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In mid-November, Air Inuit, a Quebec-based airline offering charter and cargo services, added the world’s first Large Freighter Door Dash 8-300 to its cargo fleet. The unveiling of the modified cargo plane came alongside the announcement that the aircraft had successfully completed its first flight.
Air Inuit began work on the cargo door modification roughly three years ago, after the company opted to acquire Dash 8-300 aircraft to both modernize and standardize its fleet. The new Dash 8s will replace older generation Hawker Siddeley HS 748s, and join the Dash 8s that Air Inuit is already operating for passenger services. Christian Busch, president and CEO of Air Inuit, said the Dash 8 was an easy choice, given its ability to perform well on short gravel runways.
“Most of our runways in Nunavik [northern Quebec] are 3,500 feet and gravel,” he explained.
Initially, the company converted three Dash 8-300s into cargo aircraft — all with “standard” freight doors. But given the nature of the company’s cargo operations in the north, Busch said the standard freight door was not the ideal solution.
“We carry all types of mining equipment, Ski-Doos, and all of that stuff. . . . So we had to find a solution for a large freight door because the 748 aircraft are becoming obsolete and costing a lot of money.
“So, we looked at the possibility of creating that large freight door on the Dash 8,” he continued. “We started talking with Bombardier, and then started talking with our partner, Rockwell Collins (the engineering firm) and decided, let’s invest and do this. It’s a first in the world.”
So far, Air Inuit has completed the large freighter door modification on one of its Dash 8-300 cargo aircraft. Busch said that aircraft is to be brought online soon, pending certification. As well, Air Inuit recently purchased a fourth Dash 8-300, which will also undergo the large freighter door modification.
“At the end, we’re looking at having two Large Freighter Door Dash 8s and two standard door Dash 8s in our cargo fleet.”
Brian Gibson, manager of business development at Air Inuit, added: “Today, you see cars are getting reduced in size and more economical. But for the North, it’s completely the opposite. The machines are getting bigger. And to move these [machines], for us, was a challenge – not having the 748 aircraft.
“Your typical standard door is 50 by 60 inches, and you cannot turn the machines in the door to get them in. So, it was a challenge; we had to delay deliveries and then coordinate them over a period of, let’s say, a month. Now having this [Large Freighter Door Dash 8], it’ll be regularly used in the fleet. As soon as machines come in, they can get out within days.”
When the project began, Bombardier was the manufacturer of the Dash 8-300 (then known as the Q300). Air Inuit worked with Bombardier to get the technical drawings for the aircraft. Rockwell Collins then provided support on the engineering side from the company’s base in Winnipeg, Manitoba. And the Air Inuit team did the groundwork/modification at its Montreal facility.
While Air Inuit invested the money in the project, Rockwell Collins will hold the STC for the Dash 8 large freighter door because of their engineering expertise, said Busch. Ultimately, the project is a partnership that will benefit both parties.
Busch said Air Inuit and Rockwell initially aimed to complete this freighter door project in a year and a half. However, it became a major structural undertaking with engineering challenges. As previously mentioned, a standard door is 50 by 60 inches; the large freighter door is 108 by 70 inches — a sizeable upgrade.
From both a safety and practicality standpoint, “the door is manually activated,” said Busch. “Because of the nature of where we fly, we didn’t want to have a door that’s designed electrically or hydraulically. So, it’s really hand activated. Yes, you have actuators on top which assist, but it was all designed in a way where when you’re in a remote area, you don’t have a risk of being grounded because your electric motor doesn’t work.”
Once opened, the door is secured with a safety pole to avoid the risk of it closing on someone.
While the initial modification project took three years to finish, Busch said the large cargo door modification on the Dash 8-300 that Air Inuit recently purchased should take a year to complete.
Air Inuit and Rockwell hope to achieve certification before the end of this year.