Around the world in eighty hours: A few pages on the Canadair North Star, part 1

The prototype of the Canada North Star, 1946. Canada Aviation and Space Museum, KM-08329

Greetings, my reading friend. The superannuated teenager that I am is pleased to have you here. As the title of this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee suggests, the first issue of our fifth year (!) together, I would like to speak (type?) to you today about an aircraft which is part of the incomparable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. Said aircraft is the last surviving example of the first series-produced airliner in Canada – the Canadair North Star.

And yes, you are right, a group of volunteers working under the aegis of Project North Star is gradually restoring this unique aircraft. It has actually been working on it for over 15 years.

Canadair Limited of Cartierville, Québec, a firm mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since November 2017, appeared in October 1944 when the shipyard Canadian Vickers Limited of Montréal, Québec, a firm mentioned in that same publication since May 2018, abandoned the management of this ultra-modern factory and aeronautical production as a whole. A new crown corporation, Canadair of course, then took control of said factory.

At that time, Canadair was producing Consolidated Canso maritime reconnaissance amphibians for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Consolidated Catalina search and rescue amphibians for the United States Army Air Forces. The aircraft manufacturer was also preparing to start production of an airliner. That project had its origins in the deliberations of the Interdepartmental Committee on Air Transport Policy / Committee on Postwar Aircraft Manufacturing (?), in 1943.

A subcommittee recommended the development of a fast, powerful and, if possible, pressurised long-range 4-engine transport aircraft for use by the RCAF, Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA), today’s Air Canada Incorporated, and Canadian Pacific Airlines Limited, a subsidiary of a Canadian transportation giant, Canadian Pacific Railway Company. With the support of the Director General of Aircraft Production of the Department of Munitions and Supply, Ralph Pickard Bell, a gentleman mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since September 2017, the crown corporation Victory Aircraft Limited of Malton, Ontario, was awarded the contract to develop this aircraft, the Victory 4, over the summer of 1943.

As you can imagine, TCA has been mentioned several times in our yadda yadda, since August 2017. Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian Pacific Airlines, on the other hand, have been mentioned several / many times since April 2018 and May 2019 respectfully. Victory Aircraft, finally, was mentioned in May 2019. Small world, is it not?

Realising the importance of having an experienced project manager, the Department of Munitions and Supply asked A.V. Roe & Company Limited (Avro), a subsidiary of British giant Hawker-Siddeley Aircraft Company Limited / Hawker Siddeley Group Limited, to release one of its top engineers. The British aircraft manufacturer politely refused, citing the importance of its own projects. Bell was both surprised and disappointed.

And yes, your memory is simply elephantine, my reading friend. Avro has indeed been mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018. And yes again, Hawker Siddeley Aircraft / Hawker Siddeley Group has been mentioned several times in our you know what, and this since March 2018.

Victory Aircraft then began designing the new airliner using its own resources. An Australian air carrier, Australian National Airways Proprietary Limited, was quick to take an interest in the Canadian airliner project. Some even suggested that the development of this aircraft become a binational project. Concerned above all about by the survival of the Canadian aviation industry, Bell politely refused to go down that path.

Even before the summer of 1943 was over, however, the interdepartmental committee questioned the need for a Canadian-designed long-range airliner. The inaugural flight of the first Avro Lancaster heavy bomber converted into an airliner in Canada, in September 1943, impressed the Department of Munitions and Supply. In early October, it asked Victory Aircraft, the firm responsible for the production of the Lancaster in Canada, to design an airliner using as many Lancaster components as possible. This Victory 5 had to be equipped with a new, more spacious fuselage with a pressurised cabin, however – an innovation which allowed flying humans to breathe unhindered at an altitude which maximised the performance of an airliner’s engines. The aircraft manufacturer complied but recommended that this aircraft not be ordered. The Victory 4 was far superior, it believed.

And yes, the amazing collection at the amazing Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, includes a Lancaster.

In November 1943, the Department of Munitions and Supplies acquiesced and authorised Victory Aircraft to resume development of this long-range airliner, redesignated Victory 7. The aircraft manufacturer could also undertake the design of a derivative intended for North American routes, the Victory 9. More and more monopolised by the manufacture of an airliner derived from the Lancaster, the Avro York, Victory Aircraft temporarily abandoned the Victory 7 and 9 around January 1944.

It is worth noting that the aeronautical engineering division of the RCAF examined the latter, however, and deemed it insufficient. The technical subcommittee of the interdepartmental committee agreed, to the chagrin of Victory Aircraft.

