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Canadian technology contributed to trans-Atlantic travel

Canadian technology contributed to trans-Atlantic travel

At a time when the large passenger aircraft business worldwide is dominated by only two companies, Boeing and Airbus, its easy to forget that Canada was for a while the world leader in trans-Atlantic passenger aircraft.

It was right after World War Two, and the aviation world was gearing up for scheduled trans Atlantic flight. Much valuable experience had been gained during the war, flying bombers across the Atlantic for use in the war, and as early as 1941 the bombers being ferried to the UK were also being used to fly VIPs back and forth to Europe as well. Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King flew to England in 1941 in a specially fitted B-24 Liberator. After the war, special efforts were made to convert bombers like the Lancaster for civilian passenger use, but they were not successful, as fuselages made to carry bombs are not suitable for passenger use.

The only airplane that was designed specifically to carry passengers over long distances was the Douglas DC-4 and its military variant the C-54. Several Airlines purchased the DC-4 and by  1947, companies like Swissair were flying scheduled flights across the Atlantic with fueling stops in Shannon Ireland and Gander Newfoundland. But the flying experience was poor by todays standards. The cabins were un-pressurized which meant they had to bump along at 8,000 feet altitude and they were slow—cruising at about 225 miles per hour.

At the same time a Canadian military aircraft company, Canadair, was looking to transition to civilian aircraft production. The decision was made to take the basic DC=4/C-54 plane and completely retrofit it for a better passenger experience. The plane would be called the Northstar. Canadair replaced the DC-4 engines with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines which immediately increased the maximum speed of the aircraft to close to 300 miles an hour. The aircraft was pressurized as well, allowing it to fly above the weather. The aircraft was built by Canadair under license from Douglas. As it was being built the same time as the DC-6, Douglas feared competition against their DC-6 so a restriction was placed on the license that Canadair could only sell the DC-4M to Commonwealth countries. Hence, it was only sold to Trans-Canada, Canadian Pacific and BOAC. The first flight of the Northstar was on July 15th, 1946. Trans Canada Airlines took an order for 20 of the Northstars in 1947, and BOAC ordered 22, renaming the aircraft to Argonaut. The Northstar was a reliable and safe aircraft, but it was very noisy—a problem that was only partially rectified by modifications to its exhaust system.

A Northstar in the livery of Air Canada’s forerunner, Trans Canada Airlines
Lots of legroom in the noisy Northstar but look at the unsecured luggage!

In military use, Northstars were employed by the RCAF in the Korean War to airlift supplies across the Pacific Ocean and in 1960 they provided aid to earthquake victims in Morocco and Chile, and supported the UN mission in the Congo

Queen Elizabeth arriving back in London on the death of her father on a BOAC variant of the Northstar

It was a Northstar/Argonaut that took Princess Elizabeth to Kenya in 1952 and brought her back as Queen when her father died while she was in Africa. The Northstars remained on Transatlantic service for TCA until about 1954 when the airline started replacing them with Lockheed Super Constellations. They continued in domestic service until the 1960’s. All but forgotten now, there is one Northstar left of the 71 originally built, at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

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