A flying truck which gave soldiers atom-age mobility: The de Havilland Canada Caribou

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The 5th pre-production de Havilland Canada AC-1 Caribou. Larry Booda, “Aeronautical Engineering – Aviation Week Pilot Report – STOL Caribou Calls for Special Handling.” Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 23, 1961, 56.

Welcome aboard this edition of our blog / bulletin / thingee. I would like to speak (type?) to you this week about one of the very successful aircraft designed and manufactured by one of Canada’s leading aircraft manufacturers, de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC) of Downsview, Ontario – a firm mentioned many times in this place, since February 2018. This aircraft is the de Havilland Canada Caribou.

In the months following the service introduction of the de Havilland Canada Otter single-engine bush or light transport aircraft, at the end of 1952, DHC gradually realised the existence of a market for a twin-engine short take-off and landing aircraft (STOL) military and / or civilian transport plane. The aircraft manufacturer began studies around October 1954. Its first 2 projects, deemed too small, led nowhere.

In 1956, aware of the possibility of an order from the United States Army, which had ordered the U-1 Otter and, previously, the smaller de Havilland Canada L-10 Beaver, DHC prepared plans for a large and powerful aircraft, the future Caribou.

Incidentally, did you know that the Beaver’s initial American military designation was C-127?

The Canadian Department of Defence Production loaned DHC some money in the fall of 1956 to help defray some of the costs of developing the new aircraft.

Very satisfied with the performance of its Beavers and Otters, the United States Army was then considering acquiring twin-engine STOL transport planes. In fact, its specification for this purpose may have been based on information provided by DHC.

It so happened that DHC’s military sales manager and Canada’s night fighting ace during the Second World War, Russell “Russ” Bannock, born Slowko Bahnuk, had a lot of support within the United States Army. During his visits to Washington, District of Columbia, some senior officers discussed the future needs of Army Aviation with him. As was said (typed?) above, they wanted to purchase twin-engine STOL transport planes. DHC being at work on the Caribou at the time, Bannock showed a great deal of interest.

Around January 1957, Bannock submitted some preliminary sketches to the United States Army. The officers he talked to were so satisfied that they asked him to stay in Washington for a few more days. The waiting period proved to be 3 days, but it was worth it. The highest authorities of the United States Army wanted to know more. Bannock met with the commander of Army Aviation, Brigadier General Hamilton Hawkins Howze. He even got an interview with the Secretary of the Army, Wilber Marion Brucker. Negotiations began. The United States Army wanted to order 5 pre-production aircraft, all but immediately.

Before committing himself any further, Bannock needed to phone Downsview. DHC’s management carefully studied the American request and accepted the challenge.

Some American officers wished to order many more Caribous, up to 500 perhaps.

The catch was that the United States Air Force (USAF) and the United States Army had an agreement according to which the latter could not use aircraft over a certain weight. Since the Caribou’s weight was much greater than this limit, the United States Army had to obtain a special permission from the Secretary of Defense, Charles Erwin “Engine Charlie” Wilson.

The Department of Defence Production, DHC and the United States Army signed a contract to manufacture 5 AC-1 Caribous in April 1957, much to the chagrin of the American aircraft industry, which did not like to see the foreign aircraft manufacturer that DHC was bounce in its yard. This order also displeased certain elements of the USAF, which consider that air transport was a function which was rightfully theirs.

Regardless, the Caribou prototype made its first flight in July 1958. Confident of securing further contracts, DHC soon began production of 20 aircraft, a total which included the 5 United States Army machines.

The United States Army received its first Caribou around September 1959.

The crash of the 3rd Caribou, destined for the United States Army, in February of that same year, during a series of civilian certification flights, did not affect the production programme. DHC’s test pilot, George Arthur Neal, and Department of Transport test pilot Walter Gadzos survived the crash. The latter suffered leg injuries, however.

It should be noted that the Caribou was also of great interest to the Canadian Army. Its chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Howard Douglas Graham, called for a study to be carried out on the importance and utility of the new aircraft. Considering as it was the possibility of ordering a number of Caribou, the Canadian Army appeared ready to cover some of the development costs.

