The de Havilland Beaver and the birth of the bush plane

The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver is considered by aviation historians to be the classic Canadian bush plane.
A de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, most likely the original CF-FHB, on skis in the snow of Ootsa Lake, B.C., in the winter of 1951-52. The three men on the left are unidentified. The fourth man on the right is Frederic Rowland. (Rowland family photo)

As Canada was preparing to celebrate its history of powered flight by marking the 100th anniversary of the flight of the Silver Dart, another piece of our aviation history was packed away in an envelope containing old family photos — one Canada's most famous bush planes.

The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver is considered by aviation historians to be the classic Canadian bush plane, a single-engine, short takeoff and landing "utility transport aircraft."

A gold coin issued in 2008 by the Royal Canadian Mint to honour the DHC-2 Beaver. (Royal Canadian Mint)

In 2008, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a special gold coin honouring the DHC-2 Beaver. "To this day, many of these legendary planes can still be seen in remote skies around the world," the mint writes of the plane on its website.

The mint also honoured the Beaver, which it called "the airplane that opened the North," with a special quarter, part of the millennium series issued in November 1999. The Canadian Engineering Centennial Board named the DHC-2 one of the Top 10 Canadian engineering achievements of the 20th century.

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Until recently, I did not know that I had a small part in Canadian aviation history — a very small part, as I was just over a year old at the time.

The first DHC-2 Beaver, which rolled off the de Havilland production line in Toronto on Aug. 16, 1947, with the registration designation CF-FHB, went into service with Central B.C. Airways on Jan. 6, 1948.

In the early 1950s, Central B.C. had one main client, the Aluminum Company of Canada, which at that time was preparing what today would be called a mega-project: building a dam across the Nechako River in central British Columbia to provide hydroelectric power for a planned aluminum smelter at Kitimat.

At the time, my father's job for Alcan was buying the land, soon to be flooded by the dam, from the homesteaders who lived along the shores of Ootsa Lake. Unless someone wanted to hike in and out, the fastest way to get to Ootsa Lake was by floatplane in the summer or to land on skis in the winter.

The DHC-2 Beaver was perfect for that job. De Havilland had listened to bush pilots throughout the 1940s and in 1946 began designing a light, short takeoff and landing plane with lots of extra power that could be landed on wheels, floats or skis.

Ootsa Lake, B.C.

In the winter of 1951-52, my parents were living in an old surveyors' cabin. Pictures of that cabin and some planes were among some old photographs that I had stashed in an envelope for years.

It was only a couple of weeks ago, while planning a vacation trip to northern B.C., that I took a second look at the small photographic prints and decided to digitally scan them into the computer. It was then that I was able to look at a colour photograph of my father and three other men standing in front of a ski-equipped bush plane in the winter of 1951-52 and identify the plane as a Beaver.

Part of the tail designation is visible, with the letters CF-FH showing and the final character obscured by a man's head. While there are other Beavers that were flying in B.C. at the time with similar tail designations, the available records show that only one Beaver was owned and operated by Central B.C Airways, and that was the CF-FHB.

That historic Beaver was still flying in 1970, when it was operated by Norcanair, which put it up for sale in 1979. The plane was then purchased by the Canadian Aviation Museum in Rockcliffe, Ont., restored and put on display.

My story includes not just one but possibly two pictures of historic Canadian aircraft. A second photograph, taken in the summer of 1952, shows three float planes tied up at the dock at Ootsa Lake. The photograph was taken from too far away to identify the registration codes, but it appears that, once again, the DHC-2 Beaver was at work ferrying supplies and people to the lake.

An enlarged and restored photograph of three float planes at the dock at Ootsa Lake, B.C., in the summer of 1952. The aircraft on the far left is a Junkers W-34, behind it a DHC-2 Beaver. The plane on the far right is a Piper, configuration unclear from the photograph. (Rowland family photo)

A second aircraft, on the left side of the image, was identified by the staff of the Canadian Aviation Museum as a Junkers W-34, and it is possible that that aircraft, if it was one operated by Central B.C. Airways, is also in the Rockliffe Museum.

Registration records show that Junkers W-34s, with registration code CF-ATF, was owned and operated by Central B.C. Airways, and that aircraft is now also in the museum. There were two other Junkers W-34s flying in B.C. at the time: CF-AQW, also owned during part of the 1950s by Central B.C. Airways, crashed in 1959; CF-AQB, owned by various companies, was retired from service in 1959.  

The third floatplane in the picture, according to the staff of the Canadian Aviation Museum, is some form of Piper.

Central British Columbia Airways

Central British Columbia Airways was founded by bush pilot Russell Baker in Fort St. James, B.C., in 1946 using one leased Beech biplane. In 1949, Baker and Central B.C. Airways received a contract from the Aluminum Company of Canada — first for aerial surveys and later for logistical support for the Kitimat Kemano project.

With more demand for its services, Central B.C. began acquiring other small bush-plane companies and in 1953 renamed the company Pacific Western Airlines.

Baker died in 1958, and his successors expanded Pacific Western's operations into commercial air services.

The company kept growing, and in 1987, it purchased Canadian Pacific Airlines, Eastern Provincial Airways and Nordair, naming the merged airline Canadian Airlines International. Air Canada took over Canadian Airlines in 2001.

DHC-2 Beaver

After the Second World War, de Havilland of Canada was looking for a good, general-purpose "utility transport" that could work across the vast and rugged Canadian countryside.

As well as its powerful Pratt & Whitney 450-horsepower Wasp engine, the Beaver had extra wide doors so it could be loaded and unloaded easily. It also boasted an accessible oil reservoir that could be refilled in flight.

Although the Beaver was specially made for rugged conditions, initial sales were slow until the United States Army adopted the Beaver as its postwar utility aircraft. Many were used during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

In all, 1,657 Beavers were built by the time de Havilland ended production in 1967 — a record for a plane manufactured in Canada. Eventually, Beavers were registered in 60 countries, and some Beavers are still flying around the world today, as civilian and military utility aircraft and as private planes.

Junkers W-34

The Junkers W-34 was developed in Germany and first began service in 1926.

On May 26, 1969, a Junkers W-34 set a new altitude record of 12,739 metres (41,402 feet). 

A number of versions of the Junkers W-34 were manufactured for different civilian and military tasks. The Luftwaffe had more than 1,000 W-34s in service in 1944, as transport and training aircraft.

CTF-ATF, the model in the Canadian Aviation Museum, was one of only nine imported to Canada before the Second World War.

The W-34 was considered an excellent bush plane for the 1930s but was too expensive because of its all-metal construction and the high tariffs imposed on international trade at the time.

CTF-ATF, perhaps the plane photographed by my parents in 1952, was still flying in 1960 when it was donated to the Canadian Aviation Museum.