Air Apparent

The Twin Otter flies again

Photograph by Grant Harder

There is nothing like the smell of a new airplane. Imagine new-car smell on steroids. This particular airplane is a Twin Otter 400, built by Viking Air of Victoria and priced at $6.5 million (all figures US). It is being readied for delivery to a customer in the United Arab Emirates. Another parked beside it is destined for a well-heeled private pilot in Australia.

In 2006, the manufacturer acquired the rights to seven aircraft types built by de Havilland Canada (DHC) in the decades after World War II. The prize was the DHC-6 Twin Otter, a twin-engined, nineteen-seat commercial airplane first flown in the mid-1960s and sold in the hundreds worldwide until it went out of production in 1988. Viking started building an upgraded version in 2008. Its inaugural flight on February 16, 2010, made history: after being shelved for more than two decades it was the first time a major commercial airplane had successfully gone back into production. The one whose newness I am inhaling is the thirty-second model the company has delivered since manufacturing resumed. With fifty-five more on order and production forecast to run for at least ten years, the marketplace seems to be asking, what took you so long?

Angie Murray, who works in Viking’s marketing and business development department, hands me earplugs as she escorts me around a spotless new 85,000-square-foot plant on the fringe of Victoria International Airport, but apart from the Bon Jovi cranking out of a boom box somewhere, the shop floor is remarkably quiet. I keep looking for some sort of nod to the history being made under the massive arched roof, but all I see are blue-shirted employees—part of a workforce of 575 divided between plants in Victoria and Calgary—driving rivets, stamping parts, and shaping pieces of green-painted aluminum into one of the greatest wings ever created.

Upstairs in the executive suite, president and CEO David C. Curtis is making arrangements to lead a sales and promotion team to the 2013 Paris Air Show, four days away. The son of a former British Columbia MLA, he caught the aviation bug flying around Haida Gwaii in de Havilland Beavers. He joined Viking Air thirty years ago, when it was a small family-owned operation specializing in repairs and spare parts for de Havilland products, and he rose through the ranks to the top job in 1991. Westerkirk Capital, a Toronto-based private equity firm controlled by third-generation Thomson newspaper heir Sherry Brydson, acquired Viking in 2003, giving Curtis the wherewithal to buy the type certificates for the seven discontinued de Havilland planes from Bombardier. The Quebec multinational had owned de Havilland since buying it from Boeing in 1992.

The epitome of West Coast casual, in dad jeans and an open-necked shirt, Curtis admits that the decision to start building Twin Otters again left some of his peers in the airplane business scratching their heads. “There was a fair amount of skepticism that we could do it,” he says. However, as a parts and service provider for the original, he was well positioned to listen to the chat around the industry water cooler. Operators couldn’t understand why de Havilland and its then parent, Boeing, stopped making Twin Otters in the first place. He also noted that used Twin Otters were appreciating rather than depreciating. The math said demand was still there, and with twenty advance orders Viking announced the next-generation Twin Otter in 2007.

A dozen rusting storage containers are stacked on the edge of the parking lot. There used to be a lot more. The company had to buy them to store seventeen transport truck loads of tools and other inventory it acquired as part of its deal with Bombardier. The stock had been tossed randomly into open-topped crates with no supporting documentation, and it took employees six months to sort through it and identify what they would need to restart production. Filling in the blanks meant scouring old de Havilland training manuals, photographs, and even movies of the Toronto assembly line, as well as bringing in former de Havilland staff to decipher such mysteries as the technical graffiti scrawled on the jigs used to build the Twin Otter’s famous wing.

