A venture worthy of success, the Saunders ST-27 and ST-28 commuter airliners

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The prototype of the Saunders ST-27 commuter airliner in flight, May 1969. Anon., “Air Transport … Light, Commercial & Business.” Flight International, 7 August 1969, 200.

Yours truly would like to offer you a small topic this week. Yes, yes, I shall be brief and succinct. Said subject was inspired by a photograph found in the 7 August 1969 issue of the British weekly Flight International – a remarkable publication if there was / is one.

Once upon a time, there was a British pilot and aeronautical engineer, now forgotten, who started a very interesting project in the second half of the 1960s. As you can probably guess, my reading friend, this was not the first foray of this engineer.

David A. “Dave” Saunders arrived in Canada around 1957 to work for A.V. Roe Aircraft Limited of Malton, Ontario. He left this aircraft manufacturer known to all before the cancellation of the CF-105 Arrow supersonic bomber interceptor, in February 1959, and became a test pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Although disappointed by the failure of Cheetah Light Aircraft Company Limited, a small aircraft manufacturer founded in the Montréal region of Québec, to commercialise the Cheetah, a 4-seat light / private all-metal aircraft of original design, Saunders did not give up his passion for wings. Around May 1968, he founded Saunders Aircraft Corporation Limited in Montréal.

What do you say, my reading friend? A.V. Roe Aircraft (Avro Aircraft) was a subsidiary of A.V. Roe Canada Limited (Avro Canada), itself a subsidiary of British aeronautical giant Hawker Siddeley Group Limited? You are absolutely right. Indeed, Avro Aircraft and Avro Canada were been mentioned a few times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since March 2018. The Arrow, on the other hand, was mentioned in February, July and September 2018 issues of this same blog / bulletin / thingee.

Working with Aviation Traders (Engineering) Limited, a subsidiary of the British maintenance and overhaul company Aviation Traders Limited, Saunders Aircraft put forward the idea of converting a number of de Havilland Herons into twin-engine aircraft with a lengthened fuselage fitted with United Aircraft of Canada PT6 turboprops. Tested in May 1950, the British four-engine commuter airliner was a robust, reliable and economical aircraft. At once lighter and more powerful than the Heron, the Saunders ST-27 would carry around 20 passengers.

Saunders Aircraft hoped to sell about 15 or so conversions in Europe and North America. The small Montréal manufacturer then planned to launch production of a Heron-derived aircraft, the ST-30, re-designated ST-28 thereafter. The aircraft manufacturer was even thinking of building a plant in the United States if the number of American orders justified it. The Steinberg family, owner of Steinberg’s Service Stores Limited, a pioneer in the world of self-service grocery stores in Québec, now gone, was an investor.

If you do not mind, yours truly would like to pontificate for, oh, 13 seconds at most, on the Heron. Approximately 150 examples of this 4-engine derivative of the de Havilland Dove twin-engine commuter airliner were made and flown, either new or second hand, by civilian operators in 42 countries as well as 13 air forces around the world.

Converted in Dorval, Québec, by Atlantic Aviation of Canada Limited, a subsidiary of the American jack of all trade company Atlantic Aviation Corporation, the prototype of the ST-27 flew in May 1969. This aircraft and the second Heron converted in Québec were aircraft formerly operated by the Queen’s Flight, a government air unit providing transportation for the British Royal family.

By the way, Atlantic Aviation of Canada seemed to have other branches in Canada, in Toronto, Ontario; in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta; and in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Even before the end of the summer of 1969, Saunders Aircraft was practically out of money. Discussions with the Caisse de dépôts et de placements du Québec, a newly formed organisation which went on to become the second largest pension fund in Canada, and a group of residents from a small town in the Montréal region went nowhere. Worse still, the company had to sell its prototype to fetch money. This crisis situation destroyed investor confidence in Saunders.

The closure of Canadian Forces Base Gimli, Manitoba, planned for September 1971, was a turning point for Saunders Aircraft. In an effort to create jobs in the affected area, and develop an aircraft / aerospace industry in Manitoba, the crown corporation Manitoba Development Corporation (MDC) committed itself, in September / October 1970, to providing 25% of the working capital of a future plant for a period of 4 years. The management of Saunders Aircraft jumped on the occasion. It needed money, space and staff. Saunders opposed this decision and was shown the door, around April 1971. And yes, Saunders Aircraft bought back its prototype.

Over the months and years, the weight and influence of MDC increased. At the beginning of 1975 for example, it owned slightly more than 80% of Saunders Aircraft.

