Around the world in eighty hours: A few pages on the Canadair North Star, part 2

A Canadair North Star of British Overseas Airways Corporation, London Airport, Heathrow, England, September 1954. Wikimedia

Greetings, my reading friend. The superannuated teenager that I am is again pleased to have you here.

As yours truly said (typed?) last week, the Canadair North Star airliner was attracting the attention of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), a British crown corporation struggling with a heavy deficit. Facing serious financial problems itself, the British government refused to allow BOAC to buy American airliners, visibly superior to the British airliners it was using, which would have to be paid for in dollars.

The British air carrier was thus forced to use unprofitable aircraft, sometimes / often derived from heavy bombers (Avro Lancaster or Handley Page Halifax) used during the Second World War.

The losses built up and the brand new British airliner, the Avro Tudor, a cousin of the Avro Lincoln heavy bomber, itself derived from the Avro Lancaster, aroused little enthusiasm.

If I may be permitted to briefly digress, in March or May 1945, the British Ministry of Aircraft Production initialed an order with Victory Aircraft Limited of Malton, Ontario. The crown corporation was to build 200 examples of an improved version of the Lancaster, the Lincoln, for the Royal Air Force. This order included 100 aircraft already ordered as Lancasters and a group of 100 new aircraft. Japan’s unconditional surrender in August put an end to the program. The British and Canadian authorities, however, allowed Victory Aircraft to complete 5 Lincolns to keep a small number of workers busy. The one and only aircraft ultimately completed flew in October 1945.

And yes, the factory of Victory Aircraft became the factory of A.V. Roe Canada Limited (Avro Canada) of Malton, Ontario, a subsidiary of A.V. Roe & Company Limited (Avro), itself a subsidiary of the British giant Hawker-Siddeley Aircraft Company Limited / Hawker Siddeley Group Limited, even before the end of 1945.

In early 1946, Avro Canada was awarded an order for 5 Tudors for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The production of these aircraft, modified to meet the needs of their user, was to keep the company occupied while waiting for the first flight of new aircraft designed by its engineers. The Department of Reconstruction and Supply canceled the order in September 1946, long before a prototype was completed. End of digression.

In early 1948, BOAC indicated that it wanted to acquire North Stars for use until a new generation of British airliners entered service. The Canadian aircraft offered a good compromise. It was less expensive than its American competitors and, a not insignificant detail, it was equipped with British engines. The Ministry of Civil Aviation supported BOAC. Canadair Limited then hoped to deliver 50 or so North Stars to the United Kingdom. Problem solved? Uh, no…

A powerful lobby group was indeed opposed to this idea. It told anyone who would listen that the prestige of the British aircraft industry was at stake. In this camp were the Ministry of Supply, the aircraft industry and much of the trade press. The debate actually bounced to the British House of Commons.

I have yet to see the 2006 movie The Prestige, by the way. I hear this American science fiction and psychological thriller film is very good, but I digress.

January 1948 ended, then February. With the file stalled, Canadian High Commissioner Norman Alexander Robertson launched into battle with the blessing of the federal government. “It [was] most important that this order for aeroplanes be secured if possible, since otherwise [the] future of Canadair may be jeopardised.” According to Robertson, it was within the British Cabinet itself that the most bitter struggles were fought. The preservation of the national aircraft industry defended by certain ministers was hampered by the desire for efficiency put forward by several others. Prestige aside, the rub was with the financing. The British government refused to foot the bill in dollars. In fact, it could not really afford to dip into its meagre dollar reserves.

Not all adversaries of the North Star resided across the Atlantic. Nay. Indeed, George Alexander Drew, a character mentioned in the first part of this article, saw fit to resume his attacks – attacks we also came across in that same first part. The Ontario Premier questioned the performance and reliability of the aircraft. A certain press opened its columns to him. The federal government and the management of Canadair were shocked. These inflammatory and highly partisan remarks were quickly forgotten, or not.

Discussions resumed but the game was far from won. The American government and at least one American aircraft manufacturer, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, did not admit defeat. They prepared new offers. The Canadian government was concerned. To break the deadlock, British officials proposed a brand new fundraising program based on BOAC’s revenues. The Canadian government quickly accepted. The British Civil Air Committee recommended the purchase of 22 modified North Stars in June 1948. The British Ministry of Civil Aviation approved this project in July, subject to certain conditions. The British Cabinet did the same in September. Avro, the British aircraft industry and its allies in the British trade press were quite disappointed and unhappy.

