Twin Otter

All the passengers were seated and my co-pilot walked through the cabin, making sure that everyone had their seat belts fastened. The ground crew closed the main door and gave me the thumbs up to start the left engine. Paul, my co-pilot, who I had flown with on many occasions, said, “Cap, everyone’s belted in, full capacity, and the manifest looks OK.”

I checked the instrument panel and made sure the right engine, which we kept running while on these short stops, was still within temperature limits and we had good battery power to start the left engine. Just before starting the engine, I turned to the co-pilot and asked for the manifest and load sheet that had to be approved and signed before takeoff.

Paul handed me the clipboard and said full cargo and passengers: eighteen passengers and 1,100 pounds of cargo. I checked to make sure the total reflected his words and that our maximum weight for takeoff did not exceed the limits of the Twin Otter series 200 we were flying. Max takeoff weight for this aircraft was 11,579 pounds. The load sheet showed the correct figure. However, the manifest sheet was a bit messy and smudged, but I was more concerned about the load sheet than the pax/load manifest.

The Ogle airstrip was not very long and mainly used by smaller airplanes and light twin-engine aircraft. It was owned and operated by the Booker Group of companies to maintain and serve as a base for its crop duster aircraft that fertilized the sugar and rice fields that dominated this location just east of the capital city, Georgetown.

Twin Otter

The Twin Otter can haul a load, but there is a limit.

Most of Georgetown and the East Coast of Guyana was at least nine feet below sea level. The Dutch, during their occupation of the country, had built a robust sea defense structure and aptly named “seawall.” The airstrip at Ogle was approximately one mile from the seawall. The land sloped away from the seawall and was quite a bit lower than 9 feet.

The airstrip was a narrow band of concrete 1,200 feet long and 30 feet wide with a grass overrun approximately 400 feet in length—not a typical type of location from which any airline would operate a Twin Otter. However, the Twin Otter, a STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) aircraft, was quite capable of using this short airstrip. It was laid out with a row of hangars on one side and an open area on the other side. At the end of the runway, the land sloped gradually down to a low fence that bordered a narrow canal.

What made this location even more critical was the average temperature, usually between 90-95 degrees F, and very high humidity. I ensured that Paul had checked the small handheld engine power calculator that DeHavilland had included with the aircraft and asked for the maximum engine temperature for the takeoff. He read out the numbers we should be using as we taxied down the narrow airstrip.

I pivoted the airplane at the end of the airstrip and lined up for takeoff. We completed the takeoff checklist, and one last thought went through my mind: hot day, very humid, full load, and a short field! I was going to need a good takeoff run and slow climb-out to clear the seawall. I decided to use 20 degrees of flap to improve the short-field capabilities and shorten the takeoff roll.

I released the brakes and the aircraft started its takeoff roll. As the Twin Otter began picking up speed, the airspeed indicator came to life and showed a moderate increase in speed. Unfortunately, the concrete strip was disappearing at a rapid pace, and I immediately sensed that we might have a problem.

As I watched the airstrip quickly coming to an end and only the grass overrun available, I made the only decision I could: I jammed the throttles to the stops and prayed that we could make it over the fence. Thankfully, I had many hundreds of hours with short field takeoffs from my past bush flying experience, only in smaller and lighter aircraft.

The fear of running off the end of the airstrip was uppermost in my mind, crashing into the fence and ending up in the shallow canal, certainly guaranteeing severe injuries, possible death for everyone, and destruction of the airplane!

I felt the Twin Otter feel lighter and almost ready to fly. I slowly pulled back on the control yoke and eased the airplane off the ground. We ran out of concrete airstrip, and the aircraft left the ground sluggishly. We were not out of the woods by any means. The Twin Otter sank for a few feet after the takeoff but immediately stabilized, possibly from some type of ground effect updraft.

I distinctly remember a strange sight. As we were weaving through the area, I saw a woman hanging out her washing on her front porch, and she was actually looking down at the aircraft in horror as we went by!