Roughly 20,000 components go into each new Twin Otter. Some of them represent major upgrades over the original parts, in what are now considered legacy airplanes. Viking’s versions have more powerful, fuel-efficient engines, the same computerized avionics used in Gulfstream business jets, and composite materials to reduce weight. Developing and assembling the first one, and getting it into the air, took about three years. It was later delivered to a Swiss operator and is now flying in Africa. That first sale, for $4.5 million, set the tone for those that followed. “Pretty much all of our sales are in emerging markets,” says Curtis in something of an understatement. The company has sold Twin Otter 400s to resort operators in the Maldives, the Peruvian Air Force, the Vietnamese navy, the US Army, oil companies in the Middle East, leasing firms in Asia, and a Russian bush plane outfit. Curtis thinks the company will sell 400 in the next ten to fifteen years. At the current sticker price, that would amount to at least $2.6 billion in new orders for a plane whose origins reach back almost half a century.

So far, not a single order for a Viking Twin Otter has come from Canada, which Curtis attributes to a soft domestic market for new airplanes, thanks to the original’s durability; operators here don’t need new Twin Otters because their old ones are still flying. Still, it seems odd that the rest of the world prizes this historic Canadian plane more than Canadians do. If for nothing more than its longevity, the Twin Otter should spring to mind every time someone says the words “greatest Canadian airplane.” Apart from pilots, aerospace executives, and aviation geeks like me, though, it has never triggered much buzz. I’m beginning to think it never will—at least not until we get over our infatuation with the ghost of another airplane.

Photograph by Grant Harder
Riveting Some 20,000 parts go into the Twin Otter, now assembed by a workforce of 575 in Victoria and Calgary.

A while ago, I ran across some of my primary school projects from the early 1960s. Among them was one entitled “Aircraft Through the Ages.” I had glued plastic picture coins of airplanes from packets of Jell-O onto a piece of cardboard to form a heroic inverted V. Most of the coins had long since fallen off, but the one at the peak of the V was still there. It depicted an Avro Arrow racing across a cerulean sky, flames shooting out of its backside.

The coin was minted in 1961, just two years after John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government killed the Canadian high-performance jet interceptor, claiming that it was too expensive and that the advent of long-range missiles changed the country’s strategic priorities. The death sentence threw tens of thousands of aerospace workers onto the street, condemned the Arrow to an eternity as a world-class might-have-been, and spawned an Arrowhead subculture that is almost religious in its fervour and persistence.

Only six Arrows were completed, and only five ever flew. Your average Bay Street CEO spends more time in the air in a few months than all of the Arrows in history. Except for an earthbound replica built by volunteers, not a single intact specimen remains; almost everything to do with the Arrow was cut up for scrap half a century ago. Yet it haunts us still, in dozens of books, never-ending debates, museum exhibits, and dreamy lithographs of the white ghost streaking heavenward. You can even buy Arrow jewellery made by Kingston, Ontario, goldsmith Kim Snyder as a “badge of resistance to bad Conservative government decisions.” The Arrow may be a phantom, but it is a phantom with staying power. The glue has held, so to speak.

In September 2012, the Arrow resurfaced briefly when Global News reported that Stephen Harper’s government had been pitched a plan to resurrect the fifty-five-year-old plane as an alternative to the problem-plagued and increasingly expensive F-35 stealth jets from the United States. By the time Global aired the report, the Department of National Defence had already dismissed the scheme, but no matter: in Canada, the mere fact that the Arrow is in the news is news enough. The media jumped all over the story, quoting critics who said the plan was pure fantasyland and champions like retired Major General Lewis MacKenzie who said it might just fly. “Will legendary Avro Arrow make Lazarus-like return? ” inquired a headline in the Globe and Mail. The National Post ran an online poll asking readers how they felt about it; yeas outnumbered nays by more than eight to one.

Was the plan for real? I telephoned Marc Bourdeau, president of the company promoting it, who assured me that he and a platoon of volunteers were convinced the twenty-first-century Arrow would be an election issue in 2015, and that they were “forging ahead” with arrangements for a chain of factories across Ontario. Mind you, even one factory would be more than the factories the manufacturer now operates. Bourdeau Industries Ltd. has no experience building airplanes, no paid employees, and no office aside from Bourdeau’s home in suburban Ottawa. It does have a Facebook page, though, with a few hundred likes.

