Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Beaver, happy birthday to you: An all too brief look at a Canadian icon, the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver bushplane, part 1

The prototype of the Canadian de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver bushplane on the day of its first flight, Downsview, Ontario, August 1947. CASM, KM-08317.

August 1947 was / is the month during which the prototype of a Canadian icon, the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver bushplane, first took to the sky. The happy day was in fact 16 August 1947.

The story of that aerial icon began before that happy day, of course. What is this I hear? Can it be true? Really? Yes! To paraphrase the Thing, one of the Fantastic Four, a superhero team you should know and love, it is pontificating time! Sorry.

Realising full well that it would probably / almost certainly lose all its military contracts at the end of the Second World War, the management of a well-known Canadian aircraft maker, de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC), of Downsview, Ontario, a subsidiary of a well-known British aircraft maker, de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited, considered its options as early as 1944. The aging of the Canadian bushplane fleet caught its attention.

Its engineers thus began the preliminary development of a 5-seat single-engine aircraft then known as the DHC-2, without financial support from the Department of Munitions and Supply, the federal department in charge of defence production at the time. The firm also prepared preliminary sketches of a small utility twin engine machine which would use the wings and fuselage of the DHC-2.

Deeming it more important to develop a basic training aircraft, the DHC-1 Chipmunk, described in a January 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, for market reasons, DHC shelved its bushplane project until the spring of 1946.

DHC and its parent company were obviously mentioned several / many times in that same you know what, and that since February 2018.

And yes, there is obviously a Chipmunk in the collection of the magnificent, nay, stunning Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. Mind you, there is also a Beaver in that collection, but you shall have to wait a bit before reaching it.

The team which took over the bushplane project included very talented Canadian aeronautical engineers, including Frederick Howard Buller and Richard Duncan “Dick” Hiscocks, both of whom worked under the direction of a well-known Polish aeronautical engineer, Wsiewołod Jan Jakimiuk.

And yes once again, it was the latter who designed the excellent Chipmunk.

The government support, more technical than financial, which gave a boost to the Beaver came from Ontario. Indeed, the bushplane fleet of the Ontario Provincial Air Service (OPAS) was also beginning to show signs of age. In its quest for new aircraft, that air service could count on a major supporter, Frank Archibald MacDougall, deputy minister at the Ministry of Lands and Forests and great promoter of aviation.

The Beaver owed much to the engineers of OPAS and many Canadian bush pilots. Their preference for an American engine rather than a British one, for example, led to the abandonment of the de Havilland Gipsy Queen in favour of the far more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior, available at war surplus discount. Ironically, DHC made that decision as its engineering director travelled to the United Kingdom to take a closer look at the Gipsy Queen.

A brief digression if I may. Did you know that no less than 4 songs entitled Gypsy Queen came out between 1970 and 1979, 5 actually if one includes Sign of the Gypsy Queen?

Two single-engine aircraft were then competing for the OPAS contract: the Fairchild F-11 Husky and the slightly smaller Beaver. MacDougall made a commitment to order at least 25 examples of the best (better?) aircraft.

Designed by Fairchild Aircraft Limited of Longueuil, Québec, and described in a July 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, the Husky took to the air in June 1946. DHC’s management was understandably concerned. MacDougall reassured it. OPAS would only make its choice after having tested both aircraft.

The prototype of the Beaver made its first flight in August 1947. OPAS pilots deemed it superior to the Husky. DHC wasted no time in signing the first of a series of contracts with OPAS, which gradually became the Beaver’s largest civilian operator, with approximately 45 aircraft.

Mind you, Canadian bush pilots appreciated the ruggedness and performance of the Beaver just as much. Over the months, the Ontario aircraft manufacturer received several small orders.

DHC, however, hoped to expand its market. Around June 1949, luck smiled upon it. The United States Air Force (USAF) wanted to buy some search and rescue aircraft to support its squadrons based in Alaska. The firm’s chief test pilot, I think, and a Canadian Second World War night fighter ace learned the news while perusing a magazine.