A brief digression if I may. Realising the importance of air travel during and after the Second World War, the very powerful Minister of Munitions and Supply, Clarence Decatur “C.D.” Howe, wanted to replace as soon as possible the Lancaster airliners of the Canadian Government Transatlantic Air Service, an air carrier mentioned in a 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Avro having developed a civil / military transport version of the Lancaster, the York, the Department of Munition and Supply, asked Victory Aircraft, in the fall of 1942, to manufacture 50 aircraft modified according to the requirements of TCA. The latter got the contract canceled, however, even before the end of the summer of 1943. Indeed, the first transatlantic flights made by the Lancasters had revealed a strong tendency for icing – a problem that would in all likelihood affect the York. TCA also realised that the York’s cabin could not be pressurised, a major shortcoming in the civilian market. Mind you, the RCAF was not showing much interest in the York either.

This being said (typed?), Victory Aircraft received permission to complete an example of this aircraft. Given the priority granted to the production of the Lancaster, this York did not fly until November 1944. It was delivered to the Royal Air Force in January 1945.

Given the saga of the Victory 4 / Victory 5 / Victory 7 / Victory 9 / York, the Department of Munitions and Supply ended up examining an option other than the design of a Canadian airliner. Would it not be simpler and cheaper to build an American aircraft under license? A team from TCA visited major American transport aircraft manufacturers (Boeing Aircraft Company, Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, Douglas Aircraft Company Incorporated and Lockheed Aircraft Corporation) in early 1944.

Of all the aircraft examined, only the Lockheed C-69 Constellation and, most importantly, the Douglas C-54 Skymaster, were truly in the race. The Canadian team was quick to recommend adopting the Skymaster, or Douglas DC-4 in its civilian version, a solid, reliable and somewhat underpowered aircraft. The Department of Munitions and Supply acquiesced in February 1944. Douglas Aircraft granted a license to the federal government soon after.

Should I mention that Boeing Aircraft has been mentioned since June 2018 in… I see, I see. Calm down. Consolidated Vultee Aircraft, Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft have been mentioned since July 2018, but back to our story.

It remained to be seen who would build the Canadian DC-4s, an important aircraft if there ever was. The initial choice of the aforementioned Howe appeared to have been Boeing Aircraft of Canada Limited of Vancouver, British Columbia, a subsidiary of Boeing Aircraft and a firm mentioned several times in our yadda yadda since February 2019.

It was at that point that Benjamin William Franklin, general manager of the Canadian Vickers plant in Cartierville, took the stage. The DC-4 interested him. He asked Howe to grant him the contract. The minister was receptive. He realised the need to maintain a certain balance between the regions of Montréal and Toronto, Ontario, then somewhat favoured in terms of aircraft construction. Howe, however, emphasised the important role of the Cartierville plant in the war effort. Franklin then rushed to the United Kingdom and got the Ministry of Aircraft Production to phase out the contracts in progress. Howe, impressed, deferred to him. The DC-4 production contract was signed in March 1944.

These aircraft, said Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie “Rex” King, a character mentioned several times yadda yadda since May 2019, “were required for our domestic airlines to maintain their competitive position with parallel American services that would use airplanes of that type.” For its transatlantic service, “Canada was greatly interested in the civil version of the Lancaster known as the Tudor.”

The announcement concerning the decision to make DC-4s in Canada was somewhat displeasing to the British government. British Prime Minister Winston Leonard Spencer “Winnie” Churchill wrote to his Canadian counterpart even before the end of March 1944. Pressure from the British government for Canadian Vickers to deliver Lancaster heavy bombers having gone nowhere, Churchill noted that “it was gravely disappointing to us that we should not receive these invaluable aircraft which you had promised to make for us and on which we were counting, but that we should receive this notification without any warning and consultation.” The fact that the federal government had chosen an American airliner and not a British one particularly annoyed Churchill. King and Howe ignored him.

The victory won by the Cartierville plant also aroused the dissatisfaction of the Ontario premier, who had hoped that Victory Aircraft would receive the contract. Fearing the loss of thousands of jobs in Toronto, George Alexander Drew, the Premier of Ontario and a character mentioned in an October 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, attacked Canadian Vickers and TCA president Herbert James Symington, which he accused of being in conflict of interest. Was he not associated with an investment firm linked to Canadian Vickers? Worse yet, Drew said that it was foreign financial interests, in this case Belgian ones, which controlled the Cartierville. Master of his files, Howe responded to criticisms. Drew had to retreat.