I still had my hand firmly on the throttles, fully jammed up against the firewall. The co-pilot was now also looking outside and cried out, “Cap, the seawall—it’s higher than we are!” I did not even answer, concentrating on what moves I could make to get the aircraft to climb enough to clear the seawall.

We could not turn left or right as there were obstacles on both sides of the flight path, and we were now committed to flying straight towards the wall and hoping to clear it.

The Twin Otter had finally reached a minimum speed that allowed me some latitude to make a very slight backward movement on the control yoke. As I did this, I felt the aircraft achieve some minor lift, and I eased off a bit more flap.

Georgetown

Much of the surrounding area is actually below sea level—not helpful when you’re trying to climb out in an overloaded airplane.

As we got within a few hundred feet of the wall, I felt a small updraft, and I pulled back ever so slightly on the control yoke. The marvelous aircraft climbed a few feet, and we made it over the wall with a couple of feet to spare!

Now at least we were over the shoreline and only the ocean below us. The aircraft maintained a modicum of stability, and I felt the worst was over. I finally looked at the engine gauges and noticed that the engine temperature gauges were still in the red. I then looked up at the flap control and reduced it to 10 degrees and gently eased the throttles back from the firewall position.

The Twin Otter, great aircraft that it was, could only handle so much in terms of overload on a long runway with no obstacles. On the Ogle airstrip, this was almost a certain death sentence.

Before paying attention to the clipboard, I made a gradual left turn at a low altitude. The aircraft was still climbing but very slowly, and I still had the 10 degrees of flaps deployed. Then I looked at the load sheet. It appeared correct, and the total was at our all-up weight for the Twin Otter.

I then lifted the load sheet and inspected the passenger and cargo manifest. I immediately noticed something strange. Most of the passenger weights had corrections or were written over and looked as if they were changed. This situation bothered me, and I started looking closely at each of the listed weights.

I now saw a multitude of errors in the weights of passengers, and this may have extended to the cargo as well. I was pretty well pissed by this time.

I told Paul to radio operations and advise them we were diverting to Timehri. Tell them, “We had a malfunction and cannot proceed to our planned destination.”

I said, “Tell the dispatcher I need the aircraft to be met by the base manager, at least two ground staff, and a weight scale.”

The dispatcher seemed a bit confused! He said, “Please repeat the last transmission.”

I clicked the mike: “This is the captain.” I repeated the instructions and added, “I also want to park the aircraft away from the flight line as I need the passengers from this flight separated from any ramp personnel or other spectators.”

We got clearance to land and as soon as I reduced power, the aircraft started to sink. I applied enough power to arrest the sink rate. Paul called out the pre-landing checks, and we landed safely on runway 10.

After completing the after-landing checks, we taxied the aircraft to the Guyana Airways main terminal area. I called operations and told him to request an engineer to meet me at the airplane as I was concerned about the engine overtemp situation.

There was quite a reception awaiting us, including the base manager and some of the office staff. The ground crew was standing by a weight scale that is used to weigh cargo before loading onto aircraft.

I motioned to the base manager to come to the cockpit door. When he arrived, I jumped down from the cockpit and spoke quietly to him. “Andy, there was a dangerous mistake made at Ogle with the load sheet and the passenger manifest. I want everything taken off—passengers and cargo—and weighed on this scale.”

The base manager said, “You can’t mean that, captain? What’s up with the load and the manifest sheet?”

I said, “Andy, don’t doubt me. There are definitely mistakes in both the load manifest and the load sheet. And I intend to get to the bottom of this problem.”

The passengers were offloaded and weighed as they stepped off the aircraft. When I saw the last passenger had disembarked, I looked into the cabin and peered under the seats to make sure no one had left any bags. I noticed a lot of pipes under the seats and asked Paul to go into the cabin and tell me how long they were. He said that they were well over ten feet long and stretched most of the length of the cabin.

