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Why I love the Twin Otter

Yesterday the good news came that the missing MLA from the Nunavut legislature, Pauloosie Keyootak, his 16-year-old son, and his 47-year-old nephew, were all found alive more than a week after being lost in Baffin Island's unforgiving tundra. For days searchers had scanned some 15,000 sq kilometers of snowy, barren landscape in high winds and -35 C weather, with spotters in airplanes and helicopters and others in snowmobiles on the ground.

 For me a wonderful tidbit in the happy conclusion is that it was spotters in a Twin Otter who found them, way off the trio's intended course.

I love the Twin Otter, aka the pickup truck of the sky.  

 This past summer I spent 17 days flying all over the high arctic to celebrate the iconic plane's 50th anniversary. I was with a team from Victoria's Viking Air, the company that has successfully brought the plane back into production after de Havilland stopped producing it in the late 1980s. The trip was homage to the places that made the Twin Otter famous, where it built its reputation as a workhorse and the most hardy, reliable STOL plane in the sky.

Many friends have asked, puzzled, "Why were you on that trip again?" Let's just say it was a confluence of luck and circumstance, an adventure of a life-time that I could not turn down, even if it was far outside my usual day job as a health care communications consultant.

Over the 17 days we flew to Yellowknife, Cambridge Bay, Resolute, Pond Inlet, back to Resolute, back to Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Inuvik, Fort Good Hope, and Norman Wells. Fog kept us out of Gjoa Haven, Tuktoyaktuk, and Sachs Harbour.

 My title was "Ground Lead," which meant I was in the advance plane, a faster Beechcraft King Air turboprop that arrived first in our locations.  I'd put out treats for the kids, and set up a display of colourful flags and banners and a table with a wing rib for locals to sign. A wing rib is an inner supportive strut that gives the wing strength, lightness and lift. We had some 20 ribs with us, all destined to be installed in the 100th Series 400 Twin Otter plane, which should be under construction any day now at Viking's Sidney plant.

 In some places the crowds were small but eager. In Pond Inlet, the lineup waiting to meet us snaked out the building. I, the crowds, and a documentary film crew traveling with us, would all be ready when the slower Twin Otter made a dramatic entrance in the sky, landing on the strip to applause from the locals. The dignitaries (the Viking Air President and the company owners) would disembark from the Twin Otter and the celebration would begin with speeches, commemorative gifts and the wing rib signing.

I was amazed how much people loved signing the wing rib—it had real meaning to put their name on something they valued that would soon be flying the skies. "You will go up in history," I would quip at each location and locals would laugh, pleased. The best part was hearing the Twin Otter stories of the people who signed. 

Many had a personal connection why they had come to the airport to greet the plane and sign the rib. A midwife told me of the babies she had delivered, in mid air, transporting labouring Inuit women in the Twin. "Some of those deliveries were so scary because of the difficult labours, but I never once worried about the plane. I knew it would get us through." She described her favourite time, after the mom and babe had been happily transported back to their home community, when the pilots would fly home low along the landscape. "It was so beautiful and peaceful." 

Geologists told me of the prospecting they'd done with the Twin. Pilots told me of the fun they'd had flying it, "There is nothing like that baby on skis," said one. Others joked how the Twin in the north "always smelled of kerosene and whale meat."

In Inuvik a young woman named Lanita Thrasher, who is one of the first female Inuit pilots, told me how the Twin Otter made her decide to learn to fly: "I was 13 and it was a very scary flight — very bad turbulence and bad weather. My mother and all the other women on the flight were crying, but the pilots were really calm. I decided I wanted to learn all about flying so I could be calm like them." 

In Cambridge Bay, Rick Ekpakohak told me how when he was 13 years old, in 1967, he and his 8-year-oldRick Ekpakohak and his wife Mary. He was rescued at age 13 by a Twin Otter  cousin got lost on the tundra while hunting with relatives in mid February. They were lost for almost three days. Legendary Cambridge Bay pilot Willy Laserich was out looking for them night and day in his Twin Otter. He found them, huddled by a rock on a high point of land. Ekpakohak told me Laserich flew over a few times, took a bright orange toque, put food and a note in it and dropped it from the plane so it landed near them. The note told them to go a location nearby where he could land. It was very rough ground, heaving with wind sculpted ice. Laserich got the plane down, rescued the boys, and was able to take off in near impossible conditions. "He gunned it, put the flaps down and it hopped into the air in a few feet," said Ekpakohak. "The Twin Otter saved my life." 

As the technical manuals boast, the plane was designed for “high lift performance in marginal conditions.” I witnessed some of the Twin Otter's renowned capabilities first hand. Coming back from Pond Inlet to Resolute strong cross winds bedeviled the single landing strip. The King Air got in, but with the Twin Otter more than an hour behind us, the winds continued to build. "They may have to bail and go back to Pond, it is getting too dangerous," our King Air pilots said. We watched the Twin Otter approach in gale force crosswinds. It did a looping fly over and appeared to be turning around. "They're heading back to Pond," we thought. But no. Pilots Ariel Pettigrew and Sylvain Breault did another approach, this time sideways to the strip. They flew head into the strong wind, as slow as a hovering hummingbird, over the top of the airport. Astonishingly, they landed and stopped in the width of the narrow runway. We were jubilant on the apron.

