Article: de Havilland’s Beaver Earned Respect Because it Outperformed the Competition

  • Image of Beaver, C-FMAA, taking to air at Downsview, Ontario

    C-FMAA landed at the museum 30 years ago after flying 11,582 hours; its registration and serial number make it historic

    The de Havilland Beaver DHC-2 is an airplane that commands so much respect that some old-time pilots get misty-eyed when they recall their Beaver flying days, or when they hear one fly overhead.

    Thirty years ago, one of the 1,692 Beavers built by de Havilland at its Downsview, Ontario, factory made its last flight to the museum; having been retired from the fleet of the Manitoba Government Air Service. Today the orange and white airplane fills one of the corners in the Bush Flying Gallery.

    C-FMAA is of historical interest for more than the fact that it is a de Havilland Beaver DHC-2.

    First, it carries the registration of the first airplane purchased by the Manitoba government.

    Second, it was the 1,500th Beaver to come out of the de Havilland factory.

    Third, it was handed over to the Manitoba Government Air Service by the legendary bush pilot C.H. (Punch) Dickins, who was director of sales at de Havilland in 1962, in a ceremony that coincided with the retirement of J.C. Uhlman, the first director of the Manitoba Government Air Service.

    The completion of the 1500th Beaver in May, 1962, was an event that was reported in Canadian Aviation and in the Winnipeg Free Press.

    The Beaver delivered to Manitoba was registered C-FMAA, the same registration as the province’s first aircraft, a Vickers Vedette, which crashed in 1937 after five years of service. This second assignment of the same registration letters was necessary because the aircraft registration sequence in play in 1962 had cycled through all the available letters, making it possible to re-use CF-MAA in this historic way.

    The delivery of Beaver CF-MAA also marked Uhlman’s retirement; he stepped down from his post about a month after taking delivery of the airplane. He was appointed director of the newly established Manitoba Government Air Service in 1932 which then had a fleet of five Vickers Vedettes. Uhlman learned to fly in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, training on the de Havilland DH-6. He continued his military career after WW I with the newly formed Royal Canadian Air Force before his appointment as the founding director of the MGAS.

    The Beaver on display in the Bush Flying Gallery was donated to the museum by the MGAS when the airplane was retired from its fleet in 1985, after 23 years and 11,582 hours in the air. When C-FMAA was purchased, new de Havilland Beavers carried a price tag of about $35,000.

    The de Havilland Beaver was designed and built in Canada. The prototype made its debut flight on August 16, 1947. The Beaver is an all-metal, single-engine bush plane designed to operate on wheels, skis or floats. Its rugged dependability and exceptional performance made it a favourite with bush pilots and operators.

    With help from Wikipedia, the online information source for almost everything, and the book Canadian Aircraft Since 1909, co-authored by K.M. Molson and H.A. Taylor, here is a short history of the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver.

    As the Second World War was ending and in recognition of the fact that its manufacture of military airplanes for the war effort would be ending, de Havilland Canada made a strategic decision to design a bush plane. Accordingly, the company launched an extensive information-gathering project among bush pilots and operators to find out what they wanted in an aircraft. Almost without variation, the pilots asked for lots of power, short takeoff and landing performance (STOL), and an airframe that could be easily fitted with wheels, skis or floats. Other suggestions called for doors on both sides of the aircraft wide enough for 45-gallon drums, fuel filler caps at ground level, and oversized tie-down rings that don’t require the removal of mittens in cold weather. The Ontario Provincial Air Service was a close collaborator and the final design was tailored closely to its requirements for the obvious reason that it was expected to follow through with a major purchase order.

    Because de Havilland Canada’s aircraft were all named after animals, the company decided to name its new bush plane in honour of Canada’s favourite wilderness animal, the industriously hard-working beaver.

    Detailed engineering began in September, 1946, and the first Beaver prototype took to the air the following August. Initially the plan was to power the Beaver with the 295/330 horsepower Gipsy Queen, an engine manufactured by de Havilland in Britain. However, one of the Canadian executives managing the project had misgivings about this choice and persuaded the design team to instead power the Beaver with the well-proven 450 hp Wasp Jr engine manufactured by Pratt & Whitney Canada. The Wasp’s generous power combined with the Beaver’s innovative wing design gave the Beaver the STOL performance that made it unbeatable in its size class and ideal to fly into areas normally only accessible by canoe or foot.

    Initial sales were slow, but this changed as the Beaver’s superior performance characteristics became obvious. Hugely important to the long-term sales success of the Beaver were the separate decisions by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army to place orders. The American air force and army conducted demonstration evaluations in 1950 and 1951 with manufacturers showing off their prospective prototypes – the de Havilland Beaver outperformed them all. In total, the two American military services bought 980 of the de Havilland Beaver military variant, the L-20 series. In addition to sales in Canada and the U.S., de Havilland exported the Beaver DHC-2 to 62 countries.

    De Havilland Canada developed three major models of the Beaver. The initial production model was powered by the P&W 450 hp Wasp engine. A second model powered by a 550 hp Alvis Leonides engine made it into the prototype stage but was never marketed. The third major model was developed in the last years of its manufacture and was powered by Pratt & Whitney’s PT-6 turboprop engine; the last 60 Beavers were the turbo variant. The manufacture of a turboprop conversion kit for the piston-powered Beaver was considered, but de Havilland did not proceed with the product.

    In 1987, the Canadian Engineering Centennial Board named the DHC-2 one of the top 10 Canadian engineering achievements of the 20th century. Twelve years later, the Royal Canadian Mint commemorated the Beaver on a special minting of the Canadian quarter.

    Despite the fact that production ceased in 1967, hundreds of Beavers are still flying–many of them heavily modified to adapt to changes in technology and needs. The original Wasp Jr radial engine of the Beaver is long out of production and other power plants are now used, including conversions to the Pratt & Whitney PT-6 turboprop.

    In 2006, Viking Air of Victoria, B.C. purchased the type certificates from Bombardier Aerospace for all the original de Havilland designs, which gives Viking the exclusive right to manufacture new Beavers. Viking now sells remanufactured and rebuilt DHC-2T Turbo Beavers, which are completely overhauled existing airframes.

    Which registration is correct: C-FMAA or CF-MAA?

    The registration on the tail of the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver in the Bush Flying Gallery of the museum reads: C-FMAA. This is the current format of aircraft registration in Canada. The registration, CF-MAA, was assigned to the first airplane purchased for the Manitoba Government Air Service in 1932, a Vickers Vedette. Although the letters are the same for both the Beaver and the Vedette, their different formats, C-FMAA and CF-MAA, reflect a change in Canadian registration regulations. Because the aircraft registration sequence in play in 1962 had cycled through all the available letters, it was necessary to re-use the letters of previous registrations. Accordingly, the purchae of the first Vedette for the Manitoba Government Air Service was commemorated in the purchase of the 1,500th Beaver by re-using CF-MAA, but in the format, C-FMAA.

    Image of Beaver, C-FMAA, taking to air at Downsview, Ontario

    This article originally appeared in the Spring, 2016 edition of Altitude.

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