For over half a century, Canadair was Canada's leading aircraft manufacturer. Between its founding in 1944 and its 50th Anniversary, the company manufactured over 4,000 aircraft and many other products. Acquired by Bombardier Inc. in 1986, Canadair has since been absorbed into Bombardier Aerospace, and its name has almost completely disappeared from the international aerospace scene.


Ben Franklin

Canadairís founder and first president, Benjamin William Franklin, was born at Joyceville, Ontario, in October, 1892. During his second year of university engineering, war broke out in Europe and he joined the army. While serving as a lieutenant in France, he was gassed and and spent time in a French hospital.

Upon his release from the army, Franklin decided not to return to university but instead moved to Alberta and acquired a piece of land under the provincial government's homestead program. He worked the homestead until 1925 when he joined Massey-Harris as a farm equipment salesman.

In 1930, Massey-Harris moved Ben, now one of its top salesmen, to Montreal, however, he soon left M-H to join Dominion Life Assurance Company as its first English-speaking branch manager in Quebec. On the strength of his university record, he was accepted into the Engineer's Club of Montreal where he met fellow Mason, T. Rodgie McLagan, general manager of shipbuilder and aircraft manufacturer, Canadian Vickers Ltd.

At that time (late 1939), Canadian Vickers aircraft department was having problems: Stranraer production was nearing completion, no new orders were in the offing and employee morale was low. Though he knew Franklin had no knowledge of aircraft manufacturing, McLagan recognized in him a superb salesman with a fine business sense, remarkable charisma and an uncanny ability to get the best out of people. So, in the words of John Chisnall, Franklinís first personal assistant at Vickers, McLagan hired him "to get the complacent Vickers employees off their butts".

Chisnall describes Franklin as a relatively short man, fastidious, always immaculate. Walter Meacher, another Vickers employee who was to become Canadairís first comptroller, remembers him as an opportunist who liked to gamble; a highly rated bridge player who played for high stakes. "He was smart," says Meacher. "He came to Canadian Vickers without the slightest knowledge of aviation, yet he ran three very successful aviation programs". Jim Bain, superintendent of engineering and maintenance for Trans-Canada Airlines, doubled as Franklinís executive assistant for a while. He described Franklin as: " A remarkable man in many regards. He will invariably come out on the top side of any negotiation. He has a remarkable ability to get the best out of any situation where money is involved".

In his eight years with Canadian Vickers and Canadair, Franklin made an indelible mark on the Canadian aviation scene. Largely responsible for putting Vickersí aircraft departmentís house in order, he was instrumental in the winning of the PBY contract and introduced changes which enabled the plant to produce 30 PBYs a month. When Vickers decided to quit the aviation industry, Franklin unhesitatingly accepted the challenge of taking over management of the huge government plant and its 9,000 employees. And when, only eight months later, he was forced by the ending of the war and the cancelling of the PBY program, to lay off 80 per cent of his labour force, he managed, by sheer determination, some opportunism, and an appreciable amount of gall, to revive the companyís fortunes and begin a rebuilding program which started Canadair on the path to worldwide recognition.

Well-known Montreal writer and commentator, Leslie Roberts, wrote of Franklin: "A little ball of fire...a supercharged gentleman, who walked into a great, but badly tangled aircraft plant and made it say Uncle".

Aircraft Production under Government Ownership: 1976 - 1986

Regardless of how long Canadair may exist, the period 1975 to 1985 and the birth and development of the Challenger business jet will always be viewed as the most significant period in the company's existence. The early 1970s brought a worldwide recession to the aviation industry. By 1975, Canadair's labour force had sunk below 2,000 and owner General Dynamics was considering selling the company or shutting it down. The Canadian government, however, was determined to maintain a viable aviation industry and, in January 1976, it re-acquired Canadair.

In April, 1976, Canadair's president, Fred Kearns, searching for a new program, took an option on U.S. inventor Bill Lear's latest concept: a high speed, long range business jet incorporating a supercritical wing and high-bypass turbofan engines. On October 29,1976, the Canadian government announced it had authorized Canadair to exercise the Lear option on the strength of 28 firm orders, plus a conditional order for 25.

The first aircraft, designated the Challenger 600, was rolled out on May 25, 1978, and flew for the first time the following November 8. The Challenger's early development problems are well documented. They included engine delivery delays, reliability problems and fuel consumption deficiencies; manufacturing change traffic so high that aircraft were being delivered with hundreds of modifications outstanding; funding problems, and certification delays due in part to the Department of Transport's insistence on a natural stall flight test program.

Matters came to a head in late 1982 when, with Canadair in debt to the tune of $1.14 billion, the government put control of the company into the hands of the Canada Development Investment Corporation (CDIC) and forced Canadair president Fred Kearns and several other senior executives to resign. Gil Bennett of CDIC became president.

In March 1984, the government put Canadair back on a stable footing by writing off the company's huge debt. The Challenger program was allowed to continue; the aircraft's initial teething problems were gradually overcome, and the aircraft began to earn the fine reputation it holds today.

Challenger 601

After 85 Avco Lycoming-engined Challenger 600s had been manufactured, production was switched to the Challenger 601(later designated 601-1A). The prototype 601(the third pre-production 600 fitted with a redesigned rear fuselage and nacelles to carry the 38.5 kN (8,650 lb.) thrust General Electric CF34-1A engines) made its maiden flight on April 10, 1982. The first production 601 flew on September 17, 1982. In addition to its new engines, it had increased fuel capacity and winglets which together increased range to 6,365 km (3,365 nm).

On September 1 and 2, 1983, the second production 601 set a record for its class by flying non-stop from Calgary to London, England, a distance of 7,023 km (3,814 nm) in 9 hours 4 minutes.

Where are they now? The first prototype Challenger 600 crashed during testing: the second prototype is located in the Air Command Aviation Heritage Park at CFB Winnipeg, the third became the 601 test vehicle. Many production 600s and 601s are in regular use worldwide.