From pole to pole and horizon to horizon, the Twin Otter was, is and will be there: A very brief pontification on one of the best Canadian aircraft ever designed

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The prototype of the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter on display at the Canada Aviation Museum, Ottawa, circa 2001. CASM.

Greetings, my reading friend. Yours truly is happy to see that you wish to drink once again from the fountain of knowledge that our anarchic and overly chatty blog / bulletin / thingee sometimes constitutes.

I will not tell you anything you did not already know by saying (typing?) that the supremely illustrious Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, acquired a very important aircraft in October 1981 and ... What do you say? You do not have a clue of what I am talking (typing?) about?! Shame on you! Sorry.

Learn then, my reading friend, that the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter was / is one of the best commuter airliner / utility aircraft in the world. De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC) of Downsview, Ontario, a well-known aircraft manufacturer, delivered the prototype of this remarkable machine to the museum in October 1918. Sorry. In October 1981.

And yes, DHC has been mentioned in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2017.

Our story this week began, however, many years before the first flight of the Twin Otter or, as it is sometimes called, THE NOISE-POWERED AEROPLANE.

In December 1951, a DHC test pilot took to the air at the controls of the prototype of a single-engine utility aircraft. The DHC-3 Otter proved to be very successful. The Ontario aircraft manufacturer produced approximately 465 examples of it between 1951 and 1967. These aircraft bore the colours of many air forces and air carriers around the world.

This being said (typed?), a few customers, including Canadian airline Wardair Limited of Edmonton, Alberta, not to mention the United States Army, told DHC that a twin-engine aircraft would be safer. The payload of an Otter fitted with floats also left a little to be desired, especially at altitude or in hot weather. In fact, some potential customers decided to buy twin-engine aircraft instead of the Otter. The aircraft manufacturer duly noted these decisions.

The launch of the excellent PT6 turboprop engine by Canadian Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company Limited / United Aircraft of Canada Limited, a subsidiary of the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Division of the American aeronautical giant United Aircraft Corporation, in the early 1960s, one of the best in its class in the world, yes, yes, in the world, and an engine mentioned in November 2020 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, was a game-changer.

Would you like yours truly to mention that Canadian Pratt & Whitney Aircraft / United Aircraft of Canada was mentioned in August 2017, March 2018 and November 2020 issues of ... all right, all right, let us keep calm. I was merely asking you.

An important meeting was held in July 1963 at the DHC offices. Management then decided not to develop a brand-new light transport aircraft, preferring instead to use as many elements of the Otter as possible. The designation DHC-6 Twin Otter was quickly adopted. As in the past, the United States Army followed closely what was happening in the workshops of the Ontario aircraft manufacturer.

Fearing the appearance of foreign competitors, DHC approved the production of a prototype and 4 pre-production aircraft. The first Twin Otter flew in May 1965.

And yes, the new aircraft could obviously be fitted with wheels, skis or floats.

As was the case in the past, DHC was then a subsidiary of the British aircraft manufacturer de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited. Since 1960 however, this well-known firm mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2018 was itself a subsidiary of Hawker Siddeley Group Limited. And yes, this British giant was mentioned yadda yadda March 2018, but back to our “Twotter” – another nickname given to the Twin Otter.

In 1966, the United States Army asked for a price offer for 100 Twin Otters. Deeply annoyed by this action, some / many American aircraft manufacturers obtained a relaxation of the military requirements in terms of short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities. The Twin Otter having proven more expensive than the smaller aircraft offered by Beech Aircraft Corporation, the latter won the competition in October 1966. This failure was the first that DHC has experienced since 1951 with regard to orders from the United States Army. The worst was yet to come, however.

Increasingly irritated by the United States Army’s desire to order de Havilland Canada CV-7 Buffalo STOL transport planes, thus enhancing its potential in air transport, the United States Ait Force (USAF) protested. Having considered the matter, the United States Department of Defense made a decision in January 1967. The United States Army was ordered to use helicopters to carry out all of its transport missions. It therefore had to transfer its few Buffalo as well as all its de Havilland Canada CV-2 Caribou STOL transport planes to the USAF. Overnight, DHC lost its main customer. Worse still, the USAF did not care about an aircraft the size of the Buffalo. Its favourite transport plane, an American machine, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, was much bigger.