Howe later announced that the Canadian DC-4 would likely have Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled Vee-engines instead of the less powerful air-cooled radial engines of American-produced aircraft. While technical reasons largely explained this choice, the fact remained that it would greatly help the faltering economy of the United Kingdom. Due to certain economic agreements within the Commonwealth, the DC-4 engines could also enter Canada without being touched by customs. Better yet, the purchase of British engines ensured that the federal government did not have to dip into its reserves of American currency.

According to information available in mid-1944, 50 aircraft would be manufactured for TCA, the RCAF and Canadian Pacific Airlines.

While several senior officers of the RCAF regretted the abandonment of any Canadian airliner design project, this service nevertheless began to take an interest in the DC-4 around December 1944. The Cabinet War Committee indeed authorised it to create 3 long-range transport squadrons which should support the fight against Japan. The RCAF hoped to order approximately 120 aircraft, that it wished to call Dominion.

Even more than aeronautics, however, Canadian Vickers was interested in shipbuilding. Given its limited financial resources, the company withdrew from the aeronautical sector in the summer of 1944. The Department of Munitions and Supply took control of the operations of the Cartierville plant and began negotiations with its directors. It handed over control of operations to a new crown corporation, Canadair, in November 1944. Franklin became its president.

It should be noted that the union which represented Canadair’s personnel was going through difficult times towards the end of the Second World War. The local in question, number 712, was part of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) – in 2021, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. This powerful Canadian union was affiliated with a much more powerful American industrial union, the well-known Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The control exercised over Local 712 by seasoned union activists who were members of the Progressive Workers’ Party, the new name for the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), adopted in 1943, the CPC having been declared illegal around May 1940, was not to everyone’s liking. One only had to think about the role played by Robert “Bob” Haddow, the permanent organiser of the IAM for the Montréal area. Although a unilingual anglophone, this high-calibre orator and charismatic organiser was the most influential Communist activist of the time in Québec.

In November or December 1945, the IAM leadership suspended Haddow for supporting the re-election of a Russian / Polish Canadian Member of Parliament of Communist persuasion, the first one and the only one at the time, Fred Rose, born Fishel Rosenberg. Apparently at the same time, rightly or wrongly, it suspended the rest of the officers of Local 712 on suspicion of a plot to affiliate the latter with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, an American union affiliated with the CIO quite heavily influenced by the Communist Party USA. The leadership of the IAM expelled all these wonderful people in January 1946.

With the support of Haddow, the former officers of Local 712 founded a new organisation linked to a powerful union affiliated with the CIO, the United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers of America – in 2021, the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America International Union. This Montreal Aircraft Workers Local Union began an intense poaching campaign in the Canadair workshops to take the place of Local 712.

This assault came at a very bad time. Severely weakened by the expulsion of its officers and, even more so, by the massive layoffs which followed the end of the Second World War, Local 712 was by then hardly recognised by Canadair’s management.

Outraged by the interference of communist militants, several workers launched into battle. One of them was none other than Joseph Léo Louis “Ti-Louis” Laberge, the future president of the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec – a position that this giant of Québec unionism held for more than a quarter of a century. The struggle between these groups gave rise to violence. Indeed, an activist opposed to the communists spent a few days in a coma. Concerned about what was happening, Canadair’s management informed its employees that it wanted to see Local 712 win over their rival – a support that union activists could well have done without.

While the Montreal Aircraft Workers Local Union failed to gain the support of the majority of Canadair’s staff, Local 712 owed its final victory to a decision by a Québec provincial body, the Commission des relations ouvrières. The Premier of Québec, Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, and his entire cabinet indeed had a fierce hatred of communism – and any leftist movement. Unsurprisingly, the Commission des relations ouvrières rejected the Montreal Aircraft Workers Local Union’s application for certification. In July 1946, Local 712 signed its first post-war employment contract, but back to our story.

Does your truly need to mention that Duplessis was mentioned many times in our you know what since January 2018? Thank you. I will not.

Engineers from TCA and the RCAF were involved in the design of the modified DC-4. Civilians and military people alike insisted that certain modifications and improvements be included. The layout of the Merlin engines, for example, was apparently inspired by drawings made by Douglas Aircraft following the installation of American Vee-engines on a derivative of the Skymaster which was not put in production.

