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  • Writer's pictureJ.K. Caldwell

de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver

photo by Tyler Wood

First Impressions: There are few airplanes as visually impressive as a de Havilland Beaver on amphibious floats! The sheer size of the machine, coupled with the sound of 450 hard-working horses and the obvious nautical utility make this flying and floating machine virtually impossible to not drool over!

Background: Following WWII, de Havilland Canada, wanting to break into the civilian aviation market, solicited input from various Canadian pilots and operators regarding flight and mission characteristics they would like to see in a utility aircraft. The feedback received was for a rugged and dependable machine with STOL performance, plenty of power and cargo doors large enough to handle a 55-gallon drum! The ability to swap out wheels, skis and floats was necessary to ensure that there was no environment in the great north that was unreachable, regardless of the season. Speed, however, was NOT one of the requirements. The iconic DHC-2 was in production from 1948 to 1967 by de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited, during which 968 Mk.I radial-equipped and 60 Mk.III turboprop Beavers were manufactured.

Unusual form flight w/ a Stearman. Photo by Tyler Wood

Design Features: The Beaver is arguably one of the best (if not the best) backcountry aircraft ever built. Its versatility, simplicity and hauling capacity make it ideally suited for the backwoods of Canada and Alaska. The 48-foot wingspan includes drooping ailerons (down to 15 degrees) to match the flap position and is hydraulically pumped up or down with a selector lever and hand pump immediately to the right of the pilot’s seat. A handy flap position indicator is located on top of the glareshield. The Beaver is an all-metal design equally at home on wheels, skis or floats. The model as flown is equipped with Wipline 6000A amphibious floats that provide 6,131 pounds of buoyancy. The 25-foot floats have retractable quadricycle (yes, it’s a real word) landing gear hydraulically actuated via hydraulic actuators in each float. The electrically powered hydraulic pumps themselves are located in the aft portion of the cockpit. A manual hand pump is available in the cockpit, usable even during a loss of main reservoir fluid, since there is an additional reservoir dedicated to the emergency hand pump.

Powerplant: The most common powerplant for the Beaver is the Supercharged 450 hp Pratt and Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial engine. In the 1960s, the DHC-2T was equipped with a 680 shp PT-6A, greatly increasing performance and hauling capacity. Three belly tanks hold 95 gallons of fuel and are conveniently fueled from a single fuel access door on the fuselage. If you’re traveling further distances, two tip tanks provide an additional 40 gallons, but require the fueler to be unafraid of heights. If topping off the tip tanks, the fueler must climb on top of the fuselage and walk all the way to the tips at a height of 12.5 feet off the tarmac before grabbing the hose from someone with a ladder!

Preflight: If preflighting the Beaver on land, inspection of the floats is easy and should be thoroughly checked for any damage or signs of a hard landing. With a hand pump, purge all eight pump-out cups on each float to ensure all water is removed from the floats. If dockside, you can balance on the bow wire to check the prop and front cowling. The oil capacity is six gallons and the filler neck is in the cockpit by the copilot’s left leg which, as a side note, does get warm in flight. As with all radial engines, be sure to pull the prop through to check for hydraulic lock.

With its cousin, the twin-tailed French-build Broussard. They both share the same P&W R-985 Wasp Junior. Photo by Tyler Wood

Start/Taxi/Takeoff: The Wasp Junior loves gas, so give it about five shots of prime, actuate the fuel wobble pump to ensure that fuel pressure is up, and then engage the starter. After counting five blades, turn the mags on and wait for the five primed cylinders to begin firing. One by one, each of the nine cylinders will start coughing and sputtering to life amid puffs of white smoke. Patience and some coaxing with the throttle and wobble pump will eventually be rewarded with the harmonious rhythm of nine thirsty cylinders. Sit on your hands and let this lumbering giant warm up adequately before asking it to haul your payload into the sky. If taxiing around on the tarmac, steering is easy with castering nose wheels and differential braking. If you are afloat, the water rudders lower with a lever on the center console and are actuated via cables and pulleys. Forgetting to lower the water rudders for slow speed water taxi is a self-correcting mistake since you will have zero control and immediately weathervane into even the slightest breeze. After lining up on the runway or waterway, pull the water rudders up (if required) and feed in manifold pressure smoothly, taking great care not to overboost the cylinders. Land takeoffs do not require much runway and those big wings make the Beaver fly at speeds that seem too slow for its size. If taking off from the water, there are several standard floatplane techniques that can be used to get the Beaver up on plane and eventually “unstuck” from surface friction. It will generally take about 32 seconds to become airborne at medium weights.

Flight Characteristics: Flying the Beaver on floats is like “wrasslin’ a goat by the horns”. I’ll admit that part of this allusion is that the Beaver’s yoke reminds me of a goat’s horns. Also, a DHC-2 on amphibious floats is a lot of mass to move around the sky and it flies like a Mack truck with wings! This is not criticism by any means because it is a utilitarian machine through and through and one that has stood the test of time in some of the harshest flying environments on earth. The Beaver continues to be a coveted workhorse where no other machine will do. My late friend and proud Beaver owner, Sullivan Vanway, used to say that you have to force the Beaver do what you want it to; when it’s on the ground, it doesn’t want to fly and when it’s flying, it doesn’t want to land. Flying this airplane with both hands on the yoke just seems right. You can expect to cruise at about 105 mph while burning 25 to 28 gallons per hour. Again, speed is not the Beaver’s mission, but if you want to haul 5100-5600 lbs. (with proper mods) of plane, people, fuel, canoes, ATVs, groceries, lumber, and wild game all over the far north, the DHC-2 is the machine you need.

Landing: One of the most important aspects of flying an amphibious aircraft is positively confirming the landing gear position to match the runway state of matter. Liquid runways = gear up. Solid runways = gear down. Seems simple, right? More than one pilot has forgotten this simple equation and the results are not pretty. If landing on a good old-fashioned runway, the touchdown sight picture will be very high as the cockpit is roughly the same sitting height of a 737 cockpit! Landing a Beaver on amphibious floats is, well, like landing a shopping cart! It is actually not difficult at all and directional stability is great with the large flight controls, floats and horizontal stabilizer strakes. At slower speeds, transition back to using differential brakes. If landing on the water, do a careful study of the winds and surface conditions. Always carefully check for water depth and look for submerged objects. With large bodies of water, it is usually easy to line-up into the wind and set power for a stabilized approach all the way to touch down. With a 48-foot wingspan, even the heavy Beaver has a pretty decent power-off glide profile.

Post-Flight: The work isn’t finished after landing! Once you have parked, beached, docked or ramped the Beaver, make sure to pump out all the float compartments and check the prop for nicks caused by water spray. A good wash down is always advised, and certainly true if you’ve been playing in salt water.

Wrap-Up: The airplane’s namesake, the hard-working amphibious rodent, is Canada’s national animal and the de Havilland Beaver follows suit! It is a hard-working airplane that has linked all points north for the past 75 years and will continue to do so for a very long time!

photo by Tyler Wood @flyguy_aviation

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