Karle Hayes & Eamon Power
This article appears in 'Propliner' magazine and I am grateful to the Editor Tony Merton Jones for permission to reproduce the story and the more so to Karle and Eamon who wrote it.
Travel to the San Juan Islands situated off North America's Pacific coastline to take a look at the unique operations of Aeronautical Services
To quote from a previous commentary on the subject, "Rolling under the Otter's wings was a lush panorama of celadon islands, sparkling sapphire water dotted with the occasional ferryboat, wildflowers playing out a banquet of colour, pastoral farmland, azure ponds and lakes, tall pine and fir trees - a visual feast for the pilot's eye at low altitude".
The location so eloquently described by the writer is the San Juan Islands, situated some 90 miles northwest of Seattle, an archipelago between mainland Washington State and Canada's Vancouver Island. The Otter referred to is one operated by Aeronautical Services Inc., and the quote comes from a fall 1993 article published in 'Airliners' magazine, which first brought this unique operation to the attention of aviation enthusiasts.
FORMER MILITARY OTTER
There are more than 100 islands, many of them very small and uninhabited, but twenty or so of the larger islands are inhabited year round. The islands also have a strong tourist industry during the summer months. To service the islands, bringing around the mail, passengers and freight, Aeronautical Services Inc., was formed in 1973 based at Friday Harbor, the capital of the San Juan Islands. The company started in a small way with a single Cessna 206, but prospered and built up a fleet of Cessna 207's. In 1980 an associated company, West Isle Air, took over the passenger operation with a fleet of single-engined Cessna's, leaving Aeronautical Services to fly the freight. It was awarded a contract by United Parcels Service (UPS) to service the San Juan Islands on their behalf and for the contract the company acquired its first DHC-3 Otter N357AS, a former Canadian Air Forces machine, which was still in its military scheme when delivered to Friday Harbor on July 20 1985.
This Otter, which took its registration from its constructor's number (c/n 357), was first delivered to the RCAF in May 1960 as serial 9402 and spent most of its military career based at St Hubert, Montreal. It was one of the final twenty Otters in Canadian military service, placed into storage at the Mountain View, Trenton, Ontario storage depot and offered for sale by the Canadian Assets Disposal Corporation. It was acquired in November 1982 by aircraft broker Mike Hackman Aircraft Sales, registered C-GVMC. Its logbook records its lengthy ferry flight to the Hackman base at Edmonton, Alberta, leaving Mountain View on November 28 1982, and routing to Port Huron-Marshall-Battle Creek, Michigan-La Crosse, Wisconsin-Pierre, South Dakota-Glasgow, North Dakota-Edmonton, where it arrived on December 5 1982 after a ferry flight lasting 25 hours.
Its next operator was King's Construction Ltd., of Grimshaw, Alberta, who used the aircraft during 1983 and 1984, still painted in its military scheme. The log book records flights from Edmonton and Grimshaw to locations where construction projects were on-going, with pilot King at the controls, to remote locations such as Peace River, Vtikuma, Shaftesbury, Lubicon, Talbot and Joker Lake. During the winter, the Otter flew on wheel-ski's, enabling it to land on the frozen lakes. In 1985, the Otter was sold to Aeronautical Services, and flew Edmonton-Boeing Field-Friday Harbor on July 20 1985 on delivery. Two days later it was registered N357AS and awarded its American certificate of airworthiness. It was still painted in Canadian military scheme, which it was to retain for several more years, before being repainted into the attractive Aeronautical Services blue paint scheme that she displays today.
The massive Otter brought a useful 3000 lb of payload to the Aeronautical Services operation, and proved ideally suited to plying the islands. So impressed with the Otter operation were UPS that they asked the company to service a contract between Long Beach, California and Catalina Island, and for this task a second Otter was acquired, N98T, which joined the fleet in September 1986. Unlike the first Otter, N98T had no military background. It had been delivered in 1956 to Taxi Air Group of Detroit and used on a pioneering inter-city shuttle operation between downtown Detroit and Cleveland during the summer months and between points in Florida during the winter. This lasted until 196, after which N98T served as a bush aircraft in Alaska, first with Sea Airmotive and later with Peninsula Airways, with whom it distinguished itself by crashing five times, testifying to the rugged nature of the bush Otter. Its last prang was in July 1981 at South Naknek, Alaska, after which it was trucked down to Seattle for a lengthy rebuild. Completely restored, it was acquired by Aeronautical Services, who went on to operate it for seven years without a single incident.