This being said (typed?), the USAF and the United States Army ordered 10 or so UV-18 Twin Otters during the 1970s. The Canadian Armed Forces, on the other hand, received a similar number of CC-138 Twin Otters in 1971 and 1973. That was not much, but let us go back several / many years to follow the course of our river of thought.

Beech Aircraft’s victory was certainly a bummer for DHC. This being said (typed?), its management already had some ideas. Indeed, DHC began a series of demonstration flights for the benefit of small American airlines in April 1966. Realising how effective the Twin Otter could be as a commuter airliner that could carry 15 to 19 passengers, a niche not envisioned by DHC, many of them signed contracts over the months and years. Many small airlines based on other continents did the same.

This interest stemmed in large part from the passage in the United States of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. This measure put an end to 4 decades of government control of the American airline industry. It allowed large air carriers to concentrate their efforts on the busiest routes, leaving third-level air carriers free to take over the routes leading to small and medium-sized municipalities.

While the Airline Deregulation Act resulted in lower fares, it also resulted in multiple airline bankruptcies, countless flight delays, congested airports, etc. It also resulted more or less directly in the deregulation of the airline industry in other parts of the globe, which meant multiple airline bankruptcies, countless flight delays, congested airports, etc. there as well. And long live neoliberalism.

The Twin Otter played a particularly important role in Norway. Put in service in 1969 by Widerøe Flyveselskap Aksjeselskap, the country’s largest independent air carrier and a firm mentioned in a March 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, the Canadian aircraft ended the isolation of many small communities of northern Norway.

This being said (typed?), relatively large airlines, Alaska Airlines Incorporated and Pacific Western Airlines Limited of Richmond, British Columbia, a firm mentioned in October 2019 and November 2020 issues of our you know what, for example, used Twin Otters for many years.

And yes, other Twin Otters bore the colours of Canadian and foreign mining and oil firms.

In July 1974, the federal government inaugurated an experimental intercity service between Ottawa and Montréal, Québec, using modified Twin Otter equipped with sophisticated navigation instruments. The firm which ran these flights, Airtransit, was a subsidiary of the crown corporation Air Canada. This project aimed at demonstrating the fact that it would be possible to create an efficient intercity service using a STOL airliner, the de Havilland Canada Dash 7, the prototype of which flew for the first time in March 1975.

And yes, said prototype is part of the stunning collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Both government officials and business people loved Airtransit. They could get from downtown Ottawa to downtown Montréal in just under 90 minutes, at low cost. The same trip, by car, took 2 hours and 40 minutes. An Air Canada flight, including taxis to and from an airport, took 2 hours.

The Ontario government showed some interest in this experimental service. Its Québec counterpart, however, feared that it would lead to a permanent link which would harm Nordair Limitée and Québecair Limitée, air carriers favored by the Québec state. This lack of enthusiasm was also found in federal institutions such as the Ministry of Transport and the Canadian Transport Commission, in 2021 Transport Canada and the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Airtransit made its last flight in April 1976, ahead of schedule, but did not lead to any permanent intercity connection. The final report on that service was in fact the subject of much discussion. While some spoke of success, others said that the experiment had been a failure. Some suggested that Airtransit was intended to help DHC and justify the development of the Dash 7.

In any event, the fact was that 3 buildings erected at the airport located at Rockcliffe, a suburb of Ottawa, to serve Airtransit passengers, were subsequently occupied, legally of course, by the staff of the National Aviation Museum, in 2021 the astonishing Canada Aviation and Space Museum, but back to our story.