A NAV Canada technician, Francois Gravel, caught it all on his cell phone."Holy Shit!" he says on the footage. "I’ve never seen nothing like that!"  Later, when he showed the clip to me, he said he was sure he was filming a plane crash. "I'd heard the Twin Otter could do that, but I'd never seen it done."

During our tour I rarely got to fly in the Twin Otter myself. So on the final day, when a volunteer was needed to join pilots Breault and Pettigrew and our mechanic on the slower Twin Otter flight back to Victoria, I happily complied.  The King Air left with 6 passengers and two  pilots the night before. The next morning, Saturday July 19, in a plane chock full of our gear and luggage, the two Twin Otter pilots, the mechanic and I left Norman Wells for the 10+ hour flight back to Victoria.

"On the first stretch, we have to go up over the mountains, but the weather is pretty bad, so we may have to go pretty high," said Breault showing me the route. Since the Twin is an unpressurized plane, anything over 13,000ft means we would need to use supplemental oxygen. 

We took off and began to climb, first through rain, then sleet. The mountains were 9,000 feet . We climbed 11,000 ft, 12,000 ft, 13,000 ft,  all the time in hard driving sleet and snow.  I looked out the window to see ice building up in thick layers on the wings and struts of the plane. It was two inches thick and building. Ice was flying off the propeller and hitting the plane skin and windows: ding, ding, ding, like pebbles on a metal can. I decided it was best not to look out the window. 

 Pilot Breault came back and put on the supplemental oxygen – tubes and a mustache-like bolus of plastic under my nose. He put a pulsimeter on my finger to measure whether I was getting enough oxygen and showed me how it increase the flow with a valve on the line.  “What happens if I don’t get enough?” I asked. “You’ll black out,” he said.

He seemed calm, matter of fact. I took my queue from him. I’d panic if they panicked. He and his partner Pettigrew have thousands of hours flying Twins.   As a pair they deliver brand new planes off the Viking production line to clients all over the world. They fly planes filled with bladders of fuel in the fuselage, like flying with a huge bomb. They have flown in everything. The highest altitude they'll take a Twin Otter is 22,000 ft. That is when a delivery route takes them over North Korea. “We have to go that high but it’s not fun that high,” said Pettigrew. 

 I could see them in the cockpit constantly refreshing the weather map, over and over, this green enormous mass of ugly precipitation all around.  “We are going to have to go higher to get out of this stuff,” said Breault — 14,000 ft, 15,000 ft. Still sleet was building up ice on the wings. I don’t know if it was thin air or pure terror, but I found it hard to breathe, 16,000 ft, 17,000 ft. The potato chip bags in our snack supply exploded. I put on my iPod, to classical music shuffle, hoping relaxing music might calm the quiet trapped panic I was feeling, but the songs didn’t help: Mozart Requiem, Brahms Requiem. Acck, try pop!! Up came Taylor Swift’s “Last time.”  Dylan’ “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door." I'd laugh under less alarming circumstances. 

At 18,000 ft we finally broke through the heavy precipitation into clear blue sky. The relief was palpable all around.  The ice fell off. We flew for about an hour at this high altitude. My hands swelled up, rings tight on my fingers, dull headache.  Then it was time to descend, back down through the ugly black cloud of sleet and snow. We iced up again; ding, ding ding on the fuselage. I closed my eyes. When we landed safely, I felt drained but exhilarated. 

“Was that as bad as I thought it was?” I asked Breault and Pettigrew once we were safely on the ground in Watson Lake. 

“It wasn’t pleasant,” said Pettigrew. “We wanted to get out of it.”

 “Was all that ice dangerous?”

 “The Twin Otter can take about 5,000 lbs of ice on its wings before having trouble.”

 “How much did we have?”

 “Hmm, maybe 2,000-3,000lbs. But we had a really heavy cargo load. So we wanted to get out of that weather.”

 The rest of the flight from Watson Lake to Smithers to Victoria was phenomenally beautiful. We flew at about 1000 ft, or lower, over the rolling Chilcotin, past the Lillooet Ice fields and stunning Mount Waddington, out Bute Inlet, over Desolation Sound and the Gulf Islands. At times we were flying so low it was as if we could see what people were reading on their Gulf Island decks. They’d look up and wave.

We arrived back into Victoria at 6:30 pm. That day I had the full Twin Otter experience, from a white knuckle, bad weather nightmare to the glorious soaring of blue sky flight.

And when I step back on the ground I thought, I really do love this plane.







Posted on Saturday, April 2, 2016 at 12:40PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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    Anne Mullens - Journal - Why I love the Twin

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