The company established a branch at Long Beach, California, where one of the Otters was based, flying daily out to Catalina Island and continued to fly the other Otter around the San Juan Islands. The Long Beach based Otter returned to Friday Harbor every six months, both for reasons of maintenance and because it saved having to pay a California State tax if the aircraft was only in the state for six months. This led to numerous 'Otter swaps', when the Long Beach Otter headed north, exchanging roles with the San Juan based aircraft which migrated south. Although a fine aircraft in every respect, it has to be said that the DHC-3 does not go very fast, which led to some length ferry flights. On one occasion, one of the Otters made it direct from Friday Harbor to Sacramento, California and then on to Long Beach but that was at the limit of its range. A more typical ferry flight was teh flight north, leaving Catalina flying first to Madeira, California, landing on a lonely crop-duster strip to pick up a spare engine, then on to Chico, California-Eugene, Oregan, Bayview/Skagit Regional Airport, Washington and on to Friday Harbor.
A third Otter joined the fleet in April 1988, another former Canadian military aircraft serial 3692, whose last military posting had been with 438 Squadron at St Hubert. Here it had served in nothing less than the VIP role, plushly fitted out with sofas and the like. Withdrawn from service by March 1982, it too was flown to Mountain View and put up for disposal, its airframe time standing at 7,752 hours on leaving military service. Along with six other CAF Otters, 3692 was bought by Newcal Aviation who specialised in de Havilland Canada aircraft and spares, and they were all flown to a grass strip at Decatur, Texas, where they were stored. It appears that the market for second-hand Otters must have been somewhat flat at the time, as they were to languish in the open at Decatur for some years. However, they were all eventually sold, including 3692, now registered N2634Y (59), which was acquired by Aeronautical Services in October 1987.
The company pilot arrived at Decatur to collect the new acquisition, which looked somewhat the worse for wear after its five years under the Texan sun and rain. Some of the others were in worse shape. Not having been properly tied down, they had been so rocked by the winds that both wingtips were bent! The pilot managed to get N2634Y started, and it performed well on its sixteen-hour ferry flight over the route Decatur-Goodland, Kansas-Rock Springs, Wyoming-Baker, Oregon-Friday Harbor. It was later flown the twenty miles or so across the water to Sidney, British Columbia, where Victoria Air Maintenance gave it a complete overhaul, taking out the plush sofa's and old, heavy military radios, and converting the Otter into an efficient freighter. The work was completed in April 1988.
Students of such things will note that in the month of April 1988 this Otter was re-registered C-FBNI to Victoria Air Maintenance, before reverting to N2634Y. It transpires that the Canadian Department of Transport had to certify the work done on the aircraft, but will not inspect an American-registered aircraft. Accordingly it was Canadian registered for the occasion, performed its test flight as such, once round the circuit at Sidney and then reverted to its American identity. It then joined the Aeronautical Services fleet as their third Otter.
FLYING BOAT OPERATOR TAKEN OVER
Just as with the San Juan Island operation, the Long Beach-Catalina Island run had proved a great success, so much so that in 1989 the owners of Aeronautical Services purchased Long Beach-based Catalina Flying Boats Inc., and used this company to service Catalina Island. Catalina Flying Boats, as befitted its name, had been operating a fleet of two Grumman Goose aircraft (N1257A and N69263) on its service to Catalina Island. The new owners, although retaining the companies name, disposed of the two flying boats and instead acquired three Beech 18s. At that stage, the Otters were withdrawn from Long Beach and from 1990 onwards were based exclusively at Friday Harbor, serving the San Juan Islands only. Catalina Flying Boats continued operations with its three Beech 18 freighters (N18R, N911E and N9375Y) and over the following years the business grew to such an extent that the Beech 18s were often flying eight or nine round trips each day. It became clear that a larger aircraft was required and Catalina Flying Boats decided on a DC-3.
This decision was to have an effect on the San Juan Islands operation, which was then using three Otters. Two Otters were sufficient for the operation and the opportunity arose to exchange an Otter for a DC-3. Accordingly in May 1993 Otter N98T left the Aeronautical Services fleet and Catalina Flying Boats acquired much needed DC-3 capacity in the shape of N403JB. N98T's next operator was Ketchikan Air Service in Alaska and it joined their fleet in June 1993. Sadly to relate, it did not survive long in its new environment. On November 10 1993 it suffered engine failure, ditched in Thorne Bay not far from Ketchikan, and sank.