Strikes in the 1970s drastically reduced the number of Twin Otters ships delivered to airlines. The 1972 labour dispute, for example, paralysed the firm for almost 8 months. The 1975 strike lasted more than 3 months, while that of 1978 disrupted DHC’s activities for nearly 4 months. By way of comparison, the strikes of 1981 and 1985 lasted a few days and 2 weeks.

And yes, 5 consecutive attempts to negotiate a collective agreement led to consecutive 5 strikes. Something, it seemed, was rotten in the state, read upper management, of DHC.

Over the years, DHC considered the possibility of collaborating with foreign firms. In 1968, for example, the Ontario aircraft manufacturer allied with Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in the hope of securing American military contracts. The final assembly of the first Twin Otter ordered would have taken place at a factory of the American firm. Given the absence of significant military orders, that project went nowhere.

In 1976, DHC considered granting an Indonesian aircraft manufacturer, in all likelihood the new state-owned Industri Pesawat Terbang Nurtanio, permission to assemble the Twin Otters used by a local air carrier. That project went nowhere.

The aircraft manufacturer also studied, between 1979 and 1981, if not later, the feasibility of setting up an assembly plant in China. That project went nowhere.

This being said (typed?), a Chinese aircraft manufacturer, Hāĕrbīn Fēijī Zhìzào Gōngsī / Zhōngháng Gōngyè Hāfĕi Gōngsī, designed a small transport plane very similar to the Twin Otter. The prototype of this Y-12, a derivative of an aircraft tested in 1975, flew in July 1982. The Chinese aircraft manufacturer produced approximately 230 Y-12s between 1982 and 2018. The production of this aircraft, used by air carriers of 20 or so countries in Africa, America, Asia and Oceania and the armed forces of nearly 15 countries in Africa, America and Asia, could continue for several years.

Would you believe that the Y-12 is powered by… PT6 turboprop engines made by Pratt & Whitney Canada Incorporated? One firm’s sorrow is another firm’s joy.

Around 1981, DHC attempted to sell over a hundred Twin Otters to the Indian Air Force, or Bhāratīya Vāyu Senā. The aircraft manufacturer accepted that the Indian state-owned firm Hindustaan ​​Eyarakraapht Limited / Hindustan Aircraft Limited, a firm mentioned in a January 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, assemble the main components of about 20 aircraft and manufacture almost completely another 60 or so. That project went nowhere.

The fact was that DHC was no match for rivals which offered their potential customers lower interest rates and / or a slightly longer repayment period. The governments of Australia, Brazil and Spain, for example, subsidised local aircraft manufacturers to secure orders. Indeed, Government Aircraft Factories (GAF), Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica Sociedade Anónima (Embraer) and Construcciones Aeronáuticas Sociedad Anónima (CASA) were, to varying degrees, state-owned firms.

Anxious to privatise DHC, nationalised in June 1974 when things were not going very well, the federal government elected in September 1984 and led by Martin Bryan Mulroney quickly began discussions with various stakeholders, and this in the absence of any policy related to privatisation. Two offers caught its attention.

Boeing Commercial Airplane Company, a division of Boeing Company, for example, wanted to enter a new field of activity, the production of commuter airliners.

As well, unidentified Canadian financial interests joined forces with a Vancouver, British Columbia, shipyard and a Dutch aircraft manufacturer which manufactured a turboprop commuter airliner, namely Versatile Corporation and Fokker Besloten Vennootschap, through Rimgate Holdings Limited, a holding firm from Toronto, Ontario, created for that purpose.

A West German businessman, Justus Dornier, joined forces with unidentified Canadian financial interests to submit an offer that did not appear to be taken seriously.

It should be noted that the cabinet member responsible for the file, Regional Economic Development Minister Sinclair McKnight Stevens, had a reputation for cordially loathing DHC, an aircraft manufacturer which had benefitted greatly from the largesse of the previous government. If one was to believe an editorial in the bimonthly The Canadian Aircraft Operator, Stevens’ resentment towards DHC compared to that of Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker for the aircraft manufacturer A.V. Roe Canada Limited (Avro Canada) of Malton, Ontario, which, too, had benefited greatly from the largesse of a previous government.