Graham seriously considered the possibility of making a Caribou force the nucleus of a new air transportable / airmobile component of the Canadian Army. Given that this service had a slew of land vehicles which ensured the mobility of its forces on land, why did it have to depend on the RCAF for its air mobility?

In March 1957, rumours circulated that the Department of Defence Production would sign a contract with DHC to produce Caribous for the Canadian Army.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was categorically opposed to any proposed acquisition, however. Air transport rightfully belonged to it. The RCAF won its case in 1958.

The Canadian Army finally announced in January 1960 that it was no longer interested in the Caribou. Indeed, this aircraft no longer met its needs and objectives. The Canadian Army preferred to order large transport helicopters. Twelve Vertol CH-113 Voyageur thus entered service in 1964. A very similar helicopter, used for search and rescue, a Vertol CH-113 Labrador, is part of the magnificent collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

DHC seemingly managed to obtain additional financial support from the Department of Defence Production. This subsidy was a godsend for the aircraft manufacturer which, faced with the high costs of developing the Caribou, found itself in a difficult financial situation to say the least.

The situation was so serious that the financial institution with which DHC has done business for years refused it a single cent. The firm contacted various banking institutions, including the British firm Barclays Bank Limited. One of the directors of said bank happened to be Viscount Portal of Hungerford, born Charles Frederick Algernon Portal. This Royal Air Force Chief of Staff during the Second World War was quite familiar with DHC’s activities. In fact, he had visited the factory in 1954 and made a short flight in an Otter.

When consulted by his fellow directors, Portal expressed support for a loan to DHC. According to some, this loan played a significant role in the long-term survival of the Ontario aircraft manufacturer.

Ironically, the Department of Defence Production signed a contract for the production of 2 CC-108 Caribous intended for the… RCAF around September 1958. The latter also received 3 prototypes and demonstration aircraft around 1960. DHC delivered 4 other Caribous to the RCAF in 1964. This was not much.

The deliveries of 1960 took place under somewhat peculiar, if not embarrassing, circumstances. As July drew to a close, the federal government was in dire need of transport planes to support the nearly 300-strong Canadian troops serving in the force known as the United Nations Operation in the Congo.

It announced in August its intention to buy 4 Caribous, including 2 immediately, in order to ferry these 2 aircraft to Congo in mid-August. The urgency was such that DHC had to cut short the vacations of some of its employees. The RCAF, for its part, had to cut short the leave of some of its men.

The United Nations Organization (UN), which had not been informed in advance of the Canadian project, was not amused. It did not appreciate the fact that these Caribous were under Canadian control and reserved for the sole supply of Canadian troops in Congo. In short, the UN having rejected the Canadian proposal, the 2 Caribou produced at full speed were still in Canada at the beginning of September. The 2 parties finally decided to assign the aircraft to the United Nations Emergency Force which patrolled the Egyptian-Israeli border.

The profound shit storm, the phrase is not too strong, in which the people of the Congo found themselves was due to the fact that Belgium had controlled and oppressed this rich and vast African territory for decades. By the time the Belgian Congo gained its independence in June 1960, the colonial power had done little to prepare for the situation. The intervention of the Belgian armed forces, officially to protect the 100 000 Europeans in the country, aroused great anger. Taking advantage of the chaos, 2 Congolese provinces whose vast mineral wealth was controlled by foreign / Western firms declared their independence.

Fearing, without much reason in fact, that the Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, could transform the Congo into a satellite of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, like Cuba, powerful elements in the United States, Belgium and other Western countries all but gave their unofficial blessing to his removal from power. Lumumba was assassinated by Congolese enemies, in January 1961 – 60 years ago this month, but back to our story.

The small number of Caribous ordered by the RCAF was in large part due to the fact that it received 28 Lockheed CC-130 Hercules between 1960 and 1968. The RCAF said it needed these American aircraft, which were much heavier, more powerful and more costly, to support the operations of the Canadian armed forces around the world.