Catalina Flying Boats continue to this day as a sister company of Aeronautical Services, their current fleet being two Beech 18s (N18Rand N9375Y) and two DC-3s (N403JB and N2298C). They had intended to place a DCH-4 Caribou in to service on the runs to Catalina Island and acquired N9249Q, a former military C-7B variant, which sat for a time at Long Beach while an assessment was made of the work necessary for the FAA to licence the Caribou for commercial service. In the end, the project proved not to be viable, and N9249Q was put up for sale. It was acquired by the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and on April 14 1999 was ferried from Long Beach via El Paso and Waco, Texas and Meridian, Mississippi, to its new home at Tara Field near Hampton, Georgia.
To return to Aeronautical Services, while the three Otters were in use, on rare occasions all three aircraft flew together in formation, which must certainly have been some sight an sound. The last time this occurred, however was a sad affair. The company's president had been killed in the crash of a Beech Bonanza in October 1992 and during the memorial ceremonies at Friday Harbor, all three Otters flew overhead in a formation tribute. N98T and N2634Y have soldiered on, and are still as active as ever. [see note later]
Of the 466 Otters built, some 190 are still in active service, mostly serving as bush aircraft in remote parts of Canada and Alaska. They fly hunters and fishermen to lodges, fly mineral exploration personnel to mining camps, cargo and passengers to native villages and settlements. The two Aeronautical Services Otters, however, are unique in the year-round cargo service they provide in what, compared to areas where other Otters operate, is a relatively populated region. The style of flying called for though is very akin to operations in the bush.
Although one of the ultimate bush planes, the Otter has been criticised as being somewhat under-powered, and there have been many instances of engine failure. this led to a raft of re-engining projects, replacing the original 600 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial with the PT-6A turbine and the Polish PZL 1,000 hp piston engine. Aeronautical Services have never encountered any such problems, but they are fortunate in having excellent pilots and good maintenance. A re-conditioned R-1340 radial engine costs $23,000 as opposed to half a million dollars for a PT-6A turbo-prop. The trade-off is the greatly reduced maintenance costs of the turbine, but Aeronautical Services are sticking with the original powerplant.
Not far from the San Juan Islands, at Bellingham on the mainland, a DHC-3T turbine Otter is based which provides an interesting comparison with the 'classic' Otter. N79JJ is a former Indonesian Air Force aircraft converted to turbine power and is painted in a somewhat unusual scheme, mainly overall grey with a white 'skull and crossbones' The owner, it is reported, made is money from the sale of sunglasses and must have made lots of it as he also has a matching turbo-Beaver. He owns an island in the San Juan's, and flies up to Bellingham in his executive jet before transferring to his Otter or beaver, and flying out to the island. This happens only occasionally and for the most part the Beaver and Otter are to be seen parked on the ramp. The contrast with the hard working Aeronautical Services Otters could not be more marked.
WITNESSING THE OTTER OPERATION
To view the Aeronautical Services operation at first hand we travelled to the Sa Juan Islands and were most graciously received, although on arrival at Friday Harbor on Tuesday September 21 last, no Otters were to be seen. It transpires that the current pattern of operation sees both aircraft over-nighting at the Bayview/Skagit Regional Airport, which s near Burlington on the mainland. Here each weekday morning the two Otters are loaded with UPS cargo brought in by truck and they take off around 07.30 arriving at Friday Harbor thirty minutes later. The two Otters usually fly over together and have been known to sometimes advise air traffic control that they are a 'twin-otter' flight!
On arrival at Friday Harbor, which is located on San Juan Island itself, the cargo destined for that island is unloaded and delivered around the island by truck, and the two Otters then depart on separate circuits around the other islands, distributing the packages they have brought in and collecting outgoing cargo for delivery to the mainland. The Otters arrive back at Friday Harbor around mid-day and remain there until 14.20 in the afternoon. By that stage the outgoing cargo from San Juan Island has been collected by the trucks and is loaded aboard the Otters, which then return to Bayview on the mainland. From Bayview the cargo is trucked down to Seattle and enters the UPS mainline system. The Otters remain at Bayview until the next morning and then repeat the process all over again.
