Hinterland heroes

DICK LOEK/TORONTO STAR

A business end of the mint-condition, Toronto-built de Havilland Beaver owned by Sherritt International Corp. chair Ian Delaney and based at Toronto Island airport. "Don't be fooled by the cute exterior," writes The Star's Rachel Ross. "Beavers are a tough and reliable lot. Uneven terrain, icy snow and rough waters do not deter the Beaver."

 

 

They didn't fly past the speed of sound
Yet these beavering planes built nations

RACHEL ROSS
TECHNOLOGY REPORTER

Canada just wouldn't be the same without the wildlife. The nimble chipmunk, busy beaver and majestic caribou have come to define this great nation. And it's all thanks to de Havilland.

 

De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd., now an industrious unit of Bombardier Inc., immortalized many Canadian mammals in a series of rugged airplanes designed right here in Toronto. Bush planes such as the Beaver and Otter were hotshots of the hinterland, easily landing on short strips of water, snow or soil. Larger de Havilland aircraft like the Caribou showed the rest of the world a thing or two about strength and power in the air. As the company's export business started taking off in the 1950s, Canadian critters showed up in the most unlikely places: there were Otters in Ghana, Chipmunks in Lebanon and Buffalo in Brazil. These are planes that put Canada on the world map in terms of aeronautical design. Too often, Canadians fail to recognize the importance of their own achievements especially in aviation. On the eve of the 100th anniversary of flight, it's fitting to look back at great Canadian aircraft. They weren't all big sellers. But they represent sound engineering and innovation.

 

So, here's a Hinterland Who's Who of those bushy-tailed birds (with apologies to the Canadian Wildlife Service, for inspiration drawn from the iconic TV spots).

 

The Chipmunk DHC-1

The Chipmunk is a small but agile creature indigenous to central Canada. Known for its grace in the sky, the Chipmunk completes aerial aerobatics with ease. The Chipmunk population is on the decline.

But they can still sometimes be spotted around flight training centres.

Like its namesake, the Chipmunk was a petite plane: a two-seater designed to train pilots. It was the first plane designed by the Canadian branch of de Havilland and the first plane the company named after a Canadian mammal. The little guy wasn't always named after a furry mammal though. Russell Bannock, past president and chief executive officer of de Havilland Canada, says the plane was originally named after chief designer Wsiewolod Jakimiuk. But some at the company worried pilots might have a hard time pronouncing Jakimiuk and that, perhaps, it wasn't the ideal name for a plane. Even Jakimiuk himself was usually called "Jaki" by his colleagues. Phil Garratt, then chairman and managing director of de Havilland Canada, decided that what they needed was a distinctively Canadian name something that spoke to the country's true nature.

Inspiration came to Garratt on a trip to his cottage. He realized, as he fed some chipmunks, that the answer was all around him. "He thought it was a good idea to name Canadian-designed airplanes after Canadian animals," Bannock says. The name Chipmunk, in particular, seemed ideal for the little two-seater. It even sounded a lot like Jakimiuk.

 

The first Chipmunk flew in 1946, on a test run at de Havilland's Downsview facility. The responsive little plane which performed loops and rolls with ease quickly became a favourite of the Royal Air Force. More than 200 Chipmunks were produced in Canada, with another 1,000 made in England. Like de Havilland designs to come, Chipmunks were shipped to countries all over the world, including India, New Zealand and South Africa. "It was a big success," says Paul Cabot, curator and manager of the Toronto Aerospace Museum, at the former de Havilland plant in Downsview. "You can talk to people from all different air forces around the world who used Chipmunks."

 

The Beaver DHC-2

The industrious Beaver is well suited to the hinterlands, working tirelessly in the lakes and ponds of cottage country. Don't be fooled by the cute exterior. Beavers are a tough and reliable lot. Uneven terrain, icy snow and rough waters do not deter the Beaver. It will always be associated with Canada's early days.