Do I need to remind you that Diefenbaker and Avro Canada have been mentioned in several and many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2020 and March 2018? That is what I thought.

Generally approved by the industry but strongly criticised by many observers who saw it as the transfer of a Canadian gem to a foreign firm for a pittance, the sale of DHC to Boeing Commercial Airplane, formalised in January 1986, took place without the media being able to obtain much information. The attitude of the federal government undermined its credibility on this issue. The editorialist of the monthly Canadian Aviation, Hugh Whittington, for example, concluded that the sale of DHC to Boeing showed the immaturity of the Canadian approach. Worse still, it turned Canada into the only First World country which did not have a controlling interest in a major component of its aerospace industry.

Part of the reason behind this purchase of DHC was that Boeing Commercial Airplane was attempting to land an order from Air Canada. The American giant hoped that its involvement in the Canadian aerospace industry would cause the federal government to exert pressure on its crown corporation. These hopes were in vain. Indeed, Airbus Industrie, in 2021 Airbus Group Naamloze Vennootschap, won the competition in July 1988.

This victory of the European giant was somewhat marred by allegations of secret commissions paid to one or more members of the federal government. Accused by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1995, former Prime Minister Mulroney denied the allegations and launched a libel lawsuit against the government led by his political opponent, Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien – a character mentioned in November 2019 and July 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Said government settled this matter out of court in early 1997: it agreed to publicly apologise and pay Mulroney’s legal fees.

And yes, the latter was mentioned in a January 2021 issue of our you know what.

In 1987, the management of the de Havilland division of Boeing of Canada Limited, a subsidiary of Boeing mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2019, attempted to harmonise grievance procedures, job classification and seniority with those in effect in the American factories of its parent firm. It hoped in this way to respond to criticism from said parent company, which considered the Ontario factory to be unproductive. This proved to be a bad idea.

The employees called a strike which lasted 10 weeks. The “Yankee Go Home!” shouted by many picketers and the anti-American sentiments of some union leaders did not go unnoticed. Ultimately, Boeing Commercial Airplane failed to harmonise grievance procedures, job classification and seniority.

The president of the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers of Canada, in 2021 the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers Union of Canada, Robert “Bob” White, on the other hand, used this success to enhance his prestige, somewhat roughed up during the previous months.

Either way, the arrival of a new owner brought about big changes. Little interested in the STOL technology of its de Havilland division, Boeing ended production of the Twin Otter in 1988 to focus its division’s efforts on the Dash 8 twin-engine turboprop airliner. Some preliminary plans to relocate the Twin Otter assembly line fizzled out.

Over the years, DHC / de Havilland division delivered approximately 770 Twin Otters to civilian operators based in more than 70 countries. Apart from Canada and the United States, mentioned above, the Ontario aircraft manufacturer produced approximately 55 aircraft for the armed forces of 10 countries in Africa (Ethiopia), America (Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay and Peru) and Europe (France and Norway).

All in all, DHC / de Havilland division produced approximately 845 Twin Otters between 1965 and 1988.

In the spring of 1989, Boeing Commercial Airplane sued the federal government. The aircraft manufacturer claimed that hidden defects affecting the workshops affected the health and safety of workers in the de Havilland division and delayed Dash 8 deliveries. Some observers wondered how the American giant could have bought the firm without noticing that kind of detail. In any event, the federal government agreed to pay a large sum around February 1990.

If truth be told, Boeing Commercial Airplane increasingly regretted having bought DHC, and this even though the Dash 8 was selling well. Indeed, the American giant announced the sale of its de Havilland division in July 1990. The Groupement d’intérêts économiques Avions de transport régional (ATR), a Franco-Italian firm controlled by two major aircraft manufacturers, Aérospatiale Société nationale industrielle and Alenia Aeronautica Società per Azioni, a subsidiary of the Italian giant Finmeccanica Società per Azioni, showed a lot of interest. ATR was well known for its ATR-42 and ATR-72 turboprop commuter airliners – 2 serious rivals to the Dash 8 equipped with turboprop engines designed and produced by Pratt & Whitney Canada, just like the Dash 8.

