A good swing deserves another: The saga of the Canadian Canadair CL-44 cargo plane, Part 2

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The Canadair CL-44 leased by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), September 1963. This Seaboard World Airlines Incorporated aircraft carried 19 racing cars to the United States on that flight, its first in the colors of BOAC. CASM.

Good morning, my reading friend, and welcome to the second part of our article on the Canadian Canadair CL-44 cargo plane.

As you are no doubt aware, relations between Canada and its powerful neighbour to the south are sometimes (often?) difficult. An example of these tensions concerned, you guessed it, the quite innocuous aircraft the CL-44 was. In 1959 and 1960, even before the first flight of the civilian swing-tail version of that aircraft, Canadair Limited of Cartierville, Québec, obtained orders from the 3 largest American airlines specialised in the transport of cargo. That had not gone smoothly, however.

At that time, in fact, Seaboard and Western Airlines Incorporated, later Seaboard World Airlines Incorporated, was experiencing very serious financial difficulties. In order to avoid bankruptcy, Canadair agrees to spread the payments over a period of a few month – a generous offer to say the least. Better yet, a Canadian crown corporation, the Export Credit Insurance Corporation, committed to protecting Canadair against any loss incurred in the sale. The federal agency did the same in the case of the order from Flying Tiger Line Limited. The importance of these contracts was such, said Trade and Commerce Minister Gordon Minto Churchill, that the federal government was willing to take the risk.

The American aircraft industry was quick to respond. In January 1960, Senator Almer Stillwell “Mike” Monroney, chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, introduced a most interesting bill which would change the powers of the Civil Aeronautics Board. That predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration of 2022 could now guarantee up to 75 % of loans granted to American airlines which bought American cargo planes whose value did not exceed a certain sum. According to the official version, the fleet of cargo planes thus formed would strengthen the United States Air Force (USAF) in a crisis situation. Many aircraft manufacturers and airlines supported the Monroney bill. The USAF did not share their enthusiasm. It feared a decrease in the amount spent on orders for military cargo planes.

In Canada, the leader of the official opposition, Lester Bowles “Mike” Pearson, a gentleman mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since June 2019, expressed his concern in the House of Commons. The Monroney bill gave an unfair advantage to American cargo plane manufacturers. The Secretary of State for External Affairs, Howard Charles Green, agreed.

In February 1960, representatives of the Department of Defence Production and Canadair traveled to Washington. They quickly discovered that the main goal of the bill’s supporters was to end the sales of CL-44s in the United States. Various American federal departments and agencies were taking positions, for or against. Ultimately, members of the Aviation Subcommittee rejected the bill.

However, some rumours began to circulate in March 1960. The USAF was considering the possibility of ordering 50 swing-tail CL-44s. The administration of President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower showed little enthusiasm for the idea. One of its representatives, however, offered a most interesting scenario for the Canadian government. If the latter acquired 66 McDonnell F-101 Voodoo supersonic all-weather fighters for the defence of North America, the USAF would order a number of CL-44s. Economically, politically and militarily speaking, the idea of ​​such a swap deal seemed excellent. The two parties entered into discussions in the utmost secrecy.

And yes, the splendidly good collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa., Ontario, includes a Voodoo.

A somewhat unexpected event proved to be a game-changer. In mid-April 1960, an American advisory committee of businessmen, the Reed Committee, named after its chairman, Gordon W. Reed, chairman of the board of directors of the oil company Texas Gulf Producing Company, tabled its report. It proposed the purchase of 232 swing-tail CL-44s if Canada agreed to order a certain number of Voodoo. The value of the cargo planes being much higher than that of these all-weather fighters, the American and Canadian governments found the proposal unacceptable.

If I may, while I can certainly understand why the American government turfed that proposal, the negativity of its Canadian counterpart baffles me a bit, or maybe not, given what you will see (read?) below.

Days, then weeks go by. Both parties were having serious difficulty crafting a fair deal. Many members of the United States Congress openly expressed their hostility to any idea of a negotiated swap deal without any competition. A summit meeting between Eisenhower and Canadian Prime Minister John George “Dief” Diefenbaker in June 1960 revived the hopes of negotiators. Their enthusiasm was short-lived. The project was close to death and the federal government ended up withdrawing.

