The Wonder Plane That Lands On Street Corners

The Beaver takes off from a duck-pond, scoots up mountains and laughs at brutal overloads. The U. S. signed a treaty with Canada just to get a fleet for Korea. Tough pilots in the Canadian bush, in the Andes, on New Zealand sheep stations and in the Arctic swear there’s practically nothing this plane won’t do

FRANK CROFT November 1 1953

The Wonder Plane That Lands On Street Corners

The Beaver takes off from a duck-pond, scoots up mountains and laughs at brutal overloads. The U. S. signed a treaty with Canada just to get a fleet for Korea. Tough pilots in the Canadian bush, in the Andes, on New Zealand sheep stations and in the Arctic swear there’s practically nothing this plane won’t do

FRANK CROFT November 1 1953

The Wonder Plane That Lands On Street Corners

The Beaver takes off from a duck-pond, scoots up mountains and laughs at brutal overloads. The U. S. signed a treaty with Canada just to get a fleet for Korea. Tough pilots in the Canadian bush, in the Andes, on New Zealand sheep stations and in the Arctic swear there’s practically nothing this plane won’t do


THE SPIRIT of high carnival reigned at the offices of Taxi Aero de Santander in the Colombian town of Bucaramanga one day laid June. Friends and relatives of Gonzalo Galvis, owner of the company, crowded the one-story building and overflowed into the street; food and wine were passed out freely. Then, led by the beaming Gonzalo, the crowd marched out to Bucaramanga’s tiny airfield to admire the cause of all the fuss: A brand-new all-metal cabin monoplane, the eighth to be added to the Santander fleet and the five hundredth Guilt at the de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd. plant near Toronto.

Known generally as the Beaver, and to the U. S. armed forces officially as the L20 and unofficially, inaccurately, but respectfully as “that Limey kite,” it is being flown in twenty-five countries for a hundred purposes. The Beaver was originally

intended as a freighter for Canadian bush pilots. It has not only become the pet of that glamorous fraternity, it is the favorite non-combat plane of the U. S. air force which used L20s for everything from field ambulance work to carrying the GIs’ mail in Korea, and is using it in Japan, Alaska and Europe.

The Beaver is a Canadian plane on which its makers gambled a million dollars. The gamble has paid off in the jungles and mountains of South America, on t he sheep farms of New Zealand, the African veldt and the Malayan rubber plantations.

The Beaver is used to deliver groceries to the Eskimos, as a flying clinic for the hinterlands of South America and for coastal patrol in Finland.

Several factors account for the world-wide popularity of the Beaver. It is structurally simple and rugged; it gives service in any climate from eighty below to one hundred and forty degrees above zero. It can get in and out of small lakes, narrow rivers and bush or jungle slashings with an ease rivaling the helicopter. The Beaver has come down on and taken off from city streets, ponds and race tracks, not in emergencies, but because it can use such spots as permanent bases.

Most important, it does those things carrying a much greater payload than any aircraft with a performance approaching that of the Beaver. Officially rated as a three-quarter-ton carrier, Beavers have been known to take off with a load of well over a ton. “And,” a de Havilland official said with mixed pride and consternat ion, “it frightens us just to think of the weight some owners pile into their Beavers in the belief that there’s


nothing that these workhorse planes won’t do.”

Even seasoned airmen are incredulous of the Beaver’s performance. Not long ago a U. S. air force pilot on a flight down the British Columbia coast saw a plane down on a lake which to him appeared no larger than a duck pond. It was a Beaver. He sent out a call giving the plane’s location, adding that the pilot would probably need help getting out. A British Columbia forestry station picked up the message and replied: “Thanks for the kind thought but that’s one of our patrol planes, operating from its usual base.”

