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When a major aircraft manufacturer closes its long-time factory, the magic of seeing new aircraft come to life and fly sadly ends. But the magic lives in the memories of the people who once worked there.
On June 11, De Havilland Aircraft of Canada (DHC) paid tribute to tens of thousands of employees who designed and built its iconic aircraft built in Toronto since the company was founded on March 5, 1928.
“We felt it was important to acknowledge and recognize the women and men who worked at Downsview and the thousands of aircraft built there, which helped shape our country,” said Neil Sweeney, vice president of corporate affairs.
Inside the former Dash 8-400 delivery hangar at Downsview Airport, in the middle of the city, guests inspected large display panels that highlighted many milestones in the company’s nine-decade history while a video featuring historic photos and interviews with company pioneers looped on large screens next to the hangar walls.
Outside, guests could stroll past an impressive lineup of DHC aircraft that had flown in from across North America to showcase more than 80 years of innovation – from a two-seat DH 82C Tiger Moth trainer to a 360-knot Dash 8-400 turboprop – with all the aircraft later departing in chronological sequence from Downsview’s runway 15-33 for a final flypast of their birthplace.
There was a noticeable lack of speeches and VIP formalities, with employees and retirees easily mingling with management and DHC owner Sherry Brydson and her husband Rob McDonald. The pair are well versed in the history of DHC since acquiring Viking Air Limited in 2003 and their first corporate DHC aircraft almost as many years ago.
Wings of Change
In February 2022, De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited became the operating brand for the aviation companies owned by Brydson, including Longview Aviation, Viking Air, Pacific Sky Training, and De Havilland Canada.
In March, the company waved goodbye to the last Toronto-assembled Dash 8-400, which was delivered to an airline customer (Ethiopian) after a lengthy Covid-19 delay.
In June, the last DHC employees shared a bittersweet moment when they packed up their personal belongings and offices and walked out of the factory one last time after two years of Covid-19 protocols and remote work at home.
Some DHC employees are moving to new offices in a business park immediately south of Pearson International Airport, while others will continue to work remotely, retire, or be laid off.
The process will be repeated a second time within about a year when Bombardier Business Aircraft begins the transfer of the active Global 5500, 6500, 7500, and new 8000 final assembly lines to its new US$400 million, 770,000-square-foot factory at Pearson Airport sometime in 2023.
Going forward, the DHC engineering team has the talent needed to lead the company forward in the post-Covid-19 marketplace. Some engineers will now support the Twin Otter, and others will work on the development of the DHC-515 Firefighter (formerly known as the CL-515), which was launched in mid-April 2022 with an order for a total of 23 aircraft from several European governments.
DHC (Viking Air) acquired the type certificates for the CL-215 and 415 from Bombardier in June 2016, just nine months after Bombardier closed down the 415 final assembly line in North Bay, Ontario, after the completion of its 95th and last 415.
This follows a path blazed when Viking took over product support for de Havilland Canada’s legacy aircraft models from Bombardier in 2005, acquired the type certificates for all out-of-production de Havilland aircraft (DHC-1 through DHC-7) — including the Twin Otter in 2006 — and bought the Dash 8 product line in 2019.
Planning a Tribute
The seeds for the DHC celebration were planted three years ago, when Longview Aviation Capital Corp. signed an agreement to buy the Dash 8 aircraft program from Bombardier Inc. in mid-2019 — with the knowledge that the 148-hectare site had already been sold to the Public Sector Pension Investment Board in 2018 for redevelopment, and the runway was to close sometime in the 2022-2023 period to facilitate a major real estate redevelopment.
It’s not very often that a major Canadian aerospace company celebrates its history in such a demonstrative way, but the farewell event reflected the wishes and sentiments of Brydson, who has a deep appreciation for Canadian history and regularly flies in a pair of amphibious Turbo Beavers and a Viking Series 400 Twin Otter she owns.
The detailed planning began in November, when DHC Corporate pilot Kevin Elwood (who is also a Southern Ontario director of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association) was asked to stage a fly-in of iconic DHC aircraft on the eve of DHC’s departure from its historic home.
“I wanted to get examples of all the original aircraft designs produced at Downsview, but wasn’t able to secure a DHC-5 Buffalo since the RCAF made its last operational flight of their aircraft in January 2022, and the only aircraft available for charter were tied up on contracts flying on humanitarian missions in Africa,” said Elwood.
The oldest participant in the fly-in was DH 82C Tiger Moth, CF-CKF, owned by Don Martin, which flew in from his family’s airstrip in Grand Valley, north of Toronto, where his late father Watt Martin was known for restoring de Havilland biplanes.
The DHC ownership group contributed four iconic aircraft to the fly-in.