Paul said they were listed at 1,200 pounds on the manifest. I told the ground crew to offload the pipes and weigh them. The total weight of the pipes came to 2,200 pounds!

And when we were able to look at the passengers’ weights and compared them to the actual figures we just complied, we now knew that some numbers were changed to show a lower value. A shocking scenario and one that nearly caused the lives of innocent people.

When I calmed down in the flight crew ready room later, I was able to review the final tally of the passengers and cargo from the flight with Paul. The number of errors was staggering.

I was amazed that we were able to take off from the Ogle airstrip on a hot and humid day, well over 2,000 pounds overweight. Fortunately, we were able to live to tell the story.

Dave Rohee
Latest posts by Dave Rohee (see all)
27 replies
  1. L. G.
    L. G. says:

    Similar:two football brother in-laws, me @ 225 full fuel (supposed to ONLY be to tabs) hot (90’s) and undetected primer knob not locked. Made for a couple of very long take offs with less than full power. Run up okay both times.

    Reply
  2. George Haeh
    George Haeh says:

    I am reminded of a checkout I took in a Grumman Tiger at Toronto Island. The instructor asked if a friend could come along and I agreed. Takeoff was a little bit longer than I was used to in a Tiger. In the flare the airplane stopped flying some knots sooner than expected.

    The friend was heavyset and put us over gross with full fuel and no baggage.

    Reply
  3. Jim smith
    Jim smith says:

    I don’t understand why they landed again. Seems just foolish to land overweight also. Just continue on. Could have been deadly to land overweight

    Reply
    • Dave Rohee
      Dave Rohee says:

      Hi JIm. Thanks for the comment. However, the operation of our Twin Otter in Guyana, was based on the qualities of this outstanding STOL aircraft. The destination for this flight was another very short runway (compacted gravel) only, and not the best braking surface. I, therefore, made the decision to reroute the flight to our main operating base at the international airport with long runways, good emergency equipment, and engineering staff. I was quite concerned that I had possible engine damage from operating the engines in the red for well over five minutes, so did not want to take any more chances than necessary. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
      • William Campbell
        William Campbell says:

        And that mentality is what separates pilots from airplane drivers. It’s about more than simply getting in and going once off the surface. It’s about all of the variables to keep the flight safe and about staying ahead of the airplane, including the best options for when things go wrong and the best decisions to survive that situation.

        Reply
  4. Anthony Joseph
    Anthony Joseph says:

    Hello Dave

    Your excellent analysis and judgement with the hidden overweight scenario is a credit to you as a true Pilot In Command. You may well have avoided a major catastrophe that day. I was reading your findings and getting angry because of the reckless, clearly intentional, steps to overload the flight. I hope there were consequenses…Blessings…

    Reply
  5. John
    John says:

    EXCELLENT article!!!

    I recall several conversations with pilots who flew various mission types in Africa and Asia where they made it clear that “trust, but VERIFY” might be a Russian saying, yet it applied in spades to operations in those continents. FWIW, after having flown some part 135 here in the US, ‘Trust, BUT VERIFY’ definitely applies here as well! I am very glad you shared this story.

    Reply
  6. Santiago Arbelaez
    Santiago Arbelaez says:

    A similar closed call happened to my wife on a Jet Stream 32 while taking off from a short sea-level high temp strip in Colombia, the dispatcher overload the plane well over its max allowed take off weight. She did as Cp Rohee and requested the passengers and cargo to be weighted. The “take home message” is that when something is happening you must go to the bottom to clarify it. There are souls there.

