It really kept going and going and going: A brief look at the Canadian career of the Lockheed / Canadair Silver Star jet trainer, part 2
Welcome to this special National Aviation Day edition of our blog / bulletin / thingee. As you may have noticed, the most recent issue of said blog / bulletin / thingee had reached the average length I allow myself to bust your chops. Hence this special edition which yours truly will begin without further ado.
The first Canadair Silver Star left the ground in December 1952. Curiously, it might, I repeat might, have been fitted with a Rolls-Royce Nene engine delivered by a major French firm.
Interestingly, if only for yours truly, the collection of the sublime Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, includes a Nene made by… a major French firm, the Société d’exploitation des matériels Hispano-Suiza.
That firm produced many Nenes under license to equip improved French-made versions of the de Havilland Vampire jet fighter, the SNCASE SE 532 Mistral and SE 535 Mistral, as well as the first 1 000% French jet fighter, the Dassault MD 450 Ouragan.
Mind you, the Australian firm Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation apparently assembled a small number of Nenes subsequently mounted on Vampires manufactured under license by de Havilland Aircraft Proprietary Limited, a subsidiary of a British aircraft manufacturer mentioned many times since February 2018 in our you know what, de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited.
It was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) which produced the largest number of Nenes, without any production license, however. The Klimov RD-45 and its derivative, the Klimov VK-1, powered one of the most important fighter planes of the 20th century, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, an aircraft represented in the spectacular collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in the form of a Polish-made WSK Lim-2. By the way, the VK-1 was manufactured under license in Poland, as well as in China and Czechoslovakia.
How one of the most powerful jet engines in the world made its way to a country whose antagonism toward the United Kingdom was no state secret might be worth telling. Back in 1946, before the Cold War really began to bite, a newly elected British government allowed Rolls-Royce to export some Nenes to the USSR. This well-meaning, if somewhat naïve effort to improve relations with the Soviet government was a gift from heaven for the aircraft industry of that dictatorship.
You see, my reading friend, no engine of Soviet design could compare to the Nene. The experimental design bureau headed by Vladímir Yákovlevich Klímov was therefore immediately ordered to reverse engineer the British engine in order to mass produce it in the USSR, but back to our story. Again. Sorry.
As you have read and seen in the first part of this article, Canada’s Minister of National Defence, Brooke Claxton, a brilliant and innovative workaholic, accepted the first Silver Star presented to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in February 1953. That turnover ceremony did not exactly take place not as expected, however. Nay. The harsh Canadian climate indeed played the spoilsport.
On the appointed day, the RCAF Douglas Dakota transport plane which was to carry Claxton, Air Marshal Charles Roy Slemon, the Chief of the Air Staff, other dignitaries and some journalists took off about 45 minutes late due to poor visibility on the ground. And yes, the Dakota in question left from RCAF Station Rockcliffe, near Ottawa, which is a stone’s throw from the site occupied in 2023 by the staggering Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
And yes, the illustrious collection of that museal giant includes an example of the civilian counterpart of the Dakota, a Douglas DC-3. (Hello, EG!)
Once the Dakota arrived in Cartierville, Québec, where the factory of the firm which was to produce T-33s in Canada, Canadair Limited was located, strong winds and heavy snowfalls forced its crew to land not far from there, at Montréal (Dorval) airport, in… Dorval, Québec. Claxton and the other Dakota passengers boarded automobiles to drive to Cartierville. That winter journey took about 30 minutes.
The handover ceremony for the first Canadian-made Silver Star eventually began about 75 minutes late. It obviously included speeches, the first one delivered by James Geoffrey « Geoff » Notman, President and General Manager of Canadair let us remember, and the second by Claxton. These gentlemen inspected the Silver Star and took a quick look at the assembly line. The event ended with a buffet to which journalists were not invited.
Even though yours truly is far from sure, I have the feeling the name Silver Star associated with Canadian-made Lockheed T-33s was mentioned for the first time in February 1953, during the aforementioned ceremony. That descriptor combined the words Star, extracted from Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, a descriptor you already know, my reading friend, and Silver, from Silver Dart, a descriptor you also already know, and… Sigh… Do not tell me that the expression Silver Dart means nothing to you. The first motorised heavier than air flying machine having made a flight on Canadian soil in February 1909? Ahh, I thought as much. You did remember.
