Air Canada Aircraft: Thirty Years of Change

In 1986, Former Liberal Transport Minister and the first Chairman of the Canadian Transport  Commission, Jack W. Pickersgill wrote that “When war broke out in 1939, seven days were needed to assemble Parliament to deal with the crisis; today Parliament can be brought together in 48 hours thanks to air travel.”

Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA) began operation in 1938 under the control of Canadian National Railways (CNR).  Prior to WWII, TCA focused on Trans-continental air travel.  But during and after the war, the company’s attention turned to trans-Atlantic routes as well as the Caribbean.  After WWII the airline flew several aircraft, including Lockheed Lodestars, Canadair DC-4M North Stars, and Douglas DC-3s.   But the Lodestar had a tendency to stall and nosedive in mid-flight.  The North Stars were loud, even after the introduction of the “Noiseless” North Star in the 1950s.

The DC-3, which is still in use by numerous airlines today, made its first flight in 1935.  Over the years of its use, it underwent many re-configurations.  During the war, it was configured as an American military troop carrier, called a C-47, and was able to carry up to 75 military personnel.  So popular was this aircraft that it was bought by the militaries of China, Japan, and Russia, in addition to those of Canada and the U.S.

1946 - DC-3 - exterior - stairs - people - luggage bay1946 Douglas DC-3

1972 - Lockheed Tristar L-1011 - AC - first one off the assembly line in Palmdale California

1972 Lockheed TriStar L-1011 with the recognizable triple- jet engine configuration, with the center tail-mounted third engine.

By the 1970s, aircraft had evolved to become behemoths that were barely identifiable in relation to their earlier flight incarnations.  The Lockheed L-1011 emerged as a step up from the 1960s DC-8s.   The first Lockheed L-1011 was built in 1970 with three Rolls Royce engines, a choice that Lockheed may have regretted when Rolls Royce declared bankruptcy a year later.  Air Canada, as the former TCA was renamed in 1965, ordered ten L-1011s, called Tristars, in 1972 and they went into operation for Air Canada starting in 1973.

The L-1011 could carry more than 250 passengers, with six abreast in first class and eight abreast in economy.  The L-1011 also preserved space for the travelling public by having the galley area under the floor of the main cabin. The DC-3, by comparison, seated 3 people abreast with a total seating capacity of approximately 75.

1946 - DC-3 - interior - people in seats with hostess

1946 – DC-3 Cabin with one and two seat split.

1973 - Lockheed Tristar L-1011 - 6 abreast - 1st class - 4 seats facing

1973 Lockheed Tristar L-1011 first class lounge with six seats abreast, and facing pairs of seats with coffee tables.

DC-3 passenger seating was equipped with seat belts and in front of each seat, airsickness bags could be found in the pocket of the seat in front.  This was a necessary offering given the frequent low-altitude turbulence.   Despite references by aviation author Peter Pigott to the “immortal” and “legendary” DC-3, this plane could not maintain consistent interior air pressure in the 1940s. Passengers had to don oxygen masks when crossing the Rockies or any time that the plane rose above 10,000 feet.  The passenger’s oxygen masks connected to ports above the seats.  The airline hostess, however, had to connect hers to a port at the back of the cabin and assist passengers while dragging a long “vacuum cleaner-style” hose behind her.      

1946 - DC-3 - interior - cockpit pilot and copilot

1946 – DC-3, Cockpit with pilot and co-pilot

1973 - Lockheed TriStar - L-1011 - cockpit with 3 pilots

1973 Lockheed Tristar L-1011 Cockpit with 3 crew members.

Over the years the DC-3 has been overtaken in capacity and speed by planes like the DC-8 and the L-1011.  However, it remains in use today around the world.  The DC-3 was referred to as recently as 2012 in the Washington Post as a “workhorse” even today.  In his Wings Across Canada, Pigott says “Arthur Raymond, the man responsible for [this] immortal aircraft, died on March 22, 1999, two months short of his one hundredth birthday.”  And he goes on to say that, “On that date, it was estimated there were still two thousand of his DC3s in the air.”

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