A brief episode in the life of “Pi”, Part 2

A Fairchild-Hiller FH-1100 operated by Okanagan Helicopters Limited. CASM, negative number 29896.

Are you ready to yet again dive into the history of Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, my reading friend? Yes? Wonderful. In the summer of 1969, this company purchased the production rights of the Fairchild Hiller FH-1100 and hoped to obtain an order from the Canadian Armed Forces, then looking for a light observation helicopter. If this five-seat machine tested in January 1963 won the competition, Piasecki Aircraft promised to begin producing it at the newly closed Canadian Forces Base Picton, in Ontario.

The FH-1100 dated from a U.S. Army light observation helicopter program launched in 1960. An unlucky participant in this competition won in 1965 by the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, the Hiller Model 1100 was marketed as a civilian machine under the guidance of Fairchild Hiller Corporation. Slightly more than 250 helicopters left the assembly line between 1963 and 1972, which is not much. The largest user of this excellent machine was none other than Okanagan Helicopters Limited. This Canadian company, the largest civilian helicopter operator in the world at the time, may have sold its 10 or so FH-1100s around 1969-70 because of one of its important customers had lost faith in this helicopter, folowing the crash of an FH-1100 in the United States.

The light observation helicopter acquisition program of the Canadian Armed Forces also included a proposal from the Aircraft Division of Hughes Tool Company. Yes, that Hughes, Howard Robard Hughes, Junior to be more precise. If its Cayuse, a very elegant five seat helicopter flown for the first time in February 1963, won the competition, the American aircraft maker pledged to establish a plant in Québec that would be controlled by a local company. Best of all, Hughes Tool proposed that the Canadian factory also produce Cayuses for exports. Telephiles will recall that a character from the popular American television series Magnum P.I., broadcasted between 1980 and 1988, flew a civilian version of the Cayuse, the Hughes Model 500.

The victory of the Bell OH-58 Kiowa, known in Canada as the CH-136 Kiowa, brought to a close the projects of Hughes Tool and Piasecki Aircraft. In fact, the latter did not actually build a single FH-1100. It should be noted that the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum includes a Kiowa. This five-seat helicopter, also very elegant, is a version of the civilian Bell Model 206 JetRanger. This machine, one of the best light helicopters of the 20th Century, is itself derived from a helicopter tested in December 1962. Interestingly, this very first Model 206 was also an unlucky participant in the competition won by the Cayuse. Ironically, Hughes Tool faced such delays in delivery and cost increases that the U.S. Army re-launched its light observation helicopter acquisition program in 1967. The JetRanger won this second competition in 1968. By a strange coincidence, the first civilian JetRanger was seemingly ordered by Okanagan Helicopters.

Bell Helicopter Textron Incorporated, a subsidiary of American giant Textron Incorporated, transferred the JetRanger assembly line to Bell Helicopter Textron Canada Limited in 1986. Initially, this subsidiary based in Mirabel, Québec, assembled helicopters. Over the years, it built more and more elements of the JetRanger. The production of this machine or, more precisely, of the version known as the LongRanger was continuing as of 2017. Bell Helicopter Textron Canada is one of the most important civilian helicopter makers in the world. If I may be permitted a comment, yours truly would very much like to add a prototype of the excellent and very modern Canadian-designed Bell Model 429 GlobalRanger eight seat utility helicopter to the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

A final thing, if I may, before I let you go back to your daily grind. In 1987, a group headed by Craig Lawrence Dobbin purchased Okanagan Helicopters as well another company, and merged them with a helicopter firm that this Newfoundland businessman already owned. Thus was born CHC Helicopter Corporation of Vancouver, British Columbia, the world’s leading provider of helicopter support for the offshore oil and gas industries with operations in 30 countries around the globe. This giant changed its name to plain CHC Helicopter in 2008 when it was taken over by an American private equity company, First Reserve Corporation.

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Rénald Fortier