Forest protection officials at the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests (which now operates a fleet of forty Beavers) say that it has given them access to twenty percent more lakes and rivers than was possible with other planes. It was the Beaver’s square, box-like cabin that led the department to puf the plane to one of its most unusual tasks —water-bombing incipient forest fires. A Beaver is loaded with two dozen kraft paper bags each containing three and a half gallons of water and weighing thirty-five pounds. They are dropped through the hole in the floor of the cabin which usually accommodates an aerial camera, at an altitude of two hundred feet and a speed of eighty miles an hour. The bombardier keeps the bags rolling to the hole in a conveyor such as is used in warehouses.

Back at the temporary base the ground crew is filling more bags. With the Beaver’s rapid landing and take-off Continued on page 36

Flying Workhorse to Half the World


The Wonder Plane


performance one plane can lay down an almost uninterrupted attack. Small fires caught quickly enough can be doused or held in check until additional help arrives. The bombardier has to work like a stoker when on target but most crewmen admit that it is fun.

Provincial wildlife officers in Beavers track down fur poachers in the snow. In northern Ontario two winters ago a poacher returning with an illegal batch of pelts was surprised to find a warden waiting for him at his cabin door. The warden saw the man empty his traps from aloft and landed the plane on a small frozen lake less than a hundred yards from the poacher’s cabin.

But the best Beaver customer is the United States armed forces. In 1949 Russ Bannock, then chief test pilot for de Havilland and now operations director, took a Beaver to Alaska to show the U. S. command there what it could do. Lieut.-Gen. Nathan F. Twining, Alaskan commander, and his aide, the famous Arctic flier Col. Bernt Balchen, were enthusiastic. Balchen sent a requisition to Washington for twenty Beavers. Washington thought the Alaska command was suffering from a touch of bush madness. Balchen was told that in the first place “buy America” policies excluded foreign planes; in the second place, no country could produce a plane of any kind superior to a U. S. machine.

U. S. Wanted Beaver

Later that year Bannock took a Beaver to Wright Field, Ohio, and Fort Bragg, N.C., to enter tests being made on non-combat planes. Half a dozen U. S. manufacturers had small planes that could nip through the hurdle race the army had set up, but their maximum load was generally the pilot plus one passenger or a couple of hundred pounds of freight. The Beaver followed with either six passengers or a mere half ton of freight; it did everything the home products did, frequently better.

But congressional committees in Washington remained adamant. Finally Ottawa and Washington signed the Mutual Arms Aid Agreement in October 1950. It is no secret that the agreement was reached on the insistence of the U. S. defense department which was being badgered by U. S. air force commanders whose sole interest in Canadian war products at that time was the Beaver.

Just how many Beavers have been taken by the U. S. armed forces for work in Asia, Alaska and Europe is a military secret. But it may be said that their L20s are numbered in the hundreds. In Seoul they used the infield of a half-mile race track as a landing field; in Tokyo a waterfront street was used for months by the Beavers. When the wind was wrong for street take-offs they used part of a dock.

When U. S. troops of the 2nd Division wanted a piano at their forward bunkers, an old upright was loaded into a Beaver, with the instrument’s ends sticking out of each door, and delivered. During the UN retreat in 1951 all battalion headquarters had time only to remove papers and orders from their safes; the safes had to be abandoned. When the line was stabilized again every HQ wanted a new safe, at once. A Beaver was packed with safes, total weight unmentioned. The load so altered the plane’s balance that the pilot had to fight the controls to get

the tail up; but it went up and the safes were delivered in one trip.

Its wide loading doors made the Beaver the only plane in Korea which could take an assembled replacement combat-plane motor for delivery to forward air bases. And for the three Christmases UN troops were in Korea the Beaver was used to deliver parcels and mail. Newsreels of President Plisenhower’s visit to the Korean front last year revealed that he was using a Beaver as his persorfal plane. Among various names given it by the Americans is “the generals’ jeep.” It has been used by generals Itidgway, Van Fleet, Clark and other four-star U. S. generals in Korea, Japan and in Europe.

While a large fleet of Beavers has been giving a star performance in Korea a smaller fleet of six was helping British forces in Malaya in the fight against Communist guerillas. In Malaya the Beaver came close to being a combat plane and frequently carried small combat units into guerrilla country.

