The Dash-7 STOL Experience, story and photos by Henry Tenby
An international group of lucky aviation fans recently sampled and savoured a very special flight aboard an iconic De Havilland Canada Dash-7, the rugged, reliable, and highly maneuverable airliner which has largely disappeared from scheduled airline service, yet remains highly elusive for flight hounds seeking rides in rare types for their log books, and boasting rights.
The Dash-7 is a niche STOL (short take-off and landing) 50 passenger airliner that was built by the former Downsview-Toronto based De Havilland Aircraft Company of Canada for the rugged, short strip needs of regional airlines all over the world. Much like the iconic Canadian Tiley hat, the Dash-7 was built with Canadian persnicketiness, following in the footsteps of earlier De Havilland Canada types like the Beaver, Otter, Twin Otter, Caribou and Buffalo, all of which were famously rugged bush planes built to last generations.
Only 113 Dash-7s were built during a production run that spanned from 1975 to 1988, but today, it is almost impossible to sample a flight in this amazing aircraft as it has become something of a rarity. The Dash-7 is now the domain of specialized charter operators, that require the aircraft for demanding bush and non paved strip operations where the type’s higher operating costs make economic sense.
Here in Canada, the Dash-7 served with airlines from coast-to-coast from the late 1970s throughout the 1980s, specially popular with the Air Canada and CP Air/Canadian connectors, but were phased out and replaced by lower operating cost, two-engines Dash-8s in the early 1990s. The high lift design of the wing and the four PT6-50 turbines (uprated Twin Otter engines) bestow the Dash-7 with terrific short field capability.
The high mounted wing and engine design provide significant prop tip clearance from the ground, thus the Dash-7 is also fully gravel strip capable. These unique features make the Dash-7 a winner for short unimproved strips, with obstacles. The Dash-7 was ideal for operators serving inner city strips like London City (Brymon), Toronto Island (City Express), Eilat & Tel Aviv Yafo Sde Dov (Arkia) etc.
Yellowknife-based Air Tindi have four Dash-7s in their fleet, which are largely used for exploration charters in the region. When loads warrant, the Dash-7 can be used on their scheduled routes to nearby communities which are 45 minutes air time from Yellowknife. But these are rare occasions with most sked flights operated by their Cessna Caravans. It would be very difficult for a visiting enthusiast to luck out and secure a Dash-7 ride on the sked.
Three of the four Dash-7s in the Air Tindi fleet are equipped with huge 91” X 70” forward main deck cargo doors to accept bulk cargo, palletized cargo, bulk fuel, and oversized items like generators and smaller vehicles. The only non cargo door equipped Dash-7 in the Air Tindi fleet is C-GFFL which was based in Vancouver for the summer 2019 fishing charter season, and was the aircraft used on the enthusiast charter.
The Dash-7’s maximum payload is 10,000 pounds, which is like three Twin Otter loads, but is also a quarter of a Hercules load. The typical range is 1,200 miles. So the aircraft has a specific place in the marketplace, somewhere in the middle between Twin Otters and Boeing jets. Air Tindi’s cargo door equipped Dash-7s offer variable position bulkhead for flexi-combi operations, which are ideal for Northern operations. The combi aircraft are capable of 1 cargo pallet plus 34 passengers, 2 cargo pallets plus 26 passengers, 3 cargo pallets plus 18 passengers, or all cargo on the main deck.
The quick change capability between cargo and passenger and combi, combined with pressurized comfort and large airliner passenger space in the generous cabin, with galley and lav, make the aircraft a winner with passengers and shippers alike, specially when compared to smaller newer generation commuter aircraft.
This summer (of 2019) was the second summer that Air Tindi based one of their Dash-7s in Vancouver to operate local fishing charters. Tagging along on one of these flights is not a possibility as the return flights are loaded to max payload with fish and gear, with not a pound to spare.
The genesis of chartering the Air Tindi Dash-7 for a dedicated enthusiast return flight from YVR to the Abbotsford airshow was born from initial social media posts by Vancouver-based aviation media entrepreneur Henry Tenby in mid July to assess initial interest. Plans came together very quickly as word spread of this amazing opportunity, and the amazing cooperation and enthusiasm from both Air Tindi and the airshow operating society resulted in a successful and highly enjoyable event.