This being said (typed?), I am forced to admit that the expression Silver Star / Silver Star Medal also identified the third highest military combat decoration which can be awarded to a member of the American armed forces. I highly doubt that the team surrounding Claxton did not know about that small detail.
The first Silver Stars made by Canadair went into service in 1953.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the federal government awarded about 120 Silver Stars to 4 member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), namely France, Greece, Portugal and Turkey, as part of its mutual aid program.
The United States Air Force (USAF) (seriously?) considered at some point, around 1951-52 it seemed, to buy Silver Stars but the negotiations to that effect fell short.
Canadair ultimately manufactured approximately 655 Silver Stars between 1952 and 1959.
A long digression if I may. The Canadian mutual aid program was born in the late 1940s, as the Cold War became increasingly present. (Hello, EG and VW!) Let us not forget, NATO was born in April 1949 to protect Western Europe against Soviet aggression.
Devastated during the Second World War, the defence industries of Western European countries, with the exception of the United Kingdom, could not manufacture the equipment necessary to re-equip their armed forces. Help could only come from North America. Canada, and the United States, began by getting rid of mountains of war supplies dating from the conflict. In doing so, the federal government preserved the public image of Canada, while stimulating the country’s economy. New weapons were indeed needed to replace those heading for Europe. Let us not forget that the Canadian armed forces were also beginning to rearm.
The invasion of South Korea by its northern neighbour in June 1950 upset all expectations. The rearmament of Western countries picked up speed. If the European members of NATO, including the United Kingdom, were in great need of modern equipment, the fact was that their economies remained very fragile. Let us be blunt, they were not in a position to pay for everything they needed.
The federal government weighed the pros and cons and decided to maintain its mutual aid program. The Canadian aircraft industry, and Canadair in particular, had no reason to regret that decision. Orders placed within the framework of mutual aid allowed many Canadian firms to make their production profitable. As a result, the potential of the national aircraft industry increased substantially.
Before I forget, the Silver Star was redesignated CT-133 Silver Star at some unspecified date (1968?).
As alluded to in the first part of this article, the Canadian government sold or gave 20 or so Silver Stars to the military / dictatorial government of Bolivia around 1973-74.
The last Silver Star in what was then the Canadian Forces’ Air Command was retired in April 2005.
An interesting aspect of the T-33 saga began in the mid-1970s. Having carried out theoretical and scale model studies, engineers from a French state firm wished to test in flight the so-called supercritical wing profile that they had come up with. Aérospatiale Société nationale industrielle then borrowed a Silver Star, yes, yes, a Silver Star, from the Armée de l’air. Its staff mounted wooden wings covered in resin-coated fabric on the metal wings of the aircraft.
This prototype, nicknamed Pégase, took to the air in April 1977. It would fly until around 1980. Handed over to the world-famous Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget, France, not far from Paris, that Silver Star was destroyed in May 1990 during a fire which ravaged the hangars which housed part of the collection.
Used on many newer types of transport and business jet aircraft, a supercritical wing was / is a type of wing which can slightly increase speed and slightly reduce fuel consumption. A brilliant American aeronautical engineer, Richard Travis Whitcomb, developed that concept in the 1960s. The Canadair / Bombardier Challenger business jet was / is one of the first production aircraft to be fitted with a supercritical wing. One of the prototypes of that world renowned machine is part of the fabulous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
Another interesting aspect of the T-33 saga also began during the 1970s. It was indeed at that time that a (retired?) American test pilot, Russell Patrick O’Quinn, came to the conclusion that a versatile and relatively inexpensive combat aircraft could be of interest to the air forces of developing countries, and even to the USAF. Aware of the fact that the T-33 was a machine which was both obsolete and available in large numbers (1 000 to 1 500 in more or less in flying condition?), O’Quinn conceived the idea of developing a modernised version of said machine.
Drawing on that idea, O’Quinn contacted the Italian government and / or the Aeronautica Militare but the parties failed to come to an agreement. He then contacted American aircraft manufacturers, including Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, but they were unable, or unwilling, to help him financially.