The Beaver’s designers never expected it to be used in war. In fact, the Beaver was de Havilland’s answer to hard times brought on by the end of warplane contracts. During the war de Havilland built Mosquitos, those spectacular low-level raiders and pathfinders, plus Anson bombers and Tiger Moth trainers. After the war the company’s payroll fell from eight thousand to fewer than five hundred within a month. Other aircraft manufacturers were either at a standstill or were making other products to survive. De Havilland were offered orders for everything from bicycles to plastic rowboats to folding beds.

But the company decided to stay with planes. P. C. Garratt, managing director of the Canadian plant, explains: “The future wasn’t any too

certain but we weren’t afraid of peace because, by tradition, de Havilland has been a civilian aircraft manufacturer. We only made warplanes at the Canadian plant in time of war.”

For a long time Garratt had been pondering the need for a plane designed to serve in the Canadian north. Canadian bush pilots for years had been writing one of the most romantic chapters in the story of civilian aviation, usually with U. S., English or German planes originally intended for other work. All were land planes, which had to be adapted for floats or skis, with the exception of the now obsolete Noorduyn Norseman, a ship made in Montreal and until the arrival of the Beaver the most popular bush and forestry plane in the country.

Early in 1946 de Havilland circularized more than fifty bush pilots including such veterans as Pat Reid, Roy Brown, Wop May, Milt Ashton, Doc Oakes, George Ponsford, Paige McPhee and Punch Dickins, the latter now sales director of the company. They were asked to list the features of the ideal bush plane.

The response was prompt and revealing. Most votes were for: Short

take-off and landing ability; all-metal wings and fuselage; a cargo door on each side of the fuselage wide enough to take an oil drum sideways; fuel tanks in the belly instead of in the wings,

to allow refueling from the dock or | floats instead of having to climb on j top of the wing; a square cabin for easy ! cargo stowing; a door on either side j of the pilot’s seat; a high wing to clear a dock comfortably; more glass around j the pilot’s seat for better visibility.

From these suggestions it was clear that the Canadian bush pilot had for j years been performing heroic tasks with j unsuitable equipment. De Havilland officials stress that behind all this j scattered but valuable advice was the constant help of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests which supported the Reaver plan from the start and had promised an order for six planes if they met requirements.

The general specifications were given to W. D. Hunter, engineering director, with the urgent plea to get a plane on the test-flight strip before the money gave out. The year was 1946 and the money—all the money the company had—was a million dollars.

“By the time the prototype was being finished we were close to our last dollar,” says G. J. Mickleborough, secretary-treasurer of the company. “It is not true that we went into the red before receiving our first order, but we were close enough to start being extra polite to the bank manager.”

When de Havilland were making warplanes Hunter had a designing and drawing staff of three hundred, and most of the original work had been done in England anyway. With a total staff of fewer than thirty he now set about designing the Beaver. “It was designed as a seaplane from the start,” Hunter explains. “That is still its principal use although it does wonders as a land plane too. We built a wing section which would give lift with moderate power—the Pratt and Whitney Wasp Junior provides that. And we built the ailerons so that they could be used as flaps during take-offs, giving extra lift, as well as controlling the plane in flight.”

Today the de Havilland management is inclined to forget the anxiety which pervaded the place. “There was no cause for worry,” they say, “because we knew we had a winner from the start.” But plant workers remember Garratt spending more time with them than in his office, watching every operation, encouraging them with a convincing display of confidence, backslapping all and sundry, then hurrying back to his desk, perhaps to take another anxious look at the ledger. His enthusiasm was contagious. “No group of workers ever had higher morale than we had then,” William Calder, service manager, recalls.

Before the prototype had been completed all senior executives took a ten percent pay cut. All other personnel worked without pay increases—at a time when wages were leap-frogging in just about every industry on the continent. Many of the workers were receiving less than they had been paid during the war when de Havilland was a crown company. Today de Havilland workers are members of the UAW-GIO. Their first contract with the company was signed in September 1947, two weeks after the first Beaver came off the line.

