Twin Otter tour marks 50th anniversary of 'Northern workhorse'

To showcase its new Twin Otter model, and celebrate the iconic plane's 50th anniversary, Viking Air is taking the 400 series plane on a Northern tour with stops around Baffin Island, the N.W.T. and Yukon.

'The North has made this plane what it is,' says Viking Air CEO

Northern Aviation legend Rocky Parsons checks out the new Viking Air Twin Otter 400 at the Summit Air Hangar. The plane is on a northern tour that includes this stop in Yellowknife for the biennial Midnight Sun Fly-in. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

In the aviation world, the Twin Otter is about as Canadian as the country's red and white maple leaf flag — and not just because the two icons share the same birthday.

Now, the company that brought the Twin Otter back into production is celebrating the original plane's 50th anniversary with a Northern tour.

"We know the North has made this plane what it is," said David Curtis, president and CEO of Viking Air Ltd.  

"There are so many stories, everywhere I go I hear, 'my father, my grandfather, my brother, has a Twin Otter story.'"

Northern flying legend Rocky Parsons, 89, has some stories. He was all smiles as he checked out the flight deck of Viking Air's new Twin Otter 400 at the Summit Air Hangar in Yellowknife.

Rocky Parsons and Rob McIntyre swap Twin Otter stories inside the cockpit of a new Viking Air Twin Otter 400. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)
Parsons estimates he's logged nearly 20,000 flying hours as a pilot, many of them in the cockpit of a Twin Otter.   

He's flown a Twin Otter to the North Pole three times.

"On the last occasion I, ahem, left the Canadian Flag there, by putting one through the ice," he chuckled. "I'm not bragging about it but…".  

The flag was on the rudder of the Twin Otter, which sank and was never recovered.

Canadian Icon

Production of the original Twin Otter stopped in 1988. Many aviation enthusiasts were thrilled when Viking took over the blueprints and certificates to rebuild the plane in 2006.

"It's a very simple aircraft, and simple is what you need in the North," Curtis said. "It carries a great load and it can land on unprepared runways, gravel strips, tundra tires."

Curtis said his company wanted to preserve those characteristics in its new Twin Otters. But these days, "simple" involves a little more technology than back in the day when Parsons was behind the controls.

A Twin Otter 400 on the water. (Viking Air)

"We were obliged to use an astral compass in the North, and the 'brain box,'" Parsons joked. "Maybe that's why we got in so much trouble."

Curtis says the Viking Twin Otter has new safety systems on board, including something called 'synthetic vision' which allows pilots to visualize the terrain they're working in. It also has a flight recorder and a voice recorder, both of which are mandatory now.  

"If you understand where this airplane operates, [it's] in some very challenging environments," Curtis said. "It's about the pilot having more tools to let them know where they are and what's around them."  

Curtis said the plane also incorporates carbon fibre, to make the aircraft lighter and allow for a larger payload.

Tough market in the North

Curtis says a new Twin Otter will cost $7 million, compared to a used one, which sells for about $4 million.  

Viking is touring its new plane in the North, and it's targeting Northern customers, but Curtis knows it will be a tough sell because there are already so many old-school Twin Otters still in service in the North.

"After 50 years, it's still doing what it was designed to do, and they are still making a living doing it," he said.

The market for the little plane that some say 'opened the North' is now outside Canada in "emerging markets" such as China, South America and Africa.

"We're putting airplanes in Siberia," Curtis said. "One day we'll sell them up here. You'll see new 400s in Yellowknife, I'm sure.  We'd love to see the Department of National Defence operating more new Twin Otters in the North."

In the meantime, Curtis is enjoying the tour. He said his best memories so far are landing in strong winds across the runway in Resolute, and and the reaction the new Twin Otter received in Pond Inlet.  

Pilot Sylvain Breault shows kids in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, around the new Twin Otter.

"The smiles, the people, the babies and the moms and the dads crawling all over the airplane, signing the wing rib we brought. I was nearly in tears."

Although he called it "a thrill" to spend some time with the new Twin Otter, Rocky Parsons is not quite so sentimental about getting behind the controls again.

"I don't miss it. I enjoy fishing," he said.

"When airplanes fly over, after you've put in as many years as I have, I don't even bother glancing up. More interested in whether the fish are biting."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.