It should be noted that the federal government apparently paid for the first 4 Hercules ordered, in 1960, with funds freed up by the abandonment of the Avro CF-105 Arrow supersonic fighter jet – a machine mentioned many times in our you know what, and this since February 2018. The Hercules, on the other hand, was mentioned in a March 2018 issue of that same publication.

The few Caribous bought by the Department of National Defence obviously did not allow DHC to restore its financial situation. Only the United States Army had the resources to ensure the survival of the Ontario aircraft manufacturer. DHC pleaded its case with its main customer. If the United States Army was quite willing to cooperate, it nonetheless had to find a way to silence the opponents of the Caribou. In 1959, the new Secretary of Defense, Neil Hosler McElroy, organised a demonstration in Washington to do this. The Caribou impressed and the critics went silent.

Over the following months and years, contracts with the United States Army succeeded each other to reach a total of approximately 165 aircraft, redesignated CV-2 and, subsequently, C-7. These orders were a good illustration of the breadth of the unique relationship between DHC and its main customer. These contacts were also much closer than those developed by any other North American aircraft material manufacturer.

It should be noted that the purchases of the United States Army may have been made through the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a Crown corporation founded in 1946 and placed under the control of the Department of Trade and Commerce, whose function was to put in contact the foreign governments which wanted to buy and the Canadian companies which wanted to sell.

The close ties developed by DHC and the United States Army annoyed some / many USAF officers, who appreciated less and less the latter’s purchases of transport planes. As time passed, they multiplied their interventions. The Hercules was indeed much superior to the Caribou, they said. A study published in October 1963 by the United States Department of Defense stated that this aircraft was more cost-effective than the Caribou. You will guess which service was (un)happy with this conclusion.

The USAF finally won its case in January 1967. The United States Army was then forced to transfer all its transport planes to its rival. In return, it was not subject to any restrictions with regard to the use of helicopters. DHC had just lost its biggest customer.

The close ties between DHC and the United States Army were also not appreciated by everyone in Canada. One day in September 1968, while the Vietnam War was raging, a conflict in which the Caribou was seriously involved, 10 small homemade bombs exploded on the lawns or in the automobiles of current or past members of the management of DHC and / or its parent company, Hawker Siddeley Group Limited – a British industrial giant mentioned in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018, and on numerous occasions. Apparently designed to scare, these bombs hurt no one. Despite a thorough investigation, those responsible were not identified.

It should be noted that, one day in November 1968, 4 bombs whose construction was similar to those which had hit DHC were placed near the residences of members of the management of 2 subsidiaries of American companies mentioned frequently in our you know what: United Aircraft of Canada Limited (UACL), an engine manufacturer from Longueuil, Québec, and Canadair Limited, an aircraft manufacturer from Cartierville, Québec. Only one of them explodes, but hurt no one. Again, those responsible were not identified.

If I may be permitted a quick digression, UACL was mentioned in our yadda yadda in March 2018, May 2018 and November 2020. Canadair, on the other hand, was equally blessed, on numerous occasions, since November 2017.

All of these attacks were far in the future when, in October 1959, DHC launched a massive promotional tour. The Caribou prepared for this purpose visited 40 or so countries in Europe, Asia and Oceania between that date and May 1960. The results of this 80 000-kilometre (50 000 miles) odyssey seemed so satisfactory that the aircraft manufacturer repeated the experience between October and December 1961 and between March and July 1964. During each of these tours, several Canadian ambassadors and commercial advisers (willingly?) agreed to participate in the sales effort.

Even more than in the case of the Otter, the production of the Caribou was intended for military users. Excluding Canada and the United States, mentioned above, the list of new and / or used Caribou users includes 15 countries in Africa (Cameroon, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania and Zambia), Asia (Abu Dhabi, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Oman, South Vietnam and Vietnam), Europe (Spain and Sweden) and Oceania (Australia).

It should be noted that the federal government offered some of these Caribou as gifts, that is, 4 aircraft to Malaysia and 4 others to Tanzania.