It’s time to get over the Arrow. It isn’t coming back—ever—and I suspect that deep down the Arrow faithful know it. Still, it is hard to let go, because the thing was so damned beautiful. The Royal Canadian Air Force asked Avro Canada for an interceptor that would fly faster and higher than anything else in the 1950s, and Avro delivered a work of art: 23.8 metres and 20,000 kilograms of form sublimely married to function. The Arrow, with its immense delta wing tapering surely toward infinity, was not so much an airplane as it was pure geometry that flew. I defy you to find a better-looking aircraft anywhere. Had it been ugly, maybe we wouldn’t have fallen so hard. Not that I have anything against beauty, but if you stare at it too long it can make you blind.

You can see a nose section, landing gear, and other pieces of the Avro Arrow at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, but that was not why I made a pilgrimage there. I wanted to see the first Twin Otter that ever took to the air. I bought a ticket and asked a craggy docent where I could find it. She replied that Twin Otter number one was in the museum’s reserve hangar, and that you can’t get in without pre-arranging a guided tour, no exceptions. I later learned that Twin Otter number one used to be part of the main public display but was moved in 2008 to make way for exhibits commemorating the centennial of powered flight in Canada. Centennial plus five, it is still there.

Naturally, I was chagrined to come away empty handed, but I was beginning to understand that while the Twin Otter is admired by operators around the world it doesn’t much matter to Canadians—not like a certain other plane, anyway. To test my theory, I drove to Aviation World, a superstore for airplane fanatics near Toronto Pearson International Airport. The place is jam packed with Canadian content, including plenty of Avro Arrow paraphernalia, but after a half-hour of scouring the shelves I came up with only one item of Twin Otter merchandise, and really it was just half an item: a 1998 book by Sean Rossiter entitled Otter and Twin Otter: The Universal Airplanes.

I asked Mark Pijanka, who was minding the store, if there was any other Twin Otter stuff in stock. He shook his head. Was there any other Twin Otter stuff, period? He shook his head again. No Twin Otter books, no DVDs, no snap-together models, certainly no Jell-O coins. It seems the best we can muster for the Twin Otter is the occasional “iconic,” and a $20 silver coin produced by the Royal Canadian Mint in 1999 as part of a series celebrating Canadian aviation.

The Twin Otter’s problem is that it has zero sex appeal. It is stumpy and slow; a Formula One race car would give it a run for its money in a dash down a straight track. Its stodgy high-lift wing is something only an engineer could love, and its fixed tricycle landing gear looks like a set of training wheels. If the Twin Otter were a hockey player, it would be Bobby Baun, not Bobby Orr. A Beatle? Ringo. Some airplanes command fear, others awe; the Twin Otter asks only to be considered good natured and reliable. Yet calling it a utility aircraft undersells its versatility. Whether for tundra, city, desert, polar ice cap, mountain, ocean, battleground, or playground—anywhere you need a hard-working plane that can take off and land in a heartbeat—the Twin Otter has been there and done it. Because they are so widely dispersed, it is hard to say exactly how many of the 844 built between 1966 and 1988 remain in service, but it could be as high as 600.

Michael J. Ody was probably the greatest admirer of the Twin Otter. I met him several years ago when I was hanging around with plane spotters at Pearson. He was a soft-spoken, gracious British expat who had worked in the air cargo business. The word around the airport was that he had assembled a huge cache of information about airplanes produced by de Havilland Canada after World War II, and the Twin Otter was his favourite. After he died in 2011, his kin in the aviation fraternity decided to create a memorial by using his collection to build an online archive, with pictures, describing every Twin Otter ever built.