The British government finally agreed to settle the transaction in dollars. To achieve this, its Canadian counterpart showed some flexibility. The British war debt repayment program underwent some changes. Some deadlines were postponed. The sums thus released were used to defray the cost of the North Stars. The percentage of British-sourced equipment on board these aircraft was also substantially increased.

Around 1949-50, the North Stars alone accounted for 30 % of BOAC’s income and enabled it to make a profit for the first time in its history.

Building on its British success, Canadair had hopes of securing other contracts overseas, particularly in Australia. The names of Australian National Airways Proprietary Limited, British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines Proprietary Limited and Qantas Empire Airways Limited were mentioned, for example. The Cartierville, Québec, aircraft manufacturer and Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA) had also been trying to gain the attention of European airlines for some time.

By the late winter 1947-48 at the latest, for example, the Czechoslovakian national air carrier, Československé Státní Aerolinie (ČSA), expressed interest in the Canadian airliner. It remained to be seen how sincere the Czechoslovakian government was. The American government having just banned the sale of modern airliners to countries under the heel of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, American diplomats were indeed wondering if said interest was a roundabout way to force the hand of the United States. Whatever ČSA’s intentions, its interest went nowhere.

In actual fact, Canadair remained a prisoner of the license granted by Douglas Aircraft Company Incorporated. The United Kingdom (and Commonwealth?) aside, the entire world belonged to the American aircraft manufacturer. Subsequent sales of North Stars were thus reduced to 4 aircraft taken on strength by Canadian Pacific Airlines Limited. That contract deserves to be explained.

In the spring of 1948, this private airline requested permission from the federal government to create a route over the Pacific to China and Australia. The latter accepted. The Minister of Reconstruction and Supply, as well as of Trade and Commerce, the very powerful and influential Clarence Decatur “C.D.” Howe imposed a condition, however. Canadian Pacific Airlines had to order several North Stars. The latter’s president, George William Grant McConachie, accepted. China and Australia were well worth this compromise.

During the election campaign which preceded the federal election of June 1949, the aforementioned Drew, leader since October 1948 of the party which constituted the official opposition and leader of that opposition until said election was called, obtained an internal TCA memo regarding the sometimes somewhat questionable reliability of the North Star’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. He believed he had found a good way to weaken his opponent, Louis Stephen Saint-Laurent, Prime Minister until said election was called.

Both Canadair and TCA responded to these attacks. Both defended the North Star.

And yes, Saint-Laurent was mentioned in July 2019, October 2020 and May 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

In any event, Drew was royally mistaken. Widely out of ideas, his party lost 24 of its 65 seats in the House of Commons. Saint-Laurent’s party, on the other hand, went from 118 to 191 seats, winning the largest majority ever received until then.

Indeed, one had to wonder if a May 1949 rumour, published by the American weekly magazine Aviation Week, according to which TCA planned to replace the Merlin engines in its North Stars with more powerful and more reliable American radial engines, after the federal election of June 1949, owed its creation to the woes of Drew’s party. Just sayin’. Is it worth mentioning that TCA president Gordon Roy McGregor formally denied this rumour? That is what I thought.

By the way, a similar rumour, this time about RCAF aircraft, circulated shortly after said federal election. It too was baseless.

All in all, Canadair manufactured approximately 70 North Star between 1946 and 1950.

In 1950, the RCAF also received an aircraft equipped with the aforementioned more powerful and more reliable American radial engines, the C-5, used for the transport of personalities and the training of its crews.

Indeed, in the middle of 1950, Canadair pointed out to TCA its willingness to manufacture 15 aircraft comparable to the C-5 in exchange for 15 North Stars that the aircraft manufacturer wanted to sell to a third party, a Brazilian air carrier apparently. Quite possibly Viação Aérea Rio-Grandense Sociedade Anônima (VARIG).

At the same time, the Cartierville aircraft manufacturer was also (seriously?) thinking about converting certain (civil and / or military?) North Stars already in service into turboprop-powered aircraft. Neither project went anywhere.

The family of aircraft of which the North Star was a part, in other words the Douglas DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7 family of aircraft, included some of the most successful airliners of the 20th century.

And that is it for today.

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Rénald Fortier