Diefenbaker and his advisers feared criticism (excessive dependence on the United States and poor defence planning, for example). And what about the reaction of Canadian aircraft manufacturers when the acquisition of the Voodoo would be announced, just over a year after the abandonment of the Canadian Avro CF-105 Arrow all-weather fighter?

And yes, Diefenbaker has been mentioned in several / many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2020.

This being said (typed?), the Department of Defence Production offered a far superior alternative to the swap deal. That triangular deal had the advantage of stimulating the Canadian aircraft industry while avoiding too much dependence on the United States. Its 3 elements read as follows:

- the takeover by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) of the stations of the Pinetree line, one of the three elements of the alert network set up by the United States and Canada to detect possible attacks by Soviet bombers equipped with (thermo)nuclear weapons,

- the transfer to the RCAF of 66 Voodoos, with a sharing of cost according to a - ratio, and

- the purchase by the USAF of approximately 32 swing-tail CL-44s.

The United States Department of Defense approved the Canadian project, to the chagrin of many senior USAF officers, who wanted to purchase a transport version of the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refuelling aircraft. The preliminary briefings with influential members of the United States Congress nonetheless went quite well. A terrible and quite unexpected blow came to end the discussions.

The Cabinet, then meeting in Ottawa, refused to support the project. Compensation for the abandonment of the Arrow should not go to Québec’s aircraft industry, said government members of parliament of the Toronto, Ontario region, the region where said Arrow was to be built. A second group of government members of parliament led by the aforementioned Green pointed out that the acquisition of all-weather fighters, little more than a year after the Arrow was abandoned, was likely to reignite that controversial abandonment.

The service introduction of the Voodoo was also likely to reignite the debate on the use, or non use, of nuclear weapons by the Canadian armed forces. Indeed, let us not forget, the armament of the Voodoo included a pair of Douglas MB-1 / AIR-2 Genie unguided rockets with nuclear warheads.

The disappointed Eisenhower administration complained, in private. After a while, the Cabinet reconsidered its position. In September 1960, the Minister of National Defence, George Randolph Pearkes, and a colleague, Donald Methuen Fleming, the Minister of Finance, met with the Secretaries of Defense and of the Treasury, Thomas Sovereign Gates, Junior and Robert Bernard Anderson. The latter were reluctant. The presidential election was due to take place shortly and the triangular deal was far too controversial.

The Eisenhower administration submitted a counter-proposal in November which no longer mentioned the purchase of swing-tail CL-44s. The federal government rejected that proposal which had no merit anyway. President Eisenhower’s candidate for succession, Richard Milhouse “Tricky Dick” Nixon, had been defeated by John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy.

Please note that Nixon was mentioned in May 2019, June 2019 and December 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Kennedy, on the other hand, was so mentioned, on a few / several occasions, since May 2019.

The federal government resumed negotiations shortly after the inauguration of the new president. It proposed the triangular agreement again. Its negotiators had a strong argument. The Cabinet could justify the acquisition of Voodoos to the Canadian public opinion on one condition only: the purchase by the USAF of a certain number of CL-44s, as compensation. The American negotiators came to the same conclusion. Some of them went even further.

If the United States refused to cooperate, Canada could simply forgo the acquisition of the Voodoos. Such a decision meant that, sooner or later, the federal government could / would end its participation in the North American Air Defense Command, in 2022 the North American Aerospace Defense Command, an integrated command announced by the United States and Canada in August 1957. Let us not forget, such a withdrawal was the official position of the official opposition in the House of Commons.

In early February 1961, the federal government submitted a proposal to the new Secretary of Defense, Robert Strange McNamara. It soon received an informal response. The USAF preferred the Boeing C-135 Stratolifter to the swing-tail CL-44. The American government, however, proposed a new version of the triangular deal which included the manufacture by Canadair of at least 100 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter supersonic fighter bombers subsequently handed over to member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) through the Military Assistance Program, a program launched in 1961 and linked to the American Mutual Defense Assistance Act. The United States agreed to pay 75 % of the costs. The Canadian government would have to cover the rest. Officially introduced in late February, that alternative generated a lot of interest within the federal government.

Indeed, the American offer met most of the government’s expectations. Canadair and the rest of the aircraft industry surely would not complain. After all, the engines of the new Starfighters would be made in Ontario. One fact, however, remained. It was not by manufacturing a foreign aircraft that Canada would develop its own technology. Anxious to support the aircraft industry, the Cabinet nevertheless approved the sending of a delegation from the Department of Defence Production. The two parties came to an agreement even before the end of March.

