4005 at UACL Plant 9 April 1964.
Credit: UACL and Don MacNeil Collection
Author: Col. John L. Orr, CD, Ret’d - Former Sea King pilot and author of "PERSEVERANCE: The Canadian Sea King Story”
This article first appeared in the Shearwater Aviation Museum Foundation Newsletter, THE WARRIOR, and is reprinted with permission.
Do individual aircraft have personalities?
I’m sure that all those Sea King personnel who read the WARRIOR (https://www.samfoundation.ca/) will recall the pre-embarkation scramble as each HELAIRDET struggled to ensure that they would get a ‘flier’ for the upcoming deployment. This led to an almost totemic trust in the ‘personality’ of a particular aircraft and drove maintenance officers crazy as they sought to ensure that there were enough aircraft available to deploy with sufficient hours to preserve the stagger of aircraft into and out of heavy maintenance.
The purpose of this article is not to engage in a theological (or even metaphysical) debate about aircraft ‘personalities’ – but I’m sure that your editor would entertain any reflections that you may have on this topic. Rather, the intent is to tell the story of the introduction of one particular aircraft - CH 12405 – the first of the ‘Canadian’ Sea Kings (1).
Those who have studied the topic will know that only the first four Sea Kings acquired by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) were manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft at their plant in Stratford, Connecticut. So why were the remaining 37 aircraft assembled in Canada? The answer gives an interesting insight into the state of the Canadian aircraft industry and the defence industrial policy of the day.
United Aircraft Canada Limited (UACL) – (later Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) - was a subsidiary of Pratt and Whitney America under the overall umbrella of United Aircraft. Importantly, within this framework, UACL was a sister company to Sikorsky Aircraft.
UACL had, over the years, built up a profitable business as the technical representative for the overhaul and maintenance of Pratt & Whitney engines in Canada. Following the Second World War, UACL expanded and became the agent for the sale and repair and overhaul of Sikorsky helicopters for both the Government of Canada and the emerging commercial helicopter market.
According to Milberry and Sullivan (2), in the late 1950s UACL became aware that the Government of Canada was planning to acquire more than 90 S-58 helicopters for both the RCN and RCAF. Seizing this opportunity to break out of the relatively routine helicopter R&O business, UACL suggested that this large order should be used to establish a helicopter manufacturing base in Canada. This proposal did not come to pass, because the 1957 federal election replaced the Louis St. Laurent government with that of John Diefenbaker. But a marker had been laid down for the future.
A number of years later, the RCN again submitted a bid for a new ASW helicopter to replace the aging Sikorsky HO4S-3. Without going through the machinations of the selection process, the Sikorsky Sea King was eventually chosen to become the Navy’s new ASW helicopter.
At the urging of the Department of Defence Production and the RCN, a proposal to provide a significant ‘Canadian’ content for this order was once again submitted by UACL. According to Rear Admiral Bob Welland, the RCN’s Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Air and Warfare), the prospects were excellent for combined orders of up to 500 Sea Kings for the military and civilian markets in Canada!
Where would UACL get the expertise to carry out such a venture? Fortunately, Montreal, UACL’s home base, was, and remains, a hub of Canada’s aviation industry. Canadair was entering a slack period with little on their order books so a good deal of ‘poaching’ of talent took place. Furthermore, with the decision to assemble rather than manufacture the Sea King in Canada - using sub-assemblies provided by Sikorsky - the engineering challenges were somewhat reduced as the sub-assembly approach was in many ways quite similar to UACL’s R&O work, but obviously on a larger scale.
Accordingly, once the contract was signed for the purchase of the Sea Kings, UACL formed a Helicopter and Systems Division and company technicians and aircrew were sent to the Sikorsky plant and integrated into the Sea King assembly line. There they not only learned the ‘tricks of the trade’ but also developed the processes that would be transferred to the UACL plant at Longueil near Montreal. It was a daunting task but with the willing cooperation of Sikorsky, it was accomplished.
As mentioned above, Sea Kings 4001 – 4004 were manufactured in Stratford, Connecticut. Acceptance flights of these aircraft were conducted by the UACL test pilots, John MacNeil and Ross Lennox in Stratford and eventually, on 24 May 1963, 4001 was formally transferred to the RCN. 4001, 4002 and 4003 ultimately found their way to the RCN ‘Fleet Introduction Program’ for RCN aircrew and maintenance personnel conducted under the auspices of the USN at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. 4001 and 4002 were flown back to Canada and arrived at Shearwater on 1 August 1963. 4003 remained at Patuxent River for instrumentation by the USN and 4004 was ‘bailed’ to Sikorsky for evaluation of the Canadian Marconi Doppler system (AN/APN 503 (V)) and an HF radio.
First RCN helicopter in assembly area 1964.
During the next year, 4005 slowly took shape at the UACL plant and on 9 April 1964, the first test flight was carried out by company test pilots John MacNeil and Ross Lennox. On completion of the company test flights, 4005 was transferred to the RCN on 27 August 1964 to begin its ‘first’ half-century of service to Canada and Canadians.
While the record of 12405 over the intervening fifty years is only available in the log books of those that flew her, we can happily record that through the good offices of the Commanding Officer and personnel of 443 (MH) Squadron, a fitting tribute was paid to this stalwart warrior on 27 August 2014 on the occasion of her fiftieth anniversary.
Fifty Years On!
|Fiftieth anniversay cake|
In a note from the CO, LCol Pat MacNamara, it was explained that on the day, 12405 was assigned to HMCS WINNIPEG operating in local waters. As fate would have it, the aircraft developed a snag while at sea and required maintenance ashore - thereby ensuring that she would celebrate her ‘birthday’ at Pat Bay – complete with a birthday cake!
And who says that aircraft don’t have personalities?
(1) The original Royal Canadian Navy side number of this aircraft was 4005.
(2) Larry Milberry and Kenneth H. Sullivan. Power: The Pratt and Whitney Canada Story. Toronto, ON: CANAV Books, 1989.