Russell “Russ” Bannock, born Slowko Bahnuk, flew to Alaska at the controls of a Beaver. American pilots, including the Norwegian American Bernt Balchen, the very man who had played a crucial role in the acquisition of the famous Canadian Noorduyn Norseman bushplane, during the Second World War, by the United States Army Air Forces, renamed USAF in September 1947, were very impressed. Indeed, their commander wished to obtain a dozen or so Beavers.

Must yours truly point out that the fabulous Canada Aviation and Space Museum has a Norseman in its collection? That is pretty much what I thought.

Bannock then traveled to Washington, District of Columbia, to perform demonstration flights. The USAF was so impressed that it considered signing a contract for about 110 aircraft. That request triggered a storm of protests. You see, like the Canadian aircraft industry, that of the United States had been seriously impacted by the end of the Second World War. Spurred on by American aircraft manufacturers and the aeronautical press, the United States Congress was forced to intervene. Comparative tests would have to take place before a contract got signed.

Luck smiled again on DHC at the beginning of 1950. The United States Army then wanted to buy a new light transport aircraft. Having learned the news by reading another article, which goes to prove that reading and learning are good things, Bannock carried out demonstration flights. The American officers were left speechless. The rest was predictable: contract project, industry protests and comparative tests requested by the United States Congress. The United States Army and the USAF having decided to order the same aircraft, they organised tests which took place in January and May 1951. The Beaver won out over its many American opponents.

This being said (typed?), the USAF tried to block the acquisition of the Canadian aircraft by the United States Army on the pretext that its weight was above the limit negotiated between these two services. Discussions having allowed an increase to that limit, DHC obtained the first of a series of contracts with the United States Army. “For the first time in its peacetime history, the United States of America accepted delivery [...] of a foreign made military aircraft.” Between 1951 and 1959, the USAF and United States Army purchased approximately 980 de Havilland Canada L-20 Beavers, later redesignated U-6 Beavers.

These orders constituted a turning point for DHC, which became dependent on its main customer, the United States Army.

And yes, the Beaver bushplane was a Cold War aircraft. Yours truly will bet you did not see it that way, now did you?

The armed forces of 15 other countries in Africa (Ghana, Kenya and Zambia), America (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Peru), Asia (Cambodia, Philippines and Saudi Arabia), Europe (Finland and United Kingdom) and Oceania (Australia) also received about 130 Beavers. More than 1 100 aircraft of that type served in uniform.

The parent company of DHC, de Havilland Aircraft, assembled the Beavers, from 35 to 40 it seemed, ordered in 1960 by the British Army.

It should be noted that the Royal Canadian Air Force did not order any Beaver. It readily recognised the qualities of the aircraft but considered it a tad small.

The French Armée de Terre was so impressed by the Beaver that it asked a small aircraft manufacturer, Société (anonyme?) des avions Max Holste, to modify an existing observation / liaison aircraft in order to transform it into a utility aircraft / bushplane. The prototype of that Max Holste MH.1521 Broussard flew for the first time in November 1952. Nearly 400 examples of that French Beaver, as that excellent machine was sometimes nicknamed, flew between 1952 and 1961 (?). The vast majority of Broussards was intended for a military clientele which included nearly 20 countries in Africa, America, Asia and Europe, but back to our story.

In 1953, DHC considered the possibility of selling a production license for the Beaver to its British parent company. The federal government’s monetary restriction policy, in other words the need for buyers to pay in dollars, largely explained that project, which was finally abandoned.

Indeed, DHC completed a Beaver with a British engine in the hope of obtaining orders from countries unable to pay for their purchases in dollars. That second version of the Beaver might have been the one considered for production in the United Kingdom. In any event, the British-engine Beaver flew in March 1953. Unfortunately, that excellent machine was not mass-produced.