They now had to find a way to present that success without triggering hostile reactions within the United States Congress. The American aircraft industry was indeed experiencing certain difficulties. The triangular deal 2.0 was an unprecedented agreement which was not going to improve the situation. The Kennedy administration launched a major awareness campaign. The United States Congress responds favorably. In June 1961, in the House of Commons, Diefenbaker announced the signing of a bilateral defence agreement with the United States.

The signing of the bilateral agreement did not go smoothly. The Kennedy administration indeed exerted some pressure on the federal government to agree to arm its Voodoos with Genies. Indeed, the American Ambassador to Canada had been interested in that issue for some time. Livingston Tallmadge Merchant did not beat around the bush. The United States Congress, he said, thought above all about the security of the United States. The Canadian government had to prove to its members that the bilateral agreement strengthened North America’s defence system by accepting the Genie. The absence of that weapon indeed diminished the effectiveness of the Voodoos.

Diefenbaker informed Merchant that his government readily recognised the merits of the American position. However, many Canadians opposed the service introduction of weapons of mass destruction. That movement even tended to gain momentum. Certainly, caution was in order. Diefenbaker was particularly wary of the Department of External Affairs, which, according to him, was home to many supporters of the official opposition. These people should not be made aware of what was being negotiated. The new round of nuclear weapons negotiations would therefore have to be postponed. Either way, Diefenbaker was about to speak to Cabinet. It would not be long before the Genie would enter service.

These optimistic words did not match the Prime Minister’s state of mind. Diefenbaker had no choice, however. He was deeply concerned about the completion of the bilateral defence agreement. In his eyes, the Starfighter production contract was vital. Throughout the summer of 1961, the Cabinet stepped up interventions aimed at appeasing Canadian anti-nuclear groups, as well as pro-nuclear groups and the Kennedy administration – an impossible mission if there was one.

Ethan Matthew Hunt himself would have thrown in the towel, and… Do not tell me you do not know whom I am talking (typing?) about, my reading friend. Hunt… Tom Cruise, born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, an actor mentioned in a December 2019 issue of our you know what? Seriously? Sigh. Back to our story.

The Canadian Prime Minister was procrastinating and the President was getting impatient. Kennedy and Diefenbaker ended up cordially hating each other, which did not help matters. While the first Voodoo arrived in Canada around October 1961, the Genies would remain in the United States until 1965.

And yes, Pearson and his party changed their minds on weapons of mass destruction, from no to yes, in January 1963. And yes again, Pearson won the general election of April 1963. It was, however, a minority government.

Dare I risk sounding deeply offensive by paraphrasing, out of context and in translation, a wisecrack from 1593 that the king of Navarre and soon to be king of France, Henri IV, born Henri de Bourbon, seemingly never uttered, that is power in Ottawa was well worth several nuclear warheads? You are right. I will not risk it.

The first Starfighter ordered in 1961 flew in July 1963. The USAF distributed these aircraft to less wealthy allies. That transfer did not happen all by itself. The federal government indeed had a say. In 1965, for example, it opposed the sending of Starfighters to 3 NATO member countries, Portugal and, especially, Greece and Turkey. These 2 countries were then in conflict, despite the intervention of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. Members of the Canadian Army were on that island in the Mediterranean Sea and the federal government refused to sell weapons which could be used against them.

With regard to Portugal, the federal government was opposed to the fact that the far-right government of that country was fiercely opposed to the understandable desire for independence expressed by the populations of its African provinces / colonies, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. The ensuing fierce conflicts, which had begun in 1961, did not end until 1974, following the overthrow of the Portuguese dictatorship, in April.

In the end, at least 6 countries, including 4 NATO member countries, received Starfighters manufactured by Canadair: China (Taiwan) and Spain on the one hand, as well as Denmark, Greece, Norway and Turkey on the other. And yes, only Denmark. Greece and Norway were democratic countries when the Starfighters reached their shores, and Greece became a military dictatorship in 1967. A bloodthirsty dictatorship fiercely and masterfully denounced in the Franco-Algerian film Z, released in 1969.

Ta ta for now.


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Rénald Fortier