Boeing Commercial Airplane and ATR may have signed a sales agreement in April 1991. A federal agency then looked into the proposal. There was general agreement that Investment Canada would bless the sale of the de Havilland division.

Despite promises of continued production of the Dash 8, many observers feared that the latter would be abandoned more or less quickly and that the de Havilland division would become an assembler of parts made in Europe. The aforementioned White, for his part, feared that the number of layoffs announced by ATR might be greater than expected. Increasingly concerned, the Ontario government led by Robert Keith “Bob” Rae set up a task force to study the situation.

According to many spokespersons for the Canadian aerospace industry, the federal government had a duty to support the Ontario aircraft manufacturer after its sale. Pushed against the wall, the Cabinet considered the possibility of blocking the transaction. The federal government ultimately asked ATR to submit an improved takeover bid. The Ontario government appeared to join the aircraft maker in the preparation of said bid. Indeed, it agreed to acquire a third of the de Havilland division.

ATR’s purchase offer went up in smoke in October 1991 when the Commission européenne, the executive branch of what was then the Communauté économique européenne, decreed that the sale of the Ontario aircraft manufacturer would give it unacceptable economic weight, meaning half the world market, in terms of turboprop commuter airliners. Other European commuter airliner manufacturers, opposed to the ATR project from the very beginning, breathed a sigh of relief. This was certainly not the case within the French and Italian cabinets, which were very unhappy.

In the opinion of many Canadian observers and commentators, the new owner of the de Havilland had to be Canadian. Owner of Canadair Limited of Cartierville, Québec, a firm mentioned many times in our you know what since February 2018, since 1986, Bombardier Incorporée of Montréal was an ideal candidate. Indeed, the Québec giant was seriously considering making a purchase offer. With the Ontario government agreeing to support it, Bombardier threw its hat in the ring. Negotiations involving Boeing Commercial Airplane, Bombardier, as well as the federal and Ontario governments began in late 1991.

Should I dare to mention that Bombardier was mentioned several times in our yadda yadda, since March 2018? And that Canadair was, on several occasions since October 2017? No? Very good.

Bombardier and the Ontario government officially took control of the de Havilland division in March 1992. De Havilland Incorporated was founded. Bombardier agreed to buy the 49 % of the firm held by its partner in January 1997. With Canadair and de Havilland under the same roof, the rationalisation of the Canadian aerospace industry envisioned and hoped for by many observers since the mid-1970s had finally become a reality.

De Havilland apparently became de Havilland, Bombardier Incorporée around 1998. A new firm name, Bombardier Aerospace, was created around 1999. As a result, de Havilland gave way to Bombardier Aerospace de Havilland. The firm became Bombardier Aerospace Toronto around 2004.

In January 2006, Bombardier Aerospace sold the type certificates for all aircraft designed by DHC, except the Dash 8, the only one still in production, to a small firm based in Victoria, British Columbia. Having carefully examined the market, Viking Air Limited decided in April 2007 to restart production of the Twin Otter. The first example of a modernised / improved version of the aircraft flew in February 2010.

In July, Viking Air and a Russian firm, Aviatsionnnaïa Korporatsiya “Vityaz,” signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a Twin Otter assembly plant in the Russian Federation. The imposition of economic sanctions following the conflict between this country, the aggressor, and Ukraine, the aggressed, resulted in the abandonment of the project in August 2015.

Viking Air manufactured approximately 115 Twin Otter in its Calgary, Alberta, workshops between 2010 and 2018, including nearly 20 for the armed forces of Peru and Vietnam, for a grand total of at least 960 aircraft. The Twin Otter production program should continue for years to come.

Without a doubt, this strong, rustic and reliable machine is among the best commuter airliners / utility aircraft of its class in the world.

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Rénald Fortier