In 1981, O’Quinn met an American geologist and businessman involved in a few light / private aircraft modification projects during the 1970s. Gilman A. Hill agreed to invest in O’Quinn’s project. Together they founded Flight Concepts Limited Partnership, a limited partnership in which the duo was both sponsoree and sponsorer. In 1982, O’Quinn began creating a team of retired Lockheed Aircraft engineers familiar with the T-33. Said team then began the development of a highly modernised twin-engine version of the aircraft.
Flight Concepts Limited Partnership might, I repeat might, have become Flight Concepts Incorporated in 1982, but the firm apparently changed its name to Skyfox Corporation no later than 1984.
A prototype of the Flight Concepts / Skyfox Skyfox flew in August 1983. The firm behind it made a point of trumpeting that the performance of that machine was comparable to that of modern training aircraft while costing half as much. It could also perform ground attack missions.
And yes, the Skyfox prototype was actually a Silver Star.
Our Skyfox should not be confused with another Skyfox. Nay. That particular flying canid was a combat flight simulation game developed between 1981 and 1984 by an American teenager, Raymond “Ray” Tobey. The American firm Electronic Arts Incorporated published that game in 1984. More than 400 000 copies (!) of the Electronic Arts Skyfox were sold, but back to our story.
In 1983, Flight Concepts / Skyfox received a letter of intent from a Portuguese state agency, Oficinas Gerais de Material Aeronáutico (OGMA), concerning the conversion of 20 T-33s that the Força Aérea Portuguesa (FAP) was considering having carried out. Would you believe that OGMA was mentioned in a January 2021 issue of our you know what? But I digress.
The catch was that no one else came knocking on Skyfox’s door, and this even though the aircraft attracted quite a lot of attention at airshows. Indeed, would you believe that the Skyfox was central to the plot of an episode of the first season (1984) of the American action military drama television series Airwolf? The crew of a high-tech military helicopter, the Airwolf of the title, obviously managed to prevent an American Vietnam War pilot from stealing a high-tech American military prototype to give it to the evil empire, the USSR of course, this being the Reagan era, in order to save the son he had fathered during his stay in South Vietnam, but back to our topic.
The difficulties of Skyfox and the Skyfox did not put an end to the project, however. Nay. The military subsidiary of the American aerospace giant Boeing Company began to take an interest in it in 1985. Indeed, Boeing Military Airplane Company (BMAC) acquired the exclusive production rights even before the end of the year. The firm believed that customers should be given the option to buy conversion kits they could use to convert T-33s into Skyfoxes on their own soil, or to have BMAC take care of that work. The problem was that no one came knocking on the door of BMAC. Even the FAP and OGMA decided not to engage further.
BMAC withdrew from the project in 1988, much to the chagrin of Skyfox’s management, which sued its former partner, alleging that the latter had neither invested the promised sums nor seriously tried to find customers. The outcome of that lawsuit was a victory for BMAC.
Despite everything, Skyfox’s management still hoped to find another partner in 1991. Indeed, it stated that the Air Command of the Canadian Forces had shown, or might still be showing, some interest, if not a real interest. In past years, the same might, I repeat might, have been true of the Daehanmingug Gong-Gun and / or Polemikí Aeroporía, in other words of the South Korean and / or Greek air forces.
In the end, Skyfox’s hopes and efforts led nowhere. And yes, Boeing was mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since November 2017.
A somewhat cynical person, but not yours truly, of course, might suggest that the air force general staffs of our big blue marble were / are far more interested in the newest toys, sorry, sorry, in the most performing, modern, expensive and complex aircraft than in solid, reliable and economical machines based on somewhat old fashioned technology.
The one and only Skyfox was at Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport, in Oregon, in the early 2000s. Someone (O’Quinn?) took it up once or twice around that time. The aircraft indeed then seemingly belonged to the aforementioned O’Quinn. The Skyfox apparently left the airport in question for parts unknown around 2013-14. Interestingly, its registration expired in November 2014.
As of early 2023, the aircraft was on loan to the Palm Springs Air Museum of… Palm Springs, California. A small team was restoring it to static display status. At the time, and presumably since the early 2010s, the aircraft belonged to the family of the late O’Quinn.
And that is all for today, I think. I hope. Happy National Aviation Day, my reading friend! See you later.
This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.