Conditions at Friday Harbor on the morning of our arrival on September 21 were ideal, with warm temperatures and a clear blue sky. The Cessna's of West Isle Air came and went on their passenger and mail services around the islands. The Cessna 208 Caravans of Harbour Air which link Friday Harbor with Seattle on passenger schedules for Alaska Airlines were also to be seen. There was a Federal Express Caravan and a veteran Beech 18 of Methow Aviation, which flies the mail from Paine Field to Friday Harbor for the US Post Office. Passing overhead at low altitude were four US Navy F-18 Hornets in battle formation, inbound to nearby Whidbey Naval Air Station, adding to the diversity of aircraft to be seen. By 09.30, however, there was still no sign of the Otters and it transpired the were 'socked-in' by thick fog at Bayview. Much to our relief they did arrive shortly after ten o'clock and the unloading of the inbound cargo immediately got underway.
No sooner had the Otter's cavernous interior been emptied of cargo that the packages for the other islands were loaded on board. Looking at the many brown boxes being stuffed inside the Otter, there was an amazing selection of contents. Flowers, computers, a bicycle, machine parts, tyres from Taiwan, cans of oil, gardening equipment, household goods of all sorts, to name but a few. Soon the cabin was full to capacity and the 3000 lb maximum load had been reached, as testified by the Otters tyres, which were visibly sagging under the weight.
A TYPICAL DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN OTTER
An illustration of a typical morning's flying is provided by the activities of N357AS that day. Lift off from Friday Harbor was at 10.48, the Otter leaping into the air after a short run despite the heavy load. There followed an eleven minute flight to Anacortes on the mainland, where the cargo was unloaded and new cargo taken on board, followed by another eleven minute sector to Eastsound on Orcas Island and then a nine minute leg to Friday Harbor. Having serviced the larger islands, it was time to deal with some of the smaller ones. A four minute flight to Shaw followed, landing on a very narrow and hilly strip cut into a forest. From Shaw, it was a five minute flight to Blakley Island and then a 'long' eleven minute flight north to Stuart Island, before a nine minute sector back to Friday Harbor, where N357Y blocked on at 13.09 hours, its mornings work complete. N2634Y had also been busy during the morning, its tasking having been Friday Harbor-Anacortes-Eastsound-Ancortes-Lopez-Friday Harbor.
We were again privileged to accompany the Otters the next day, but awoke to find Friday Harbor enveloped in thick fog, with zero visibility. Ironically conditions on the mainland were perfectly clear, where the two Otters sat on the ramp at Bayview. The fog came down during the night and with advanced warning that the flying schedule was going to be disrupted, UPS and put the cargo on the ferry which plies from the mainland to the islands. The fog eventually lifted and the two Otters arrived at Friday Harbor around eleven o'clock, hours late. There was still some work for them to do and N357AS departed Friday Harbor for Center Island, a seven minute flight, followed by a hop of less than one minute (apparently in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's shortest scheduled airline service) to Decatur Island.
The turn around at Decatur was typical of what occurs at these small islands. No one arrives to greet the Otter. The pilot brings the few packages for this destination into a small wooden hut on the airstrip, picks up the outgoing parcels and having been on the ground for all of six minutes, is airborne again for the return sector to Friday Harbor. This sector proved to be slightly longer than usual, as N357AS met up with N2634Y which had flown Friday Harbor-Shaw-Blakley and was itself returning from Blakley to Friday Harbor, the two Otters formating for some memorable air to air photography.
That concluded our visit to the picturesque San Juan Islands and our acquaintance with the two remarkable Otters of Aeronautical Services. As at September 21 1999 N357AS had amassed 12,065 hours on its airframe, and N2634Y 13,165 hours, for both aircraft a combination of many years of faithful service for the Canadian military, followed by their current, much appreciated role providing an important and reliable delivery service for the inhabitants of the San Juan Islands.
The authors would like to express their most grateful thanks to all at Aeronautical Services and in particular to Danny Monahan of ASI Maintenance and pilots Rich Herman and Elton Hanneman for such an enjoyable and worthwhile visit.
N357AS (357) is now flying as C-FHAA on floats for Harbour Air.
N2634Y (59) is last known with Points North as C-GIWQ.