 

If de Havilland Aircraft of Canada had got their way, the Beaver might have been the company's first plane. After manufacturing several British planes during the war, the Canadian wing was eager to design one of their own. Their first thought was to make a bush plane, but the parent company in England had other plans. They wanted a new plane for pilots in training a replacement for the British Tiger Moth. Hence the little Chipmunk came first. The success of the Chipmunk and a growing demand for bush planes soon revived the idea, and in 1947 the Beaver was born. "You couldn't have found a better name for that airplane," said Cabot. "It was in the bush and it was a workhorse. It very much had the work ethic of a beaver." The Beaver was rugged. De Havilland test pilot George Neal says that most bush planes of the period had fabric-covered wings that could rip if snagged by a branch. "The Beaver was an all-metal airplane so that made it easy to maintain especially in the bush," says Neal. The plane was designed so that it could use wheels, pontoons or skis for take off and landing. Moreover, it could take off and land using a relatively small strip of land or water. "It's so logical when you look at it you wonder why somebody didn't think of it before," says James DeLaurier, a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies. "It's a nice, stable, simple airplane. And it was large enough to carry a dead moose or something." In 1987 the Canadian Engineering Centennial Board voted the Beaver one of the ten most outstanding engineering achievements in Canada for the previous 100 years.

 

Aviation author and historian Larry Milberry notes that while the Beaver is well-designed, the company did initially struggle with sales.

"At the end of the war there were literally tens of thousands of cheap war surplus airplanes available," Milberry says.

With a glut of relatively inexpensive second-hand planes available, it was tough convincing civilians to buy a new Beaver. A huge order of 1,000 came from the United States military after the Beaver won a major contract competition. Some served in Korea and Vietnam.

Civilians bought another 554 Beavers. That's a lot of planes. But Milberry says it hardly compares to some of the Beaver's competitors. Milberry said sales of the Russian bush plane, the Anotov 2, reached 10,000.

Regardless of sales, the Beaver is still noteworthy for its longevity.

"Most of those airplanes are, in fact, still flying today," says Cabot.


The Canadian planes sold around the world. Twin Otters were sold to 76 different countries


 

Denis Ladouceur flies his Beaver all the time, transporting fishermen, tourists and hunters around the hinterland as a part of his business, Canadian Adventures.

"It's very relaxing to fly the Beaver," Lacouceur says. "It also carries quite a load for the size of it." Ladouceur has even carried 17-foot boats on the outside of the plane. And, he points out, Beavers are going up in price. He bought his in 1996 for $340,000. "The same one today, in equivalent condition, could be around $480,000," Ladouceur says from his lodge in Chapleau. It's too bad he didn't pick one up when he first started flying Beavers in 1974. Back then, he said, a Beaver only cost about $56,000.

 

The Otter DHC-3

The Otter loves to splash and slide in Canada's abundant lakes, rivers and streams. Like the Beaver, the Otter can handle snow and rough terrain: it is most at home in the bush. The Otter is also adept at thoughtful tasks that require dexterity and control.

 

Originally called the King Beaver, the Otter was designed as a larger version of de Havilland Canada's first bush plane. The Otter had all the great qualities of the Beaver: the wings were all metal and the landing gear could be outfitted with skis, wheels or pontoons. The Otter was also particularly stable and had remarkably good STOL (short take off and landing) abilities for a plane of its size. As with the Beaver, the U.S. military would prove to be a major buyer. More than 160 were purchased by the Navy and the Air Force combined. The 14-seat, single engine plane also proved an excellent vehicle for the Ontario Forestry Service, which used it as a water bomber. Some were bought by Wardair and flown in the Northwest Territories. "The Beaver and the Otter opened up the Canadian north," said de Havilland's Bannock. "Even today, a lot of the northern charter operators have fleets of Beavers and Otters because they are great for going into small lakes." The Otter was so popular that the company later decided to build on the design by adding another engine. The Twin Otter (DHC-6) first took flight in 1965. Six hundred were made before production ceased 13 years later. Its large size and ability to land on varied terrain made the Twin Otter a very versatile vehicle. They were used as commuter planes, for paratrooper training and as an airborne ambulance. DeLaurier says what made the Twin Otter so significant was that the Canadian planes truly sold around the world. Twin Otters were sold to 76 different countries, more than any other plane designed by de Havilland's Canadian operation.