One sunny morning, I sat on a bench outside Victoria’s seaplane terminal and waited to board Westcoast Air’s flight 340 to Vancouver. I tapped C-GQKN, the registration number stencilled on the plane’s tail, into my smart phone, and a Twin Otter archive entry popped up on the screen. It showed that my plane was forty-six years old, the ninety-fourth Twin Otter built, rolling out of the de Havilland plant in Toronto on December 15, 1967, and taking to the air three weeks later. Scrolling down the fact sheet, I pieced together its history, beginning with more than a decade of jungle flying in Suriname, and followed by a move to Canada’s West Coast in the 1980s, brief turns with an Alberta skydiving operation and an Edmonton mining company, a couple of stints in mothballs, and eventually its sale to Westcoast Air in 1997. I could also see that it had been damaged in a hard landing in 1989, although on my thirty-five-minute flight to Vancouver it showed no ill effects from the accident or its advanced years. Taking off into a brisk headwind, it climbed to 1,500 feet above the Strait of Georgia, skimming over the trees in Stanley Park on final approach, and settling to a stop within seconds of touching down on the gunmetal waters of Vancouver’s Coal Harbour.

The archive shows that most Twin Otters retire gracefully, although many of the older ones—about 30 percent of those on file—have either been destroyed or damaged beyond repair in accidents, a high rate of attrition compared with that of mainstream aircraft such as the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320. “It’s usually not the fault of the airplane,” observes the archive’s co-founder, Neil Aird, an aviation artist who lives in Kingston. Unlike 737s or A320s, Twin Otters spend much of their working lives flying on the razor’s edge, where an inexperienced or overzealous pilot can quickly plow them into a jungle hillside or bury them up to their withers in unstable polar ice.

Another network of enthusiasts tracks the movements of Twin Otters around the world. Most of the planes they stalk are unexceptional workhorses, but a few qualify as celebrities. Spotters in western Canada might catch a glimpse of C-GKBG, the Twin Otter owned by Kenn Borek Air of Calgary, which flew to the South Pole in April 2001 to evacuate an ailing American physician from the Amundsen-Scott research station. In doing so, it became the first and only plane ever to land in the total darkness and minus 60° temperatures of the polar mid-winter. It was guided to the snow-covered landing strip by barrels of burning trash. Twelve years later, Dr. Ronald Shemenski, himself a private pilot, wonders whether his pancreatitis justified the risks. “I kept feeling I was not rescued but kidnapped,” he says, “but you can’t take away anything from what the pilots and that plane did.” The Twin Otter that retrieved him has flown back and forth to Antarctica many times since. Last January, it took part in the search for another Kenn Borek–owned Twin Otter that crashed into an icy mountainside in the Queen Alexandra Range, killing a veteran pilot and two younger crew members.

Vacationers in Costa Rica can take a ride in another famous Twin Otter: the plane that was sent to pick up US congressman Leo Ryan from his ill-fated mission to Guyana in 1978 to investigate the Jonestown suicide cult. Ryan and four of his party were shot to death at an airstrip as they tried to flee, but the patched-up TI-AZC survived to fly again. Today it takes tourists on eco-flights over the rainforest.

The most road-worn Twin Otter was probably number 543, built in 1977 and used as an island hopper in the Caribbean by Winair until it was retired in 2002 after 132,000 landings, having delivered some of the richest people on earth onto some of the shortest commercial runways on earth.

Photograph by Grant Harder
Dumpster Diving Viking employees spent months organizing old inventory that Bombardier has tossed into crates.

The Twin Otter was not supposed to be the airplane it turned out to be. The truth is that de Havilland Canada got lucky, and so, in time, did the entire Canadian aerospace industry.

