TORONTO — CANADIANS knew how to build this plane, but it seems it took Americans to sell it. The Canadian plane is the de Havilland Dash 8, a twin-engine turbo prop that is fast becoming one of the mostsuccessful commuter planes in the world. The American company that owns de Havilland in Canada is the Boeing Company of Seattle.
De Havilland - the Boeing subsidiary - says it has sold more than 100 aircraft over the past 12 months. It hasn't delivered that many; in fact, it will only build 64 this year, which means customers have to wait for delivery, but management isn't ready to step up production yet.
``I would like to go to seven a month, but it depends on how well our house is in order and if our sales continue as they have been,'' says de Havilland president Ron Woodard.
The American owner has turned the Canadian operation around after taking it over three years ago. Last year, sales were $350 million (Canadian; US$294 million). This year they are expected to be $660 million and a billion-dollar sales year is expected in the early 1990s. But Mr. Woodard, who came to de Havilland from Boeing, says the company is not yet profitable. ``The capital investment we have had to make in de Havilland was much greater than we ever anticipated. It has averaged about $25 million a year. My next step is to make us viable so we can undertake our own development programs.''
The Dash 8 is built at an old military airfield in the north end of Toronto. It is a STOL, or short-takeoff-and-landing, aircraft and can squeeze into a fairly short runway. The plane is a descendent of the Otter and the Beaver, single-engine planes still flown by bush pilots into remote northern lakes or landed on skis in the frozen Arctic tundra.
Today the Dash 8's biggest job is ferrying business people and other travelers to smaller airports. Perhaps its biggest success is with City Express, a small commuter airline operating out of Toronto's downtown Island Airport. From there the Dash 8 flies to Montreal, Ottawa, and New York City, via Newark. Its quiet operation and ability to climb from a short runway mean it can operate close to downtown where big commercial jets would be banned.
NO ONE doubted the Dash 8 was a good product, but it took Boeing to sell the planes and put the manufacturing operation in the black. Boeing bought de Havilland in 1986 as part of the Canadian government's privatization program. Until then, the money-losing company had been owned by the government, which had taken it over from its old British owner to preserve jobs.
Under Boeing's ownership the product has been sold more aggressively. So far, 118 of the planes have been sold to 33 operators in 11 countries. Most of the new customers came on board only last year.
Having a rich backer like Boeing has brought further development of the aircraft. The original version, the Series 100, carries 36 passengers, while the newer Series 300 carries 50.
De Havilland says it plans yet another version of the Dash 8, and Boeing will decide this year whether to go ahead with a Series 400. It would be a faster aircraft and would carry 70 passengers. ``We are not going to do it, however, if it doesn't make sense - but we believe it does make sense,'' Woodard says.
Canadair, Canada's other aircraft manufacturer, was bought from the Canadian government in 1987 by Bombardier Inc., a Canadian company. It has also fared well under a rich owner. Bombardier, the company that gave the world the original snowmobile, is an integrated transportation company, making everything from New York City subway cars to executive jets.
Canadair's main product is the Challenger, a wide-bodied twin-engine plane carrying up to 19, depending on configuration. It has a range of about 4,000 miles. About 170 have been sold so far.