It should also be noted that the 4 aircraft given to the Jeshi la Wananchi wa Tanzania were part of an aid program for Tanzania. The decision to deliver transport planes to the Tanzanian armed forces was primarily Canadian. President Julius Kambarage Nyerere would have preferred to receive jet aircraft, for training and / or combat.

Note also that the Swedish air force seemingly leased the one and only Caribou which wore its colours. The Flygvapnet ultimately decided not to sign any purchase contract.

A sale project to Indonesia ardently desired by DHC failed around 1961, to the chagrin of its management. The Canadian Department of External Affairs did not wish to offend the Australian and Dutch governments which frowned upon the introduction of modern transport planes to the region.

You see, my reading friend, the Indonesian air force, or Tentara nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara, was then playing a certain role in the efforts undertaken by the Indonesian government to take control, illegally and militarily, of Netherlands New Guinea, a Dutch colony having a common border with the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, a territory under Australian administration. By the way, Indonesia’s efforts were crowned with success, legally this time around, in May 1963.

Interestingly, the federal government handed over Caribous to the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia while Malaysia was in conflict with Indonesia. This was apparently the only military assistance that the Canadian government provided to this Commonwealth member country during the conflict which raged between December 1962 and August 1966.

The Department of External Affairs apparently saw in rather more favourable light the sale of Caribou to the Bhāratīya Vāyu Senā. The Indian armed forces had just suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Chinese armed forces, in October-November 1962.

The Indian air force’s request for the ultra-rapid delivery of a few Caribous, while the conflict raged perhaps, was problematic however. As the Indian government had no dollars in its coffers, its Canadian counterpart would have to accept another currency (Indian rupee or British pound). In addition, the government of Pakistan, a country whose 2 parts were on either sides of India, could be offended by Canada’s eagerness to help its enemy.

Ultimately, the federal government turned over 2 Caribous to the Indian air force around November 1962. It requested and obtained permission from the United States Army to make use of 2 aircraft intended for it. The Indian government paid for these Caribous with a loan from the… federal government.

DHC subsequently delivered several other Caribous to the Bhāratīya Vāyu Senā. The Indian government paid for these aircraft with a 5-year loan from the… federal government.

It should be noted that DHC sold around 20 Caribous to Canadian and foreign civilian operators. One of those civilian operators was none other than CAT Incorporated / Air America Incorporated, a front company created to support the underground (and illegal?) activities of the Central Intelligence Agency in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Several other civilian firms acquired former military Caribous over the years.

DHC ultimately manufactured just over 305 Caribou between 1958 and 1973. This aircraft was among the best mid-size transport planes of its time.

In the mid-1980s, the American aircraft manufacturer Snow Aviation International Incorporated considered the possibility of converting Caribous into turboprop transport aircraft. It gave up on this idea in 1989 at the latest.

Around 1986-87, Snow Aviation International actually began to develop the STOL-C / AT, a STOL aircraft primarily intended for the American and foreign military market. This twin-engine machine, available in military and civilian versions, later redesignated SA-210 and SA-204, closely resembled the Caribou. In fact, originally, it was basically a clone of the Canadian aircraft. Snow Aviation International contacted European and Asian companies to discuss the possibility of manufacturing these aircraft overseas. These efforts were in vain. The project of the American firm did not proceed beyond the project stage.

It worth mentioning that an American distributor of DHC aircraft parts, NewCal Aviation Incorporated, converted a Caribou into a turboprop aircraft in the late 1980s or early 1990s. This Turbo Caribou crashed in 1992, resulting in the death of Perry E. Niforos, the son of the owner of the firm.

PEN Turbo Aviation Incorporated converted and sold 3 other Turbo Caribou between the second half of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2010s. The name of this American firm commemorates Niforos. Around 1999-2000, PEN Turbo Aviation joined forces with an Australian firm, Australian Flight Test Services Proprietary Limited, to put forward the idea of mounting turboprop engines on the surviving Caribous of the Royal Australian Air Force. The project went nowhere. PEN Turbo Aviation seemingly still existed as of early 2021.

I hope you enjoyed this article a tiny bit. See you later.

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Rénald Fortier