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Business Aviation Industry Focus: The Canadair CL600

by Jeremy Cox 1. February 2009 00:00
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The overall story of the Challenger program that began with Bill Lears' 'Learstar 600' can be described as an epic, when one understands how many politicians and industrialists have had a hand its destiny. The seeds of this remarkable story were first planted in 1911 when the Canadian Government invited Great Britain's Vickers Company to establish a shipbuilding division (Canadian Vickers, Ltd.) in the Province of Quebec in Montreal, Canada. In 1923 the Canadian government issued a contract to Canadian Vickers for the production of the parent companies Viking Flying Boat. This contract was a precipitous event as it signalled the formal beginning of the Canadian aircraft production industry. Shortly before the end of World War II, the Canadian government effectively nationalized their growing licensed aircraft production industry by establishing Canadair, Ltd. This new entity would later slowly gobble up most of the independent aircraft manufacturers in Canada, but long before this occurred while the Canadair (Canadian Licence)'CL' line was being established, first with the Douglas DC3 series, a deal was struck for a private company to come in and buy the organization out. The buyer was the U.S. submarine manufacturer: the 'Electric Boat Company', which was allowed to purchase the controlling interest in Canadair as a part of other high-level political defence industry manoeuvres.

After much success in both the aircraft and submarine manufacturing business, the Electric Boat Company purchased the U.S. based aircraft manufacturer, Convair. They then reorganized both of their acquisition corporations and promptly renamed the parent company, General Dynamics. Both Canadair and Convair continued as independent subsidiaries of its parent, until surprisingly the Canadian government purchased Canadair back from General Dynamics in 1976. By then Canadair was firmly established as the world's leading manufacturer of flying boats (CL215 and CL415 water fire bombers), an accolade which it still holds today in its most recent corporate iteration, but I digress.

Wanting to expand it's newly recaptured aircraft manufacturer, the Canadian government began a search for a suitable civilian jet aircraft design that it could build to move Canadair laterally within the General Aviation business, as the manufacturer was struggling to succeed in such a small niche market. Fortunately the legendary businessman and aircraft designer, William 'Bill' Lear, Senior was looking for a way to finance his latest design, the Learstar 600. Both the Canadian government and Bill Lear were quick to cement a deal whereby Canadair Corporation would build the Learstar under licence. Unfortunately as the new project quickly evolved into a prototype aircraft, Bill Lear's dominant and somewhat erratic personality eventually soured the deal, and he was bought off and removed from the company by Canadair's outright purchase of his brainchild Learstar 600 design. The aircraft was then promptly renamed the 'Challenger.'

The final production version of the CL600 featured two AVCO Lycoming ALF-502L turbofan engines that each delivered 7,500 lbs of take-off thrust. A 36,000 Lb MGTOW was planned for the aircraft, but this was not actually achieved until certain design flaws had been fixed later on into the program. The rated service ceiling was 40,000, which later increased to 41,000 feet. The single greatest feature of the aircraft was its cabin size.

The launch customer for the Canadair Challenger was, with the help of aircraft marketing guru, James 'Jack' Taylor to be Arkansas based, Fred Smith's Federal Express Corporation. After establishing his new private small package, parcel and letter delivery service with the Mystére Falcon 20, Fred was looking for the next aircraft that would afford his very successful delivery service greater range and capacity. The Challenger looked like it was the ideal successor to the Falcon, so a contract was signed for the initial purchase of 25 aircraft.

The first Challenger flew in late November 1978. Two other flight-test aircraft were quickly brought on line thereafter. Unfortunately Bill Lear's supercritical wing design used on the Challenger proved that it was highly prone to collect significant amounts of ice under the certain weather conditions. This aerodynamic flaw later contributed to the disastrous crash of the first prototype aircraft during testing. It was caught in an unrecoverable deep stall. One of the test pilots failed to parachute to safety and was killed. This tragedy along with other design issues prevented full type certification to be issued, in-line with the supply requirements specified in the contract with Federal Express (FedEx.) Therefore the first Challenger entered service with the Canadian Government instead of with FedEx.

The first production aircraft were delivered with severe restrictions, including the lack of approval to fly in known icing conditions, a maximum speed restriction, and any use of the Thrust Reversers prohibited. Also since the initial production run of 25 aircraft were originally destined for freight operations with FedEx, they were somewhat tailor-made for carrying cargo bins instead of people. The forward main entry door was more like a cargo door, as it opened upwards and the cabin aft of the entryway afforded a uniform parallel tube that incorporated a flat floor from front to back, in which cargo bins could be slid in. This cabin design was not suitable for the carriage of executives in any level of expected comfort, so Canadair worked hard to iron out their initial design flaws and to also create a suitable executive cabin design that would allow the aircraft to be sold to civilian clients instead of just to its own military. The upward opening entrance door was redesigned on serial number 1026 and subsequent, and became a conventional downward opening, integral air-stair door design, which also allowed the separate scissor action stairs to be thrown off all subsequent models.  

Fortunately Canadair managed to continue signing orders even with the problems at hand. And once the technical restrictions were lifted and the aircraft was fully certified, individuals and corporations alike rapidly warmed to the wide-body style of cabin that the Challenger offered above all of its competitors. The problem of providing suitable executive interior options, as well as keeping their deliveries in step with the delivery positions that they had sold, Canadair elected to follow the example of Avions Marcel Dassault with their Mystére Falcon 20, by outsourcing the majority of all of the interior completions required on their CL600, to qualified sub-contracting companies around the World. By 1982 there 25 approved completion centres that were capable of providing completions and final deliveries.

Over the next three years after the Type Certificate was issued to Canadair by the FAA, the 2 remaining prototypes became sister ships to 82 more Challenger 600s. Then the Lycoming engines, which unfortunately proved to be the true Achilles heel of the Challenger, were replaced by the much larger, 9,140 Lb take-off thrust General Electric CF-34-1A engines. This heralded the birth of the vastly improved and successful Challenger CL601 series. 

The last twist in the somewhat bizarre ownership story of Canadair took place in 1986 when Bombardier, a private Canadian company founded by the inventor of the Snowmobile bought Canadair from the Canadian government. There is probably no need to expound on the immense success that the aircraft division of Bombardier has achieved, but it would be remiss of me not to mention that in 1990 after having purchased all of the assets of DeHavilland Canada, and Short Brothers, Eire, Bombardier ironically purchased the Gates Learjet Corporation, thus figuratively completing the circle of business aircraft design first started by the late Bill Lear in the late 1950's.

Next month we shall take a look at the condition of the current marketplace and how it has been effected by the global recession.

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Jeremy Cox


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