Bush Plane

One of the most significant advantages of the DHC-3 Otter is its excellent Short Takeoff and Landing ability. This enables landing on and taking off from short air strips, lakes when equipped with floats, and even ice fields when equipped with skis. When flight testing the first Otter, chief test pilot George Neal remarked that the Otter “was very eager to get airborne” (Otter & Twin Otter, 68), able to get in the air in just over the distance of three football fields long.


Photo Credit: Janet Lawton

For passengers, the Otter surpasses the Beaver because the cabin features both a seat for each passenger and a window for each seat, along with additional legroom, enabling not only more passengers in the cabin but also a more comfortable viewing experience. This makes for better flight seeing through the beauties of Kachemak Bay, as well as excellent views of Katmai National Park during the ride in and out of the park. Outfitting the Otter with a turbine engine makes for a quieter cabin, safer flying, and allows for both higher cruising altitudes and speeds. The DHC-3 Otter is the perfect airborne amphibian with excellent viewing.


Each seat has a window aboard the DHC-3 Otter.

Why Emerald Air Flies the de Havilland Turbine Otter

Perhaps the most important reason that that Emerald Air Service flies the DHC-3 Otter is because it can be equipped with floats. A sea plane allows us the best possible access into Katmai National Park, which features some of the best brown viewing locations in the world. Katmai is filled with lakes, which only a float plane can access, as well as plenty of shoreline that affords us the ability to find the best locations for bear viewing for that particular day.


Secondly, and this is part of the first reason, the Otter has excellent Short Takeoff and Landing performance, which, on a sea plane equipped with floats, allows the use of smaller bodies of water within Katmai National Park and Preserve. Some of the lakes we land on are not very large, and every foot counts when you need several hundred yards to get in the air.


Third, the Otter features a much roomier cabin, with greater leg room, an individual seat for each passenger, and a dedicated window for each passenger. This makes the 2.5 hours worth of air travel during a bear viewing trip more comfortable and enjoyable, as the Kachemak Bay offers beautiful, panoramic vistas.


Fourth, in line with the third reason, the roomier cabin allows for up to 10 passengers, which provides an ideal size for bear viewing trips with dedicated naturalist guides.


Lastly, though not specific to the Otter in particular, but to the turboprop Otter, Emerald Air Service makes use of latest technologies by flying a turbine-outfitted DHC-3 Otter for safer flying, cleaner climbing, a higher altitude ceiling, and increased overall top speed.


On the left, one of Emerald Air Service's DHC-3 Otters

Emerald Air Service flies the DHC-3 Otter because, as the quintessential bush plane, it provides the classic Alaska bush experience, which is precisely what we aim for in our guided expeditions into the wilderness of Katmai National Park and Preserve.


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