    Reply
  7. Jim Woodford
    Jim Woodford says:

    In the 1970s I had a similar situation with a DeHavilland Beaver on floats at a remote bush stop in the Canadian north. A mining exploration company deliberately mislabeled the weight factors in an attempt to make sure all their testing equipment got to it’s destination on the last flight for the month. In those days there was little in the way of help so basically a one man show except for a few dock handlers. During the taxi to the far end of the lake the aircraft felt sluggish and different but there was a lot of wave chop and current. It was a long lake with a good headwind so I figured I’d be ok. Engine checks were fine and my three passengers were chatting away as I began the takeoff. As hard as I tried I had difficulty getting it on the step and when I finally did the aircraft gained about 10 ft of altitude and then sank back to the water . The rock cliff peppered with trees loomed ahead of me offering certain death for my passengers and me at this speed if I aborted. I rammed the throttle past the stops and the engine screamed with effort as we lifted off the water. I pulled the yoke as far back into my gut as I could fearing a dreaded stall ! I yelled to my passengers BRACE…BRACE…BRACE ! The gentleman next to me screamed ! I still remember the strange sound underneath me indicating the floats and struts had hit the trees . The Beaver staggered but kept flying !!! We cleared the cliff and I eased the nose down to see the beautiful flat terrain of the Tundra before me. I allowed myself the luxury of just cruising straight ahead at normal speed and slowly turned on course. Back at our maintenance hanger I taxied straight in ( Amphibian ) and requested a scale check . The crates were over twice the weight scribbled on each one ! Our Chief Pilot was outraged when he saw the branches stuck in the pontoon struts from our near miss and blacklisted the customer from ever using our services again.
    That evening around sunset I returned to the Beaver now resting on the ramp. Slowly and fervently, I planted a lingering kiss on it’s propeller and said a prayer of thanks to God, De Havilland and this particular aircraft. Many years later I accidentally found her rusting in an airport junk pile in Guatemala .
    I quietly cried for my partner who had saved my life.

    Reply
    • Ron
      Ron says:

      A great article and an equally meaningful comment. “ I quietly cried for my partner who had saved my life.”
      We do develop attachments to these wonderful machines. Thanks to both Dave and Jim for your writing.

      Reply
      • Jim Woodford
        Jim Woodford says:

        Thanks Ron. I appreciate your interest and comment about the attachments we form with certain aircraft we pilot. I became particularly fond of a DC3 I flew for 5 years . Maybe it was the fact that it was my first ” AIRLINER ” and I got to wear a real uniform instead of the bush gear I’d grown used to for the first 10 years of my career. For some reason I always referred to her as “SHE”. This day and age I would probably be denounced as sexist for doing so but the term was one of respect and admiration for this wonderful aircraft that was nearing the end of her long and useful life. I felt that if I treated her with respect and did things by the manual “SHE” would take care of me.Through raging blizzards on night approaches at remote northern airports with no ILS she never let me down. When she was decommissioned and parted out I purchased the altimeter as a memento of our time together and it sits on the desk in my den as I write this. Maybe I’ve grown overly sentimental in my old age but when I hold her altimeter in my hand I hear the thrumming of her props and the odd “clunk” when the gear came up.
        Thanks to DOUGLAS for making such a beautiful girl !!!

        Reply
  8. John Opalko
    John Opalko says:

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I read your harrowing story as saying that this wasn’t someone in the office making a mistake. This was someone deliberately fudging the numbers to make the W&B come out right.
    I won’t go as far as saying that this person should be taken out back and shot, but I will say that they should find themselves suddenly unemployed.
    The fact that you lived to write about this is a testament to your flying skills and to the robustness of the Twin Otter. Well done!

    Reply
  9. Jack Ellis
    Jack Ellis says:

    “I won’t go as far as saying that this person should be taken out back and shot, but I will say that they should find themselves suddenly unemployed.”

    I would deal with the responsible individual myself. Just call it self-defense.

    Reply
  10. MICHAEL KLEIN
    MICHAEL KLEIN says:

    Dear Dave: I’m pleased to hear the landing was successful and your post landing requirements for re-weighing everything and everybody. However, I have to place a great deal of this misadventure on your co-pilot. Were the ten foot pipes under the seats securely fastened the floor or crated? Had they moved fore or aft on take-off or landing, significantly affecting the CG, you may not have been around to share this story. It doesn’t make sense that your co-pilot did not know their exact weight. All passengers lie about their weight unless the airline requires they stand in a scale during checkin, as is routinely done in Hawaii for all helicopter tours. It was the extra 1000 pounds of pipe, not simply the passengers combined weight in the abnormal DA environment.

