Neil Aird © 1997
On August 16th at about 10:00 EDT I will be sitting quietly, rewinding the hands of time some fifty years back. On that date in 1947, test pilot Russ Bannock took the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver prototype c/n 1 CF-FHB-X on its test flight. I wonder if he knew at that time just how successful an aircraft it would become? I was a little young to witness the event, in fact I was two at the time and located about 4,600 miles, as the Beaver flies, due east of Downsview, Ontario. But I had the pleasure in February 1993 of being with Mr. Bannock as he recollected the events of that day.
I have an extreme fondness for bush planes, aircraft that fly in the world's wild places, particularly in Canada's North. For this passion, I have suffered (rightfully) accusations of obsessiveness from people near and dear to me. The truth is that passionless aircraft spotting is nothing but an oxymoron. Out of this passion I developed a love for the Beaver; I acknowledge it as a "passion" or "love affair". I know it's not infatuation, in fact I'm sure it's the real thing!
Often I am wont to go Beaver hunting. Armed only with camera and note book, I head off into the bush, along dirt logging roads, peeking at secluded lakes and stretches of river, tracking the sometimes elusive machines. I enjoy the tranquillity and beauty of these surroundings; like so many activities, the journey is as much pleasure as reaching the destination! Sometimes my only company are the insects, birds and occasionally larger furry animals! Sometimes, like the fisherman, I come up "empty" with the resident Beaver being away from base. To use the fishing analogy again, the phrase "the one that got away" comes to mind. Now and then I "hit the jackpot" with several aircraft being at home base.
Early morning and late evening are prime times to make a "catch". At those times I meet the crews and often over a pot of coffee, hear the stories and am able to find out the more personal details of the operation. Often a boat is supplied so I can take a photo from a different vantage point. Many an interesting character is to be found in the bush pilot community!
Friends look at me quizzically when I tell them I am going hunting, then scratch their heads when I mention that it is not the furry Castoridae canadensis that I pursue, but the venerable, metal winged DHC-2. I nearly always come home with a log book full of numbers, a few rolls of exposed film; these are my trophies!
Why do I do this? I see you raising your eyebrows too! In Britain, when I was growing up, I discovered the hobby of "Plane Spotting" (wait for the movie!). This activity was healthy, being "outdoors" and also very entertaining. At the age of twelve, I logged my first plane numbers "reggies". By 1959 I was seriously involved, spending money earned from delivering newspapers on day return train trips to Prestwick Airport in Scotland. Renfrew and Abbotsinch Airport (now Glasgow Airport) were within fifteen and forty minutes fast cycling from my house.
My father was a railway enthusiast, but I had to find something different! I made friends at the airfield, realizing I was not the only one mad about planes. Trains you could only see in the country they were operated in. Planes travelled the globe, to and from far-flung places, only colourful patches on the school map of the world.
Each country had different prefixes in the plane registrations, very exotic to one so young. An unexpected bonus for a wee lad, was the fact that airliners also had pretty air stewardesses, which brightened up a long day at the airport between arriving and departing flights.
When I look back at an entry in these log books, I am immediately reminded of that moment in time. The weather, the people, the sounds, the circumstances. Every little registration sparks that memory. Meeting pilots and crew members was an additional delight, some would invite me on board and up to the cockpit - a real treat.
These experiences led me to the Beaver. Family members often were surprised that the "nice picnic spot by a lake" had a Beaver moored nearby. I consider the Beaver as Canadian as the ubiquitous red or green canoe on a lake, albeit creating a little more noise when in motion! The sound of the droning radial engine and large propeller of the Beaver is music to my ears.
I had always wanted to do extensive research on a specific aircraft type. When I knew that the Beaver was going to turn 50 in 1997, I thought I would concentrate my efforts on this historic machine.
I chose this aircraft for several reasons. Both the Beaver and myself were of about the same vintage. I wanted an aircraft that was still prevalent in my neck of the woods, not some rare type found only in Europe or Africa (although Beavers are found on both those continents). Since many are still active in Canada and the United States in particular, the Beaver was the obvious choice.