When the prototype underwent its first inspection six medallions of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, were found to have been riveted onto the plane by unknown workers as gestures of Godspeed.

One of the most amazing things in the story of the Beaver is that there has been no need for the slightest structural change from the prototype. The first Beaver was taken by British Columbia Central Airways of Prince George and is still in use.

According to the company’s official

claims the Beaver, fully loaded, will take off from water in fifteen seconds, or about two hundred and fifty yards; the rate of climb is given as twelve hundred feet a minute. The land model is in the air at less than two hundred yards and has a slightly higher rate of climb. But pilots pay little attention to the official claims of the manufacturer. They quickly learn that the Beaver.’s widely spaced floats or wheels eliminate any tendency to swerve during take-off, so the throttle can be opened quickly to full power. The result is startling.

I have flown in a variety of craft

during the past twenty-five years, and when 1 climbed into a Beaver at the de Havilland plant 1 expected the takeoff to be made the way all my others were—straight down the strip. But Beaver pilots don’t waste time that way. The plane happened to be sitting at the edge of the strip; it was swung around and took off sideways across the concrete. The climb seemed to be vertical and a stall inevitable. “See how she sits up and begs,” pilot George Neal gleefully shouted, then condescended to level off.

A Quebec lumber company recently

asked for a demonstration. A Beaver was set down beside a river dock. With a number of the company’s senior officials aboard the pilot, instead of taking off on the length of the stream in the usual way, pointed her nose at the opposite bank about seven hundred feet away, took off and cleared a high bank with several feet to spare. The manager tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You may land again—we’re sold.” The lumber people were looking for a freighter which could dip in and out of some tight spots in their timberland. They had found it.

For many years sheep ranchers on New Zealand’s North Island had been spreading phosphates on their steep hillsides from the air to stimulate the growth of grass on which the sheep graze. Until they heard of the Beaver they used Tiger Moths, capable of dropping about two hundred tons of fertilizer a month. It was not safe to fly it as close to the ground as the ranchers would have liked, so some of the stuff was blown away by the wind. The Beaver has changed all that. Because it needs a shorter landing run it can start operations closer to the grazing lands. Its rapid rate of climb allows it practically to taxi up the hillsides. That it can fly at a mere sixty miles an hour makes for uniform application. But what delights the New Zealanders most is the ease with which it lands, loads its cargo of eighteen hundred pounds of phosphate, spreads it in less than a minute and swoops down like a bird for more. One Beaver will discharge nearly twenty-two thousand pounds of phosphate in an hour, six times the amount handled by the Tiger Moth. One New Zealand pilot made his twenty thousandth landing early this year, which is thought to be a world record. The ranchers have told the de Havilland people that already many areas are supporting five sheep where one grazed before.

De Havilland next turned out modified bomb racks which carry eight hundred pounds of fence posts under the cabin and five hundred pounds under each wing. The posts are dropped along the fence lines in a few minutes where previously labor gangs spent days toiling on the slopes.

In Peru and Chile the Beaver has become a social-service plane. Both governments maintain flying clinics which serve remote inland communities. The Beaver carries a doctor, a couple of nurses and everything needed for inoculation programs as well as for medical and even surgical treatment. The government of the Falkland Islands ordered a Beaver early this year to give mail and medical service to islanders in settlements along the rugged coasts.

One of the first South American buyers was a Sao Paulo man, Dr. Octavis Andrade, who wanted a plane that would carry a good-sized load, or five or six passengers, to and from his country place two hundred miles away in the hills.

Soon he received a query, in Spanish, from Gonzalo Galvis of Bucaramanga who wanted to know just how good the Beaver was. The doctor’s reply, in Portuguese, couldn’t have been bettered by the de Havilland advertising department.