    Reply
    • Ed Wolfe
      Ed Wolfe says:

      As I was reading Dave’s article and then your response, I was reminiscing about my tour helicopter pilot job in Kauai, Hawaii in 2006. Several of the pilots to include myself had mentioned to our Chief Pilot that our W&B seemed to be rather high although the load sheets were stating to be within the maximum limit for our AS-350BA helicopters that we were flying. Several times when picking up to a hover the ship just seemed to be on the heavy side. We told the dispatchers at our office in Lihue to be careful with the true weights of the aircraft loading and that we were cognizant that the load sheets were not according to the weight limits of our helicopters.

      Reply
    • Dave Rohee
      Dave Rohee says:

      I want to thank all of you who commented on this event! Before I respond to your specific question, I want to remark on another comment. The response was to place a good deal of the misadventure on my co-pilot! Mate, in all my 40 plus years in flight operations, the captain is the only one that is responsible. When you hear the term “pilot error” there is no differentiating between the two pilots! Pilot error is just that! When I was Chief Instructor for DeHavilland Aircraft, the amount of time I was asked by the FAA to comment on our training methodology (way before Cockpit Resource Management – CRM) I was reminded several times that the captain of an aircraft is like the captain on a ship. Where have you ever heard of a first mate being responsible for a disaster?

      I diverted the aircraft back to our main base because the runways were all in excess of 6,500 feet and landing overweight in a DHC-6 was never an issue.

      After landing and going through the debriefing scenario in the story, the Chief Engineer had the aircraft grounded and a full overtemperature check was completed on both engines. I was made aware sometime later that a small valve was replaced in one of the engines, but overall no major issue. The aircraft was put back into service three days later. All in all, a horrendous situation was averted thanks to this fine flying machine!

      I have a few other stories like this and can be seen on my website – aviationhotshot.com

      Thanks for all your comments.

      Reply
  11. CRICK RAPHAEL
    CRICK RAPHAEL says:

    Great description of this marvelous Take Off with the Twin otter !! I am living with Aeroplanes and Flying in my heart , obtainig earlier in live my Licence sportflying. I can imagine what great difficult and fair a Captain can have in this most difficult periods of Flying an Aircraft, Taking Offs and some times also Landings ! Well Donne Captain !!

    Reply
  12. Brian Davidson
    Brian Davidson says:

    Good job on that one.The DHC6 is a remarkable bird very forgiving if you know how the old girl behaves.

    Reply
  13. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    Reminds me of Ernie Gann’s story in “Fate is the Hunter” where he almost takes out the Taj Mahal!
    Good job staying in control. Amazing how fast your mind works in those situations isn’t it?

    Reply
  14. Suresh Kumar Bista
    Suresh Kumar Bista says:

    Twin Otters-300 fly in Nepal too. Pilots do very good jobs the airplane. But again, there are good productive pilots with higher tolerance level for doing extra-ordinary flights and keeping marketing staff happy on both ends.
    Before a flight departs for a remote mountain airstrip, there are food items from ATC officers to their colleagues, policemen to their comrades, some requests made to a pilot by someone etc. There would be other packages of something something. At the destination aerodrome, people would waiting to receive.
    Twin Otters do amazing takeoffs with those extra loads. When the airplane taxies out, you can see the wheel struts compressed quite significantly. Weight exceeds for landing at the destination but again, Twin Otters do a good job but complaining silently. All productive pilots get a pat in the back.
    Of course, losing an engine at takeoff or above service ceiling altitude where surrounding terrain is above eighteen thousand feet is never contemplated. I guess it is ‘Happy Go Lucky’ culture.

    Reply

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