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Back to the Future: the De Havilland Canada DHC-8-400

Written by Boran Pivčić.

DHC-8-400

Even though it had quickly been pushed off the headlines by bigger and more important events worldwide, the news that Bombardier Aerospace had decided to sell off its entire Dash 8 program nevertheless deserves (if anything a brief) return to the limelight. Partly this is due to the ironic reversal in Bombardier’s commercial aircraft ambitions – but mostly for the sudden re-appearance of one of the most iconic names of Canada’s aerospace sector: De Havilland Canada. Despite the fact that this new DHC has very few ties to the “good ol’ one” - and owes most of its current fame to pure nostalgia – it is nevertheless an unexpected turn of events, the reason why we decided to head over to the manufacturer’s display area at this year’s Paris Air Show and see what’s what…

Nomen est omen?

However, before we begin, it is prudent to quickly run through the somewhat confusing family tree of today’s Q400. The Dash 8 as a type was conceived in the early 80s as the eighth design of the De Havilland Canada works, hence becoming known as the De Havilland Canada DHC-8 Dash 8. The first version to go into production was the basic (and nowadays very rare) model 100 (DHC-8100), which could accommodate up to 38 passengers.

In the mid 80s, the government of Quebec – the actual owner of DHC – decided to privatize it in an effort to stem its mounting losses. Already in 1986, the company would be picked up by Boeing, who would in 1987 roll out the bigger model 300 (DHC-8-300), seating up to 56. Despite the change of ownership, all DHC aircraft would continue to be branded as such, and there would never be a Boeing DHC-8.

At the dawn of the 90s however, DHC would become the victim of Boeing’s spat with the Canadian Government over its acquisition of A320s, and would in 1992 be sold on to Bombardier, who had already already acquired another Canadian icon, Canadair, some years back. BBD’s first move would be to launch the model 200 (DHC-8-200) in the same year, essentially a 100 series with more power, higher weights and an improved interior (what’s more, the 200 would soon replace the 100 in production).

As oil prices began to increase during the mid 90s and the aftermath of the First Gulf War, Bombardier quickly realized that there’s a market niche for a large high-speed turboprop, an aircraft that could compete with the day’s regional jets on shorter routes – but at at a fraction of the fuel consumption and overall operational costs. To wrap up development as quickly and cheaply as possible, in 1997 Bombardier took the 300, stretched it so it could fit up to 78 passengers – and then replaced its 2.500 HP PW123 engines with PW150s of twice the power. The company’s marketing department had immediately christened the new aircraft the Bombardier Q400; however, since the standard DHC designation system remained in use officially, this new model became known legally as the Bombardier DHC-8-400. Contrary to popular belief, there never was a De Havilland Canada DHC-8-400 in Bombardier’s time.

The naming issue became current once again in June 2019, when the Dash 8 family changed owners for the third time. Even though it had been frequently (mis)stated that it had ended up in the hands of Viking Aircraft (owner of everything from the DHC-1 to the DHC-7), the actual buyer was the Longview Aviation Capital investment company, which owns Viking itself. To more easily manage its enhanced portfolio, Longview had created a new unit called De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd, which would (for now at least) manage the Dash 8 program exclusively. In view of this, the Q400 would only now really become the De Havilland Canada DHC-8-400.

Force Ontario

Even though Bombardier and Longview had signed the sale back in November 2018, the transfer of ownership would be completed only on 1 June 2019, a date that is also taken to be the new DHC’s first working day. Such a long transition period was dictated by the scope of the program itself, since the transfer of ownership had not been limited to just intellectual property – but also the type’s entire supporting infrastructure. Longview had thus also acquired the Downsview production site, all pending orders, the complete sales network, a global support system – as well as virtually all of the employees attached to the program (some 12.000 people), among which are engineers and managers who had been with the program from Day 1.

According to the key people of Longview, this turn of events had allowed them to get into contact with current operators almost immediately in order to make the transition as smooth as possible. What’s more, DHC representatives were quick to stress that the company had made its first financial transaction already on its first day (for spare parts), and that already by the show’s second day – 18 June – the first DHC-made example had set off on its delivery flight to Kazakhstan’s Qazaq Air.

Official data presented at the press briefing states a figure of 590 Q400 delivered since sales started in 1998, and that the company has roughly 40 orders still on the books (however, for reasons of confidentiality, they could not state how many of those were actually inherited from Bombardier). The newest customer, announced at the show itself, is TAAG of Angola, which had signed for six examples in a 74 seat dual-class configuration.

Q400 Next Next Generation?

While the lack of actual feedback from operators makes it appear that the transition had indeed been mostly painless so far, questions soon arise about the direction of the Q400 line – not only from a sales aspect, but also with regards to future aircraft upgrades. When asked about the company’s intentions for near- and long-term modernization, company representatives answered that they first need to settle down into their stride, and that only then they will start considering their next steps.

However, informally we had managed to find out that in the near term the company will most likely focus on the landing gear and pneumatic de-icing system – while in the long run the switch to a newer PW150 variant (as announced by Bombardier itself several months before the sale) also remains on the table (see text at bottom).

78 to 90

The Q400 that we had had a chance to inspect at the show belongs to Indian operator Spice Jet, and is an early 90-seat example. The jump from the previous maximum of 78 was made possible by removal of the forward baggage compartment (which allows two additional rows of seats to be fitted on the right side of the cabin) – as well as the installation of Expliseat slimline seats that make it possible to reduce seat pitch from the standard 30/31” down to 28”. While this does not sound particularly appealing on screen, our subjective feeling is that the comfort levels are on par with the standard version (to our genuine surprise), while the new, larger windows make for a pleasantly airy feel (even more so than on the NG, introduced in 2010).

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The increase in passenger capacity was also matched by an increase in Maximum Take-Off Mass, which now stands at 30,480 kg vs the 29,580 of the heaviest variant of Bombardier’s time (the so called Enhanced High Gross Weight variant).

Another interesting feature on Spice Jet machines in an enlarged Ice Protection Panel, a Kevlar coating in the area of the propellers that protects the fuselage from ice flying off the blades. As we were told by the crew, Spice Jet asked for it to be stretched by roughly half a meter towards the tail, since the poor state of Indian runways meant that they frequently suffered damage from bits of gravel shot toward the fuselage by the air vortex underneath the propeller disc.

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Chinese power

As noted earlier, several months before the Dash 8 program would change hands, Bombardier and Pratt & Whitney Canada announced their intention to offer an upgraded version of the Q400’s standard PW150A. Dubbed the PW150C, this variant was initially developed exclusively for China’s AVIC MA700 – but both manufacturers had soon agreed to offer it as an option on the Q400. Compared to the A, the C model has an additional power turbine stage (the component of the engine that transfers the energy of the exhaust gasses to the propeller via a shaft), upgraded compressors with new nickel alloys, and an improved computer control system (Full Authority Digital Engine Control, FADEC). While 45 kg heavier than the A (760 vs 715 kg dry) and with the same maximum power (4580 HP standard, 5071 with an optional software mod), the C promises a 4-5% reduction in fuel consumption – and due to identical external dimensions can be fitted to existing A model mounts without modifications.

Up until the sale of the Dash 8 program, the C model had not yet been officially offered to operators – but we understand that it had been included in the documentation passed from Bombardier down to De Havilland Canada.

Photo © Boran Pivcic