Dash-7 fans assembled in Vancouver from across Canada, as well as the US and the UK, to avail themselves of an amazing opportunity to sample this amazingly versatile aeroplane. All 33 charter participants arrived at 0700 am sharp for check-in at the YVR Signature Flight Support FBO terminal on the morning of the Abbotsford airshow, on Saturday, August 10, 2019. After a detailed briefing of the planned events for the day, the group moved to the ramp to photograph the aircraft, after which obligatory group photos were taken with the aircraft, with the pilots and ground handlers taking the group photos using all the cameras and cell phones of the participants.
To allow for orderly, non rushed boarding, including leisurely photos and video of the boarding experience, the group was split into three groups of 10 for staggered boarding. The very first forward windows of the aircraft were allocated for GoPros of which two participants availed themselves of for the classic two engine wing view. The non boarding passengers were all too happy to be waiting on the ramp by the tail of the aircraft soaking up the busy morning runway 08 departures.
All 23 window seats were booked, along with 10 aisle seats, and once all the passengers were comfortable in their seats, engines were started at 0835 am as did the nice and extended ten minute taxi to the far West end of the field for our R08R departure for Abbotsford airport. During the taxi to the active, the an announcement from the flight deck advised we would be experiencing a STOL take-off, much to everyone’s approval and excitement!
At 0846 am it was our turn, and our Dash-7 was lined upon the centre line, and throttles were advanced to full take off power, whist RPMs built up against the strain of the brakes. The full power harmonics from the four PT6-50 engines made an amazingly load oscillating drone, with fabulous vibrations, reminiscent of the on board sounds and sensations of a L382 Hercules at full throttle take-off power prior to brake release.
Everyone was smiling from ear to ear, and as the brakes were released the Dash-7 leapt forward with a very rapid acceleration with the nose gear compressed low on the oleos. We were airborne with a take off roll of well under 1,000 feet, and rapid climb to 1,000 feet was dramatic, courtesy of the high lift design of the Dash-7’s wing. The entire STOL take off experience aboard the Dash-7 was a unique and welcomed experience for most if not all on board, and was certainly a first for the author in his 50 plus years of flight experiences.
Our climb out took us to our cruising altitude of 3,000 feet and about ten kms east of the field over Burnaby, we did a 180 degree turn and backtracked towards west back to city centre of Vancouver where we then made another 180 degree turn over the Stanley Park and Vancouver harbour and commenced our easterly journey towards Abbotsford and the Fraser valley. Those seated on the port side of the aircraft enjoyed a view of the North Shore mountains, whilst those on the starboard side of the aircraft savoured a view of the urban expanse of East Vancouver and Burnaby.
Our Dash-7 crew under the command of Captain Wes Hilton operated the flight at just 110 knots to allow for extended flight time and leisurely sight seeing on the route, which was very much noted and appreciated by all. As a bonus, when we approached the vicinity of the Abbotsford airport, the flight deck announced we would be doing a 360 degree circle and mid field over flight of the airfield before landing, which would be a STOL landing! And that the STOL landing involves a very steep approach and nose up, hard runway contact, followed by rapid deceleration.
As promised, the STOL landing was impressive to say the least! Following our mid field over flight, a rather steep bank to the south was made as we turned base for our landing on Abbotsford’s runway 07, with flaps at 45 degrees and a very steep approach feeling similar to being in a fast elevator heading down from the 100th floor in a tall building. The STOL landing 0913 am was exactly as advertised, with a very firm runway contact, immediately followed by maximum breaking and reverse pitch on the props, lots of noise and vibration, slowing the Dash-7 to a full stop in what seemed just a few seconds and a few hundred meters. Again, another first time flight experience for most if not all the passengers on board, and lots of smiles and laughs with peaked adrenaline levels throughout the cabin!
We were able to make the first left turn at the first Charlie 4 taxi way off the active runway 07, and we back tracked towards the passenger terminal building where we turned north onto the Alpha taxi way and made our way to the far North end of the field where marshallers were waiting to park us on the top of the closed runway 19. Our block time was an impressive 43 minutes because of the extended taxi on both ends of the leg, with a very generous air time of 27 minutes, with thanks and appreciation to our awesome crew.