Galvis was interested in the short take-off and landing performance of the Beaver as the air strips he had hacked out of the jungle were small enough anyway, and in some areas the lush jungle growth is so rapid that a landing strip two hundred by thirty yards may


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shrink in a couple of weeks to about one hundred and fifty by twenty yards. The prospectors, oilmen and traders who travel eastern Colombia like to go by air, for foot travel means pack-mule convoys—convoys because the natives in that part of the country have never been broken of their habit of attacking strangers traveling in small groups. The trip through the eastern Andean foothills and lowlands from Rucaramanga is not only dangerous on foot but takes eight days to the farthest community served by Taxi Aero de Santander; by air it takes twenty minutes.

The Interprovincial Pipe Line Com| pany uses a Beaver to keep an eye on the Edmonton-Superior oil pipeline. The plane flies the entire length of the pipeline once a week. When trouble is found at any point the Beaver can usually land a repair crew right beside the job with equipment and parts to fix things at once; and when it can’t land beside the job there is always a field or road not far away.

The Hudson’s Bay Co. has two Beavers which are used for routine inspection trips to the company’s famed northern trading posts. In late winter j prime furs can be flown to southern markets when prices are high.

The RCMP use five Beavers to patrol the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, j and interior patrols based at Edmoni ton and Winnipeg. The Mounties use their Beavers for everything from flying courts--which often take magistrates, prosecutors, clerks and officers to prisoners—to distributing government family-allowance supplies to the Eskimos.

Aerial Paper Boy

The Beaver is the favorite forestry patrol plane of the governments of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland. And the men for whom it was originally intended—Canadian hush pilots—have more than fifty in the air, winter and summer, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Aklavik.

The New York Daily News has a Beaver for aerial photography and the Gannett string of New England papers use one for shuttling around reporters, photographers and circulation men. One of the most interesting chores of the Beaver is the actual delivering of newspapers, for the Chuini Press of Tokyo. In communities off the rail, highway or regular air routes, the Beaver lands on a village street or nearby field and drops off the latest edition. Remote subscribers get the news almost as quickly as people in the outskirts of Tokyo.

When the Beaver was designed, the lone bush pilot’s need to make quick and simple repairs with the minimum of hand tools was kept in mind. Pilots and mechanics are constantly surprised by the ease with which maintenance jobs can be done. A bush flier in northern Saskatchewan was having trouble replacing a battery until he read instructions more carefully and found that by releasing a little catch the battery came out on a sliding tray —automatically disconnected. When Norm Davis, now company service engineer in Edmonton, visited a U. S. army flying field not long ago he found an exasperated mechanic trying to get at the hydraulic aileron pump under the pilot’s seat. The man was in his second day of painstakingly removing all the rivets which fastened the seat to the floor. Davis took a screwdriver, gave a patented fastener a half twist and lifted the seat free.

In Canada there are now one hundred and twenty-five Beavers in service, more than any other model of

civilian plane. Late this year the six hundredth plane will come off the assembly line to fill an order placed four months previously. For more than a year the order backlog has been running ninety to a hundred planes, about four months’ production. At the Beaver’s average price of thirtyfive thousand dollars, the million-dollar gamble has grossed de Havilland twenty-one million dollars.

This year the parent de Havilland company in England borrowed the Beaver design, fitted an English engine, and is experimenting with the com-

bination for sale to the sterling area.

Now a larger plane, the Otter, having the Beaver’s nimble qualities but rated at a one-ton payload, is in production. Some have already been taken by the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests and the RCAF. Late in August the Otter proved it was a worthy “big brother” to the Beaver when an Otter piloted by Flying Officer L. G. Dennan of Toronto made a hazardous landing in a shallow, sandbarred lake in northern Alberta and took off’ with the eight-man crew of an RCAF Lancaster bomber which had

crashed and burned in the wild muskeg country.

But it isn’t expected that the larger plane will dim the Beaver’s lustre. Col. J. Swenson, chief of air operations, U. S. Eighth Army, says: “The

Beaver is the only utility plane we have ever had which lived up to advance notices in every way.” The delivery of a new Beaver to Bucaramanga is always the occasion for a community party; not every new owner responds with the Latin exuberance of Gonzalo Galvin, but most of them understand how he feels. ★