Saunders Aircraft moved to its new premises in October 1971. The aircraft manufacturer then found itself in a paradoxical situation. It could not find personnel, despite the high number of layoffs in the Canadian aerospace industry in recent years. Unemployed Ontario and Québec workers having shown no interest, Saunders Aircraft had to cover the cost of transporting and accommodating about 50 British workers who had come to Gimli for 6 months. Informed of what was happening, Manitoba union representatives protested vehemently. The company later created a tiny technical school within its workshops.

Because the ST-27 did not meet the criteria of its industry assistance programs, the federal government could not help Saunders Aircraft. The lack of American certification for the ST-27 also significantly reduced the number of potential customers. Worse still, in 1974, a Canadian state agency, the Export Development Corporation, allowed a well-established aircraft manufacturer, de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC) of Downsview, Ontario, to snatch 2 small orders in Colombia and Chile, much to the chagrin of Saunders Aircraft. And yes, DHC was mentioned in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2018.

The aircraft which won these South American orders was one of the most successful commuter airliners of the 20th century. In fact, Saunders Aircraft designed the ST-27 and ST-28 to compete with this machine, the DHC-6 Twin Otter. The ST-27 being a converted aircraft, it did not cost more than its rival. This being said (typed), the number of Herons available for conversion was limited. Even worse, the ST-28 being a brand new aircraft, it cost more than its rival, which reduced its chances of success. By the way, the Twin Otter prototype is part of the breathtaking collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

Surprisingly enough, around September 1973, another federal agency, the Department of Regional Economic Expansion, provided a grant to Saunders Aircraft to facilitate the launch of the ST-28. The company was then working on press campaigns for the European, American and African continents.

A Heron modified to look like the ST-28 flew in July 1974. Around September of the same year, the Canadian Minister of Transport, Jean Marchand, committed to purchase 2 aircraft for rental to Skywest Limited, a new air carrier created by the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This project was actually a promise made by Prime Minister Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau, a character mentioned in a June 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, during the election campaign leading up to the July 1974 vote. That said, the Department of Regional Economic Expansion refused to hand over its grant to Saunders Aircraft until the ST-28 was certified. The lack of coordination within the federal government left many observers speechless.

In June 1975, worried about delays, cost increases and a lack of enthusiasm at the federal level, the Manitoba government decided to stop funding the program. As a result, the expensive ST-28 certification process in both Canada and the United States got bogged down. Saunders Aircraft realised very well that access to the American market was crucial for its survival, especially since at that time the first ST-28 was under construction. Even before the end of the year, Marchand’s successor to the position of Minister of Transport and Saskatchewan’s representative in the Cabinet, Otto Emil Lang, withdrew his support for Skywest. The governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan were furious but were forced to do the same.

Saunders Aircraft tried to stay afloat by launching various projects. It rebuilt a Fairchild Husky bushplane in the mid-1970s. Saunders Aircraft actually wanted to restart the production of this promising aircraft made in small numbers between 1946 and 1948. It may actually have purchased the tooling. The aircraft manufacturer also negotiated with a small American air carrier. Mael Airways (Incorporated?) held the production rights for the Burns / Mael BA-42, a twin-engine business aircraft designed by Burns Aircraft Company but abandoned in 1972-73 for lack of money. The first of 2 BA-42s built flew in April 1966.

That said, Saunders Aircraft’s efforts to find funding failed. It ceased operations in December 1975, the month in which the first series ST-28 made its initial flight. At that time, the company claimed to have received orders for 8 aircraft of this type.

Be that as it may, an unidentified recreational vehicle manufacturer did not take long to settle in one of its hangars. It seemed to be quickly followed by a modular home manufacturer from Calgary, Alberta, V.I.P. Modular Homes Limited. In fact, the latter received a grant from the Department of Regional Economic Expansion before May 1977. Saunders Aircraft was dealt a fatal blow in June 1976 when the Manitoba government put it in receivership.

Between 1969 and 1976, Saunders Aircraft converted 13 Herons and completed 1 ST-28. At the time of closing, 4 ST-27s and the ST-28 still seemed unsold. A small air carrier from Peterborough, Ontario, which used ST-27s, OtonaBee Airways Limited / Air Atonabee Limited, bought the aircraft manufacturer’s assets, not including production rights, around January 1979. The one and only ST-28 became a source of spare parts. Yours truly cannot tell if someone bought the ST-28’s production rights.

Saunders Aircraft was not the only company that saw the Heron as a great starting point for a conversion program. In fact, between the late 1950s and the late 1970s, American, Australian, British, Japanese and Mexican companies installed American piston engines on about 60 Herons. Could these converted aircraft have hurt Saunders Aircraft’s efforts a little, you ask, my reading friend? That is unfortunately possible.

It is on these words, all of them very sad, that our peroration ends. The ST-27 and ST-28 were truly a venture worthy of success. See you soon.

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Rénald Fortier