Viking Aircraft acquired DHC-1 Chipmunk, CF-JAG, from the late DHC chief test pilot and aircraft restorer George Neal, who died in April 2017 at the age of 97. The aircraft is based year-round in Collingwood, Ontario.
DHC-2 Beaver, C-FPSM, served with the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1971, and flew with the Civil Air Patrol until imported to Canada in 1976. It flew in Manitoba, Newfoundland, and British Columbia as C-GYOK until Viking Air reregistered it C-FPSM in recognition of the prototype Turbo Beaver now displayed at the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.
Turbo Beaver C-GODH “Olivia” (in tribute to Olivia de Havilland) achieved aviation stardom in the 2008 TV documentary The Immortal Beaver – The World’s Greatest Bush Plane, which follows the resurrection of a 1956 U.S. Army piston Beaver that’s been resting quietly for years in the Arizona desert. The film follows the aircraft’s conversion to a Turbo Beaver and its participation in the 60th anniversary Beaver homecoming at Downsview in 2007.
Viking Series 400 Twin Otter C-FMJO also flew in from the west coast and boldly proclaims it is the 100th Twin Otter built by Viking.
Rounding out the collection of amphibians was piston DHC-2 Beaver, C-GDWP, based at Brampton Airport, which is owned by the family of the late Sue Grange, who was one of Brydson’s cousins.
Elwood said that finding a piston DHC-3 Otter on wheels was a challenge, but he was able to recruit DHC-3 Otter C-FMAU from Cooking Lake near Edmonton to attend. The aircraft spent its first 50 years flying for the Manitoba Government Air Services until purchased by aviation pioneer Max Ward in 2007, and was converted to a Texas Turbine Otter by Kal-Air of Vernon, British Columbia, with a new Honeywell (Garrett) TPE331 turboprop.
C-FMAU was flown to Downsview by veteran bush pilot David Crerar and Max Ward’s grandson Brett Bastin, with passengers including former Wardair mechanics Guenther Moellenbeck and Dan McNiven.
When it came time to secure a DHC-4 Caribou, Elwood turned to Rampart Aviation in Colorado Springs, when he learned the only “warbird” Army C-7 Caribou flying in the U.S. was down for maintenance.
Rampart recently bought the assets of Pen Turbo Aviation of Cape May, New Jersey, which in the 1990s completed a turboprop conversion that replaced the Caribou R-2000 engines with P&WC PT6A-67T turboprop engines and Hartzell 5-bladed reversing propellers.
The aircraft flew in from Colorado Springs, but the young crew has been recently operating in Arizona under contract to the U.S. government, which uses the aircraft as a training platform for military parachutists.
When it came time to secure a Dash 7, Air Tindi in Yellowknife was the obvious choice, since they have the largest charter fleet in the world. The company sent Dash 7 C-GCEV, which was delivered new with a cargo door to Air Niugini in Papua New Guinea in 1981. It returned to Canada in 1999 and flew for four years with Voyageur Airways before joining the Air Tindi fleet in 2003.
Air Tindi is now participating in a US$74.3 million NASA electric propulsion research project, which will see airframe modifications specialist and systems integrator AeroTEC replace two of the Dash 7’s four PT6A-50 turboprop engines with two magniX Magni650 electric engines.
The largest aircraft to participate in the Downsview event was DHC’s new Dash 8-400 demonstrator, recently repainted in new company colors. It’s been a resident of Downsview for a few years, but on the day of the flypast made an extra circuit of its birthplace before flying to its new operational home at Calgary International Airport.
Hidden from public view during the homecoming was the prototype Dash 8-400, C-FJJA, which was repatriated from the Bombardier Flight Test Center in Wichita, Kansas, a few years ago and is scheduled to make one final flight to its permanent home.
Telling a Story
Professional archivist Caroline Duncan has spent the past year reconstituting an archive where DHC’s priceless collection of historic documents, photographs, and motion pictures could be permanently preserved once DHC left Downsview in June 2022.
Duncan sourced the DHC archival photographs and motion picture reels that the company’s media team Kanata Digital Canada used to create the towering graphic display panel and video heritage loop.
Some treasures from the archives were available for close inspection on viewing tables where a surprising number of employees stepped forward and pointed to photos of themselves working at DHC decades ago.
Duncan has the ongoing task of securing new items for the DHC archives that will fill large gaps in the story of the company, its employees, aircraft, and customers. If you or someone you know have historical material seeking a good home, contact Duncan directly at email@example.com to open an inquiry.
In a creative twist, DHC also hired a large “Story Team” of videographers and photographers to document the tribute and flypast, and record the recollections of employees and retirees at a milestone moment for the company, which will turn 100 in six years.