I thought I would write a book. Perhaps something containing some of my Aviation Art, photographs and of course, some "Beaver Tales".
The project took off in 1986. My title of "aviation artist and researcher" on my business card means I'm serious. The "researcher" bit indicates that I particularly enjoy delving into the individual histories of each aircraft. With the Beaver I had 1,692 to chase, a manageable amount I thought. Not like the DC-3 Dakota with over 10,000 "frames" (airframes) to locate, plus the complications of having a war or two thrown in to knock them out of the skies!
Most Beavers, after they were built in Toronto, migrated to many countries - about 63 nations, in fact. In later life they seem to return to their place of birth, at least the continent where they were built. They come back, not to retire, but to get a new lease on life, soon to be "busy as a beaver," hard at work again.
Beavers occasionally return under their own power, more often resting in containers on ships from distant places like Australia, New Zealand and recently, Bangladesh.
They come home in good shape, in bad shape, in large and small pieces, often very bent! Several companies in Western Canada, the Pacific Northwest of the United States - Washington State in particular - and Minnesota, specialize in rebuilding the stalwart Beaver to new, or better than new status.
There is quite a price tag on a Beaver; it is usually around $250,000 to $350,000 US. Not bad when you consider a new Beaver off the early production line cost $25,000 Canadian.
Detective and sleuth are synonymous when in researcher mode. The mission is to piece together the histories of as many of the aircraft as possible. Each one is issued with a construction number, or "c/n," when built (It's a birth certificate really.) This plate remains with the aircraft throughout its life. The identification markings, called registration or serial number, (we see these on the tail or fuselage and wings), may change from owner to owner and country to country. Sometimes an aircraft is built from almost scratch around that construction number plate. I have tracked almost 4,000 different registrations and serials applied to Beavers so far.
In honour of the 50th Anniversary there will be a special trade show and convention for the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver at Victoria this October. That will be the place to find everything you ever wanted to know about this aircraft, including new technical innovations and developments. There will be workshops, new modifications and equipment. I guarantee it will be the biggest gathering of Beaver owners, pilots, engineers and aficionados ever. In 1987, the Canadian Engineering Society, to mark its centennial celebrations, gave the Beaver one of its Ten Outstanding Engineering Achievement awards. More than 100 entries were considered for their effect on Canadians. The Beaver was one of the two manufactured products selected, the other being the snowmobile. The Beaver rightly made the Top Ten. It has also been honoured by being depicted on a Canadian stamp and coin.
When I mention the Beaver in conversation, I'm always amazed how many people have a Beaver Story, usually about a time when they flew in one , or about someone they knew who had worked with them.
We certainly owe a lot to this fine machine, it helped open up Canada's more remote areas and has saved many lives in its air ambulance role. It has been used by medical personnel, surveyors, miners, and prospectors. I'm sure you have seen it in television dramas, advertising and in movies. In fact I heard that one is off to Hawaii to "act" in a new Harrison Ford film. Several damaged airframes are also there to be sacrificed in accident scenes. They will most likely be rebuilt at a later date!
As for my project, well, I'm still working on the histories. Sean Rossiter of Vancouver recently produced a very fine book, The Immortal Beaver - The World's Greatest Bushplane - a great title and an excellent tribute. I am very happy with his publication and congratulate him on it. When I complete my listings in book form, it will be one for the "aeronumerologists" (plane spotters) and will be as detailed as I can make it. I have a vast collection of Beaver tail photographs to make a very colourful section. And you thought beaver tails were always black?
I keep having a problem, though. Every time I think I'm getting up to date, someone bends or breaks a Beaver, rebuilds one, sells one, imports one. They put new engines in them, stretch them, strengthen them, add more windows, new bigger doors.
Oh yes , and the pilots also seem to get younger and younger.
Published on Saturday, August 9, 1997 in The Kingston Whig Standard page five under the banner;
Kingston airplane spotter and goldsmith Neil Aird has a passion for the classic Canadian bush plane that opened up the North.
Illustrated with six photographs.