The abrupt end of the Second World War in August 1945 and the subsequent cancellations of military contracts made the project even more important. It therefore became necessary to accept the need to eliminate certain modifications in order to hasten delivery dates.

Disagreements appeared very quickly. TCA wanted the aircraft to be pressurised. Indeed, passengers could not be asked to wear an oxygen mask for hours on end. Canadair, on the other hand, did not want the first aircraft produced to be pressurised. The result was an impasse. Franklin visited Howe. TCA quickly had to bow. Six non-pressurised aircraft in the RCAF’s order would be loaned to the air carrier until its own machines went into service.

Howe’s role was not limited to this one aspect. Originally, TCA plans to purchase a dozen pressurised DC-4s. The powerful minister disagreed. “Twelve! That’s not nearly enough. We’ll order twenty and even that won’t do.” Howe was in many ways a unique figure in the history of the Canadian aircraft industry.

As these discussions unfolded, many people wondered about the future of Canadair. Negotiations to that effect had continued with varying degrees of vigor since early 1945. The potential buyer, Electric Boat Company, has carved out a solid reputation for himself building submarines for the United States Navy. This American firm, mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, since March 2019, now wanted to diversify its production by taking advantage of the boom in aeronautics. Its leaders also realised that unlike the American government, that of Canada did not limit too much the profits on government contracts.

Electric Boat began to acquire the share capital of Canadair in the spring of 1946. It seemed to hold most of it even before the end of the fall.

The government and Canadair signed an agreement in September concerning the leasing, for 15 years, of land, buildings and machine tools. The agreement included a purchase option. Electric Boat made a commitment to invest in its new subsidiary and deliver the 44 DC-4 / Skymaster type aircraft (20 for TCA and 24 for the RCAF) already ordered. For its part, the federal government transferred the license for the aircraft to Canadair. The Cabinet approved the details of the deal in January 1947. Electric Boat and the federal government were relatively discreet, however. In fact, the press release was not luminously clear. Even the staff at the American embassy in Ottawa wondered what Electric Boat had just acquired.

Far from opposing the sale, Howe saw some advantages in it. In a way, the purchase by an American firm ensured access to the technology of our neighbors to the south, without costing the federal treasury a dime. Thousands of jobs were thus preserved. The federal government, on the other hand, could not cover Canadair’s deficit forever. In the view of many, it was necessary to think about efficiency and privatisation.

In the minds of some observers, however, the sale confirmed the reputation of the Minister of Reconstruction and Supply, a new post born in December 1945 from the merger of the Ministries of Ammunition and Supply and of Reconstruction. Howe who, let us not forget, was born in the United States, was in their opinion a little too pro-American.

It should be noted that Canadair gradually took possession of the Cartierville plant. The aircraft manufacturer completed the acquisition of the buildings in March 1956.

The first Canadian DC-4, an aircraft destined for the RCAF in fact, took to the sky in mid-July 1946. A few minutes earlier, Howe’s American spouse, Alice Martha Worcester Howe, called the aircraft North Star. The name proved so popular that it was adopted for all the Douglas transport aircraft ordered by the RCAF and TCA which thus became North Stars.

An RCAF aircraft on loan to TCA undertook its first commercial flight to the United Kingdom in April 1947. The first example of the pressurised civilian version, largely based on the Douglas DC-6, went into service in May 1948, with that same TCA.

This being said (typed?), the North Star was expensive and there were delays. The Merlin engines, very noisy, were not always perfectly reliable. If the engineers at Canadair and / or TCA eventually came up with solutions to the problems, the fact was that they diminished the air carrier’s enthusiasm for its new aircraft.

Many members of the official opposition were actually very interested in the North Star file. In February 1947, then in March, they asked question after question. Howe, unflappable, let them simmer for more than 6 weeks. Finally, he complied. Some nice work, stated an adviser to the American embassy. A typical response, said the official opposition. In fact, they did not know much more than before.

Indeed, the aforementioned Symington was not a happy camper. In early 1947, the president of TCA told a representative of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), delightfully pronounced bo-ak by a former colleague (Hello MM!), a British crown corporation struggling with a heavy deficit, that the North Star “was his first and last venture in building aeroplanes and that he was a sadly disillusioned man.”

Despite these difficulties, the North Star nonetheless attracted the attention of BOAC, and ... You are interested in that question, right? Too bad, so sad. You will have to wait until next week to find out what this was all about. Bwa ha ha. Sorry.

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Rénald Fortier