As a Crown corporation during World War II, after building thousands of trainers and Mosquito combat planes, de Havilland Canada needed to reinvent itself for peacetime. Returning to civilian life as a subsidiary of its British parent, the company turned its attention to designing and building single-engine STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft for use in the Canadian North. Bush plane operators loved the legendary DHC-2 Beaver, first flown in 1947, and its larger cousin, the DHC-3 Otter, introduced in 1951. The ability of both models to haul passengers and cargo in and out of short, rough airfields also caught the eye of military users, particularly the United States, which bought 240 Otters, and close to 1,000 Beavers, about two-thirds of the entire twenty-year production run. Both saw extensive action in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

In 1963, Russ Bannock, de Havilland Canada’s director of military sales and later its president, was returning from one of his regular trips to Vietnam to inspect the technical and maintenance operations the company ran for the US Army. He later told Fred W. Hotson, author of The de Havilland Canada Story, that on the long flight home he kept turning over in his mind a conversation with one particular general. While the army liked its Otters, the general said, it would be interested in a version with more capacity. He also thought that for safety’s sake and greater heft, two engines would be preferable to one, and that in crosswinds a tricycle undercarriage would provide better stability than the Otter’s tail wheel. Bannock sketched out some ideas and presented them to de Havilland engineers when he got back to Toronto.

The company, by then owned by Hawker Siddeley in the United Kingdom, had experience in designing and building twin-engined STOL planes for military use. The DHC-4 Caribou had been flying since 1958, and a younger, turbine-powered sibling, the DHC-5 Buffalo, was in development. Canadian bush plane operators such as Max Ward had long craved bigger payloads and the safety of multiple engines. Just outside of Montreal, Pratt & Whitney Canada was developing a new turbine engine, the PT6A, which delivered more power with less weight than piston engines. With the stars aligned and the deep pockets of the US military squarely in their sights, de Havilland Canada’s board of directors gave the Twin Otter the green light. Work on one prototype and four test aircraft began immediately. On April 29, 1965, the prototype was rolled out of de Havilland’s plant in the northern Toronto suburb of Downsview. Three weeks later, test pilots Bob Fowler and Mick Saunders flew the airplane for the first time.

The prototype, the one so unceremoniously banished to the annex of the air and space museum in Ottawa, performed well, but the business plan crashed and burned. The Pentagon had expressed an interest in buying 100 Twin Otters, but almost in the next breath caved in to lobbying by US manufacturers and decided it didn’t need a plane with STOL performance after all. The key factor for the army now was cost, which opened the field to cheaper homegrown competitors. A worried de Havilland began looking for new customers.

As it happened, the stillbirth of the military Twin Otter coincided with the first wobbly steps of the US commuter airline business. Air taxi operators in the northeast, the Midwest, and southern California who had been plying increasingly busy routes with a mixed bag of small, aging, piston-powered planes looked inside the Twin Otter’s boxy but comparatively spacious cabin—big enough for nineteen passengers, but small enough not to require flight attendants or a lavatory—and saw profits. Pilgrim Airlines of New London, Connecticut, and Air Wisconsin of Appleton, Wisconsin, each anted up the $300,000 it took to buy early examples. An air taxi operation in Houston that later became Metro Airlines was the first to take full advantage of the Twin Otter’s STOL capabilities, constructing its own 760-metre runway at NASA’s Clear Lake space centre, and shuttling customers to and from Houston’s two airports on seventy-five daily flights, some as short as nine minutes.

The early success of the US commuter business bred dozens of new feeder lines, with names like Westair, Newair, Commuter Air, and Golden West. It was the dawn of today’s hub-and-spoke air travel system, which links small regional and big international airports. It evolved on the back of the humble little twin-engined plane from Canada. Half of the Twin Otters sold in the first three years ended up working commuter routes, so dominating the US market that the plane became the benchmark for the Federal Aviation Administration’s new certification standards for commuter aircraft.

In the early 1970s, specially outfitted eleven-seat models served as the mainstay of Airtransit, the experimental Canadian government–funded service, which shuttled commuters between a 610-metre runway fashioned out of a parking lot at the Expo 67 site in Montreal and Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Airport, a short cab ride from Parliament Hill. By the middle of the decade, the Twin Otter was the preferred island hopper in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. Norway designed an entire system of thirty-five regional airports around the airplane’s short-field capability. The feeder line idea also caught on in Europe and the UK. Low-cost British carrier Flybe, through its partner Loganair, still uses two Twin Otters to serve the small Outer Hebrides island of Barra, where the runway is the beach (it is the only scheduled service in the world where arrivals and departures are governed by the tides).

