Matthew Kane

My First and Last Flight in an Otter

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A bit of my background with General Aviation. I went to Flight School from 1997 to 1999, in that time there was an accident at my school that killed a fellow instructor and student. I left that school and finished at another school but decided to pack it in and that was the end of flying General Aviation for me in 1999. I also decided that Flight Simulators were getting better that was a safer, cheaper and more entertaining option for me so that is what I did moving forward.

The past few weeks my brother and sister-in-law were visiting New Zealand from Chicago and I took them on a tour around the country. One of those afternoons my brother wasn't feeling well so he took a nap back at the hotel and my sister-in-law and I went for a walk along the lake front to spend some time together. Walking along the waterfront she saw a de Havilland Otter parked at the dock and said, "Let's go on that." My initial thoughts were NO, reason being is I have a 2-year-old daughter back at home and my partner is pregnant with our second baby, I would rather be alive to see my Daughter get married someday rather than 'I wish Dad could be here, but he got on some dumb airplane'. Just my thoughts at the time. But I said OK as I didn't want to be a drag on someone’s trip to New Zealand. She works for United Airlines and loves aviation as well and always jumps at a chance to fly in General Aviation aircraft when it comes up.

So, we pay our money $235 for a 30-minute flight and joining another group already booked, I remember renting Cessna 150's for $40/hr back in the day so paying $235 for a half hour flight seemed steep, but I didn't complain, like I said enjoy the day. So, we get on this thing and I decided to take a seat towards the back, let the other group sit towards the front and I will just quietly sit back there until it is all over, also better odds of surviving if anything happens towards the back anyways. Pilot got on board and moved people around according to weight and asked me to sit up front with him. So, I did. 12 people on board and guys towards the front and ladies towards the back to adjust the centre of gravity.

We took off and this is almost 20 years since I’ve flown General Aviation, so I started to get into it more, the excitement does come back a wee bit. I was monitoring gauges as he took off and as he banked the aircraft to see different landmarks, this was probably my nerves so I was just checking to make sure the speed was up, and we were not close to stalling, pilot was good and I started to relax.

Flight was progressing along, so he said I could take control. I just held it straight and level for less than a minute to get a feel of it and the told him ‘you have control’ and he took it back. I didn’t feel I needed to fly the thing just happy going along for the ride. It was cool at this point and I was finding I missed it after all these years.

So we circled our main landmark being a volcano and got our shots in and was time to head back. Shortly after this the engine blew. Otters are a 9 Cylinder Radial Engine and when it blew it was friggen scary.  I had my OH S*** moment, everything I was thinking about risk assessment was confirmed in this moment. Pilot took the engine back to idle and it was still rotating but I figured it was only firing on three pistons from the sounds of it. He tried power again, but it was in a bad way, also the smell of oil was becoming overwhelming and a bit of oil splatter was on the windscreen, Their was no way we were maintaining level flight anymore and we were going down.

I put my phone away, no more pictures, checked harness and was preparing for the worst. Looked over to the pilot and he was eying a small lake to the right, we had enough altitude to make it. So, he did a shallow bank towards the lake and lined us up.

Altitude was plenty, so we were looking good. I looked back to my sister-in-law and said are you OK. She nodded yes. I assessed the situation one more time and knew we were in good shape to make it. For those sitting in the back they couldn’t see forward and as we were descending into a valley towards a small lake all they would have seen was trees out the side and probably thought this was the end. Pilot wasn’t interacting with anyone as he was focused 100% on what he had to do, and for the best. I looked back again with a thumbs up just to put them at ease and let them know we were going to be fine.

Landing was fine, and the pilot did a great job. The engine was sputtering but still rotating, you couldn’t apply power, so we were moving forward at a snail’s pace. Pilot turned to me and said I need your help, he asked me to taxi it towards the shore while he went to the back of the aircraft to rig some rope together. This was the first time I have taxied on water and in an Otter so that was cool. We got closer to shore and he took over and cut the engine and we drifted in.

Turns out this lake we landed on is a sacred Maori lake. You are not supposed to even step foot on this lake, no swimming, boats or anything as it has an island in the middle that is an ancient burial ground, so no one can ever set foot in the lake ever. Whatever spirits exist in the area I figured they were on our side that day, so I was grateful for that.

In the end the pilot was awesome, fell back on his training and got us out of a sticky situation. I asked him if that ever happened before and nope. We were rescued by a tour van and taken back, offered our money back and I gladly took the $235, and I guess we ended up with a great story.

Just before the engine blew:



When it happened I stowed my phone and didn't take any shots, best to be prepared for the worst...
I took a shot after the landing when all was well again so this is after the landing


A shot of the motor oil all over the engine cowl, that doesn't look good


Warning from the local Maori that own the lake. I think the owner of the plane has a lot of work to do to make this right as it is sacred land



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30 minutes ago, Matthew Kane said:

Whatever spirits exist in the area I figured they were on our side that day, so I was grateful for that.

What a great story and experience!

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Oh dear, that looks like ZK-VAS! Luckily Rotorua has plenty of water to choose from in an emergency...

Iconic plane, more than 60 years old, maybe they'll find a nice museum for it now :) 

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2 hours ago, WingZ said:

Oh dear, that looks like ZK-VAS! Luckily Rotorua has plenty of water to choose from in an emergency...

Iconic plane, more than 60 years old, maybe they'll find a nice museum for it now :) 

Yes that's the one. I took a shot of the manufacturing plate


And this is where it ended up on Lake Rotokakahi (Green Lake)


I reckon the locals won't let him fix it there and fly it out, most likely it will have to be dismantled and brought back to Rotorua Airport on a Flatbed Truck. I guess it depends on how much money he has or his insurance after this if he brings it back into service again. Seeing as he is charging $235 for 11 people on half hour flights that is $2585 per flight, and I am sure he is doing at least 5 of those a day, maybe more. Therefore I think it is worth to put back into service again as that is a pretty good revenue stream.

They are trusty old aircraft. I grew up in Toronto not far from the Downsview Factory and have been there many times. They have a great museum with a Lancaster Bomber and a replica of the Avro Arrow. Also the stories of when they use to build the Beavers and Otters, and how the floats would take off on the runway with temporary skits and they had a cage at the end of the runway to catch the skits as the plane took off and the skit went flying down the runway into the cage.

I would like to see this one continue to fly as it has an amazing history


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Quite an adventure Matthew.  I've had some scary moments while flying but none as scary as yours.  I got lost once but was able to find my way back.  And I started out on a cross country once and saw some evil looking clouds ahead so I turned around and went back.  But the cross winds were quite strong by the time I got back and I wondered if I would be able to control it.  I did.  But it was a lesson learned.

When I was building time for my commercial I'd take one of my children out to dinner and then flying every Friday evening.  One Friday I arrived at the FBO and my flight instructor was doing some paperwork.  I was going to take my 6 year old daughter up.  His daughter, about the same age as mine, was there with him and he asked my if I would mind taking her along too.  I think that was the best confidence builder I ever got as far as flying was concerned. 

BTW...My first flying lessons were in a float plane off San Francisco Bay.  


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Thanks for sharing, wonderful experience!

Cheers, Rob.

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