In the mid-1960s, the management of Hawker Siddeley Group, Limited, the British aeronautical giant which had controlled DHC and its British parent company since 1960, briefly considered the possibility of moving the assembly line of the Beaver to the workshops of de Havilland Aircraft Company of New Zealand Limited, in… New Zealand. Indeed, at that time, the Canadian bushplane was very successful in that country as an agricultural aircraft specialising in the application of fertilisers, or top spreading.

Need I point out that Hawker Siddeley Group was mentioned… All right, I see. It was nevertheless mentioned several times, since March 2018.

Indeed, again, the Beaver was the first, if not the only, agricultural aircraft series produced in Canada. DHC delivered 25 or so aircraft to the ministry of food and agriculture of Pakistan, for example, including 15 or so handed over by the federal government under the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development of South and South-East Asia.

Several New Zealand and Australian top-dressing firms imported many Beavers in the early 1950s and early 1960s. The sheer size of United States Army orders did not allow DHC to export aircraft to New Zealand during most of the 1950s, however, much to the chagrin of operators. This being said (typed?), the contribution of the Beaver to the economy of that country was such that the New Zealand Post Office dedicated a stamp to it in 1960.

A third version of the Beaver began to take form around 1961. Aware of the fact that several small airlines were gradually abandoning the piston engine in favor of the turboprop engine, DHC took a close look at two engines of that type, one French and one Canadian. At the end of 1962 or the beginning of 1963, the aircraft manufacturer launched the Turbo Beaver. Equipped with a Canadian Pratt & Whitney / United Aircraft of Canada PT6 turboprop, the prototype of that stretched aircraft flew in December 1963. DHC produced 60 of these machines between 1963 and 1968, of which approximately 25 were delivered to OPAS alone.

You know of course that the PT6 was the subject of two November 2020 issues of our yadda yadda.

Although excellent, the Turbo Beaver was too expensive for most bush flying firms. The aircraft manufacturer considered offering conversion kits but no one seemed to knock on its door.

Hawker Siddeley Group ended production of the Turbo Beaver in mid-1968, a decision which did not please every member of DHC’s management. The Ontario aircraft manufacturer ultimately manufactured approximately 1 690 Beavers and Turbo Beavers between 1947 and 1968, to civilian and military customers in more than 60 countries.

It is worth noting that, over the years, several firms in the United States and elsewhere fitted piston-powered Beavers with turboprop engines. One of these firms was Viking Air Limited of Victoria, British Columbia. It had acquired the remaining tooling as well as the engineering drawings in 1983. Viking Air has converted more than 30 Beavers since the 1990s.

In February 2006, Viking Air acquired the Beaver’s type certificate, which gave it the exclusive right to manufacture new Beavers. Even though its management gave the idea some thought, the firm had yet to proceed as of 2022.

Approximately 330 (airworthy?) Beavers and Turbo Beavers were in the Canadian Civil Aircraft Registry in 2022. Approximately 380 (airworthy?) Beavers and Turbo Beavers were also in the American civil aircraft registry in that same year.

The Beaver was / is without a doubt one of the best utility aircraft / bushplanes of the 20th century. That remarkable aircraft was / is also one of the 10 most important Canadian engineering achievements of the 20th century, according to a list completed in 1987 by the Engineering Institute of Canada.

In 1991, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a $ 20 sterling silver coin to commemorate the Beaver as part of its Aviation series. In 1999, it issued a 25-cent proof silver coin as part of its Millenium series. In 2008, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a 50-cent pure gold coin as part of the series commemorating its centennial.

The aircraft at the origin of the Beaver’s saga, the very prototype, is on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Yours truly therefore invites you to return to this website next week to learn more about that remarkable machine.

Before I forget, would you believe that a Beaver equipped with an American electric motor performed, in December 2019, the first flight in the world of a commercial aircraft powered by a motor of that type? That floatplane manufactured in 1956 was / is owned by Harbour Air Limited of Richmond, British Columbia. It may be well be worth preserving in a museum. Just sayin’.

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Rénald Fortier