By the time the last de Havilland–built Twin Otter rolled off the production line in 1988, it was the bestselling plane of its type anywhere, toiling wherever there was a market for air travel but a shortage of runway. Finally living up to its original billing, it also became a darling of the military. Twin Otters, including four flown by the RCAF, still serve in a dozen air forces worldwide.

University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss earned the eternal scorn of the Avro Arrow subculture when he panned The Arrow, a 1997 cbc miniseries, in a review for Time. “At its best,” he wrote, “The Arrow plays to Boys Own magazine fantasies about scientific miracles and to nationalist longings for what might have been if only the Canadian government had given engineers and designers a blank check.” His charge that bad management had allowed the cost of the Arrow project to spin out of control enraged Elwy Yost, the usually affable host of TVOntario’s now defunct Saturday Night at the Movies and a former Avro employee, who called it the stupidest thing he had heard in four decades.

Bliss nevertheless fired point-blank at some of the most cherished beliefs in the Arrow canon. Among them: the Arrow’s superior performance. It was only superior on paper, he declared. It had not been tested enough to earn its bragging rights in flight, much less combat.

Another bit of dogma The Arrow perpetuates is the notion that cancelling the plane’s production drove a stake through the heart of the Canadian aerospace industry. There is no question that Diefenbaker crushed the dream that Canada could become a world player in the design and manufacture of high-performance military aircraft. And there is no question that his government’s decision doomed Avro, its workforce, and dozens of other companies that were part of the Arrow supply chain, forcing many of the best aeronautical minds in the country to flee for Britain and the US space program. Nevertheless, rumours of the industry’s demise proved to be highly exaggerated. Just ask the 170,000 Canadians who earn their living today building things that fly or parts for things that fly.

The cancellation of the Arrow turned out to be a dose of tough love from Diefenbaker’s Conservatives, forcing the Canadian aerospace industry to exit the military playing field, where it had little real chance of competing, and regroup on one where it could. And it was the Twin Otter, the stalwart offspring of a bush plane, that pointed the way.

Before the Twin Otter, Canadian-made passenger planes were typically designed elsewhere and built here under licence. The noisy, piston-powered North Stars—produced by Canadair in Montreal and flown by Trans-Canada Air Lines, Canadian Pacific, and British Overseas Airways Corporation in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s—were hybrids built from American-designed Douglas C-54/DC-4s and DC-6s and fitted with British engines. Canada’s one serious venture into the airliner business, the ambitious Avro Jetliner program of the late 1940s, was barely airborne before the company’s masters in the federal government grounded it so Avro could focus on building the CF-100 jet interceptor. The Twin Otter’s unexpected success as a commuter carrier revealed an emerging market for an alternative to the big, runway-gobbling 707s, DC-8s, and Electras from the US. Canadian manufacturers have been dominant players in the short- and medium-haul niche ever since.

When Twin Otter production ceased in 1988, de Havilland was owned by Boeing, and one theory holds that the stop-work order was Boeing’s way of expressing displeasure with the decision by Brian Mulroney’s government to buy Airbuses for Air Canada. Another says Boeing simply had no appetite for building small airplanes. In any event, by 1988 de Havilland was deeply involved in the production of two new short-haul passenger planes, the four-engined, fifty-passenger Dash 7, and the twin-engined, thirty-six-passenger Dash-8. In Montreal, Canadair, sold by the Mulroney Tories to Bombardier in 1986, was adapting its hugely successful Challenger business jet into the twin-engined Canadair Regional Jet, which evolved into the most successful plane of its type: 1,395 aircraft in six models were delivered by 2012. All told, de Havilland and Bombardier have sold nearly 1,150 Dash-8s in four versions. There is a bit of the Twin Otter in every one of them.