 

The Caribou DHC-4

The Caribou's impressive stature casts a distinctive figure across the horizon, with its large upswept tail. It is also known for its ability to cover uneven terrain with maximum efficiency. Over the years, Caribou have migrated as far as the Australian outback and Southeast Asia.

By the time they started working on the Caribou in the mid 1950s, de Havilland Canada already had a lot of experience making planes that could handle short take-offs and landings. So the short-haul transport plane was specially designed with fully reversible propellers and special flaps that made steep landings possible. This was a particularly useful feature, as many developing nations had yet to build proper runways. "In a fairly rough field literally in a potato patch if you had rough patch of 1,000 feet you could get in and out," says Milberry. The first Caribou prototype flew in 1958 and it flew flawlessly despite "drizzling rain," Fred Hotson wrote in The DH Canada Story. The tail design made the plane easy to load and unload from the rear.

 

Caribous sold almost exclusively to the military. They were ideal for less-than-ideal landing conditions that typified military evacuation missions. "The really big customer was the U.S. Army which found itself in the middle of the Vietnam war," Milberry says. "That's where most of the Caribous ended up." Milberry says the company had a tough time though converting those who already owned a Douglas DC-3 aircraft, which could handle similarly unkempt runways.

"But it's proven itself to have been a success in that it endures," he says. "Caribou are still going strong." The Australian Air Force still has 14 Caribou in semi-regular operation. In 1999, the Caribou were used as a part of the Tsunami relief effort in Papua New Guinea and to evacuate locals in East Timor.

 

The Buffalo DHC-5

The Buffalo is well equipped to survive natural hazards. It does well in a harsh, rugged environment given minimal human intervention. A Buffalo can pack on a lot of weight and still roam the mountains with ease.

 

Like most of de Havilland Canada's designs, the Buffalo is in many ways an up-sized version of the previous generation of aircraft. It shares Caribou design features, including a single tail that angles up toward the sky. Designed as tactical transport vehicles for the military, Buffalo have been used to carry vehicles, machinery or as many as 41 fully-equipped soldiers. A 1976 issue of AIR International indicates that specially-designed Buffalo made for the British Royal Air Force could handle payloads of up to 6,129 kilograms (equal to six of the era's VW bugs). But the Buffalo's real skills are in search and rescue.

The Air Force Association of Canada has a squadron of six Buffalos purchased in 1967 that are used by the Transport and Rescue Squadron in Comox, B.C. The squadron is responsible for finding hikers who get lost in the mountains. Milberry says the Buffalo is ideal for this kind of operation. "It's the perfect search and rescue plane for the west coast," he says. "You can fly it very slow and find it very manoeuvrable." While the Buffalo is large for de Havilland Canada and has ample room for cargo, it is quite a bit smaller than other planes used for search and rescue. "The Hercules, for example, is too big to take down into a mountain valley," says Milberry. "But the Buffalo is half the size of a Hercules." The Buffalo have held up well. But Milberry says they are becoming expensive to maintain. And the problem now, he says, is that there just isn't an obvious replacement. Nothing is quite as well-suited for search and rescue on the West coast.

The Buffalo, however, did not make waves with its original, intended buyer. The U.S. military requested four prototypes before the border was closed to the Buffalo. It would be the last aircraft de Havilland named for Canadian wildlife.

 

Production of all the "hinterland" series of airplanes has ended.

Yet Beavers, Otters, Caribou and Buffalo fly on, testaments to Canadian engineering prowess. And making runways around the world a virtual Who's Who of the Canadian hinterland.