The waiting airshow officials welcomed us as we deplaned and processed our airshow admissions. We did it! We arrived in VIP style aboard our own iconic airliner, parking in the near centre of the field in the line up of visiting heavies, instead of slugging it out in stressful bumper-to-bumper highway traffic, parking in the distant reaches of the airfield amongst a sea of vehicles. Another major bonus being that charter participants enjoyed full access to the Dash-7 cabin for rest and relaxation throughout our 7 hour visit to the field, which seemed to pass all too quickly.
A 1645 boarding time was set, with planned boarding in three separate groups just like the YVR departure. Many participants started to stroll back early to rest their feet after a long day at the show. The staggered boarding was not necessary as pretty much everyone was already on board and anticipating our flight back to YVR by 1645. We had two fun raffles, with Devon Scott winning the Air Canada history dvd set, and Chris Gray winning the free window seat upgrade, which was announced once the last person was on board.
After the safety demonstration, the flight deck announced we would be enjoying another STOL take-off, much to everyone’s approval. First Officer Cory Szucs deplaned for our engine start to marshalled us out of our parking spot, and a very large crowd what looked like hundreds of people had assembled at fairly close yet safe quarters to watch our engine start and taxi off stand. Once again, we enjoyed a rather lengthy taxi South, down the Alpha taxi way, and then to the East on the Charlie taxi way for a runway 25 departure.
The charter featured pre-assigned seating with boarding passes for both legs, with everyone getting completely different seats on the two sectors, to give the passengers a slightly different experience and perspective of the Dash-7 with each flight. Given the short duration of the flights, we specifically decided against an enroute drink service to allow everyone to experience maximum enjoyment of the flight without onboard service disruptions.
Throttles were advanced against the brakes at 1727 for yet another STOL take-off. You live your entire life having never experienced a STOL take-off, particularly in a Dash-7, and then you experience two STOL take-offs on the same day! This sentiment was probably shared by all on board! The rapid rate of climb to a thousand feet can best be described as marionette or bungee strings pulling the aircraft vertically up. It is a unique sensation that simply does not feature eon any current day passenger aircraft, and has to be experienced first hand to appreciate the uniqueness of the high lift design capability of the Dash-7’s wings.
Our runway 25 departure launched us on a direct westerly path towards the mainland coastline of Surrey White Rock, and once again our pilots maintained a slow cruising speed of just over 100 knots at 3,000 feet to maximize our flight time back to YVR. Our routing took us out over the water above the Tsawwassen ferry terminal which we did a few orbits around, with some nice steep banking which made for nice photography and video, before turning North and flying over central Richmond, where we turned base over Richmond city centre and landed on R26L, which was not quite a hundred percent STOL landing yet still impressive, given the tighter time constraints due to the busier airspace around YVR. Our roll out on R26R was short and sweet, as we taxied past the South Terminal back to where we started our adventure, parking on the apron right in front of the Signature Flight Support FBO. Our flight time was only 22 minutes but seemed longer, with a 39 minute block time, and we were on blocks at 1749 precisely, making it an eleven hour, action packed, full day adventure of non-stop aviation fun.
Both flights approximated the true inter city STOL commuter experience the Dash-7 was originally designed for back in the 1970s, which is simply not possible anywhere else, making this a truly unique aviation experience that was a pleasant surprise.
All of our charter participants thoroughly enjoyed their day and won’t soon forget, for what was most, their first Dash-7 flights, and their first STOL flights. Those who ordered Air Tindi’s newly published 30th anniversary hard cover book, collected them as we said our good-byes in the Signature lobby. A successful aviation event requires much planning, attention to detail, and a very accommodating charter operator. Our Air Tindi crew were absolutely fantastic. Their customer service skills and professionalism were unbelievable. Their friendliness and hospitality and honest desire to make the charter as fun and memorable as possible, was very much appreciated by everyone. Most of the participants expressed interest in repeating the experience again. If Air Tindi has their Dash-7 based in Vancouver next summer, chances are good we will plan for another fun Dash-7 experience.
With special thanks to Air Tindi’s Bob Schnurr, and our fabulous crew:
Captain Wes Hilton, First Officer Cory Szucs, our Flight Attendant (and King Air pilot) Nathan Taylor, as well as Ed Boon of the Abbotsford Flying Club, and Esther Schutte of the Abbotsford Airshow Society.