Bombardier has mined the regional niche to become the third-largest builder of passenger planes in the world, after Boeing and Airbus. Overall, Canada’s aerospace industry is the fifth largest on the planet, generating more than $22 billion a year, which puts it ahead of Russia, Japan, Brazil, and China. Seventy-seven percent of its revenues come from sales of commercial aviation products, compared with a global average of 46 percent. Aerospace research and development pumps $1.6 billion a year into the economy, making it the second-largest R&D sector in the country.

In all, 700 Canadian companies ply this business, exporting 80 percent of what they produce. The biggest players are really big. Bombardier’s aerospace division alone accounts for more than a third of the industry’s sales and employs 35,500 people worldwide. CAE Inc. of Montreal is the world’s largest manufacturer of computerized flight simulators, with production and training facilities in thirty countries and a global workforce of 8,000. US-based Bell Helicopter Textron Canada builds virtually all of Bell’s commercial helicopters at its plant in Mirabel, Quebec. Pratt & Whitney Canada, established in 1929, is one of the world’s largest aircraft engine builders, claiming 50,000 power plants in service in over 200 countries, thanks in no small part to the PT6A turboprop it developed in the 1960s. Among the first companies to buy the PT6A in quantity: de Havilland Canada, for its new Twin Otter.

Photograph by Grant Harder
State of the art New fuel-efficient Twin Otters boast the same computerized avionics found in Gulfstream jets.

David Curtis returned from the Paris Air Show with eleven new orders for Viking’s Twin Otter 400. His airplane may be the big kid in the nineteen-seater niche right now, although it is far from alone. A newer version of the Czech-built Let L410, a long-time Soviet bloc workhorse, is now certified to operate worldwide. The Swiss aerospace and defence company RUAG has restarted limited production of the German-designed Dornier 228 after a fifteen-year hiatus. But a deal de Havilland cut four decades ago may yield the biggest challenge of all. In his Otter and Twin Otter book, Sean Rossiter reports that de Havilland sold some Twin Otters to China in the 1970s. As part of the deal, Chinese inspectors came to Toronto to see how the planes were made, ostensibly so operators could keep them flying once they were delivered. In the mid-1980s, the state-owned Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation unveiled an aircraft that bore more than a passing resemblance to the ones those visiting inspectors had been studying. It was christened the Twin Panda.

Harbin, now part of an aerospace mega-conglomerate, has introduced a major upgrade, the Y-12F Aircar, designed to be certified in the West and compete head-to-head with the Twin Otter. It has American avionics and a version of the same engine that powers Viking’s plane, but its landing gear retracts for better aerodynamics and more speed, its cabin is roomier, and with lower production costs its sticker price will no doubt be competitive.

Maybe it was the prospect of trying to showcase his airplane in the shadows of the Boeings, Airbuses, and Bombardiers at the Paris Air Show, or maybe it was the frustrating business of just getting there, but Curtis bristled when I suggested that Canada’s status as the world’s number five aerospace nation was quite an accomplishment. “It’s true,” he said. “Canada punches way above its weight from a population point of view. But just about every country in the developed world wants to be a leader in aerospace. You can’t sit around and say, ‘Woo-hoo—we’re number five,’ because there are probably ten other countries behind you that want to be in front of you.”

Curtis would be the first to admit that building and selling airplanes is always a bit of a crapshoot, especially in a world economy still wobbling from the great recession of 2008–09, but I can’t resist a little crystal balling. If Viking makes good on its plan to build Twin Otters for at least the next ten years, and if they last as long as the oldest de Havilland-built Twin Otters still in service, it is conceivable that those planes will still be flying in 2070. That means the Twin Otter could be in continuous service for more than a century. If that isn’t enough to encourage us to embrace the Twin Otter as Canada’s true sweetheart of the skies, I don’t know what is.

This appeared in the December 2013 issue.

David Wilson
David Wilson is editor and publisher of The United Church Observer magazine. He has previously written about plane spotting for Toronto Life.
Grant Harder
Grant Harder is a portrait photographer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, enRoute, and Monocle.