Les Palmer: The legendary Beaver

After a 60-year hiatus from building model airplanes, I’m doing it again. Please bear with me while I explain what this has to do with fishing and hunting.

A few years ago, I bought a 1/72-scale model airplane kit. This neat-looking model with eight 50-caliber machine guns in its nose stirred my interest for several reasons. The actual airplane, a twin-engined prop job, entered service with the U.S. Army Air Corps late in WW-II as a medium attack bomber, the Douglas A-26 Invader. In the early 1950s, it helped slow the advance of the North Koreans and Red Chinese in Korea. In 1954, in Vietnam, the French used it against the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, the battle that marked the beginning of the end of the French colonial empire. In the 1960s, the US Air Force used a highly modified variant of it in Vietnam, bombing and strafing to slow the flow of war supplies coming from North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

While building that model, I became so engrossed in the histories of the places the A-26 had flown that it took me six months to finish it. Building it and learning about Southeast Asia had been so much fun, I didn’t want it to end. I ordered another Vietnam-War-era model. Then another. And another. Twenty-eight aircraft used in Southeast Asia between 1955 and 1975 now “fly” in the air space of my man cave, suspended by fishing leader. And no end is in sight.

The model I’m building now is an RU-6A de Havilland Beaver, a variant of the airplane that provides Kenai Peninsula residents with one of the sounds of summer.

If you’ve spent any time on the peninsula, you’ve heard the throaty exhaust note of the Beaver’s 9-cylinder, 450-hp Pratt & Whitney radial engine. Capable of carrying a useful load of 2,100 pounds, and able to take off and land in short distances, Beavers are highly sought after by charter outfits that fly people to remote places to fish, hunt and view wildlife.

The Beaver was at least partly designed by the people who would end up flying it. After WW-II, de Havilland of Canada was considering building a utility transport aircraft for remote areas. The company hired legendary bush pilot “Punch” Dickens, who surveyed 80 bush pilots for advice on what the plane should look like. “Lots of power” was one of the things the bush pilots wanted. Pratt & Whitney, builders of thousands of 450-hp Wasp Jr. aircraft engines during WW-II, gave de Havilland a good price on them. As a consequence, Beavers have plenty of power. Dickens, with more than 1 million miles of flying the bush, came up with several ideas that were incorporated into the Beaver.

The first DHC-2 Beaver flew in 1947. Production continued until 1967. A total of 1,657 were built. Beavers have been registered in 60 countries. As one measure of their worth today, a well-equipped Beaver on floats can cost upward of a half-million dollars.

Canadians think highly of the Beaver. The Royal Canadian Mint, called the DHC-2 “the plane that opened the north,” and honored it by including its image on one of the Millennium Series of quarters issued in 1999. In 2009, the mint honored the Beaver by including its image on a gold coin.

Like the A-26 bomber, the Beaver saw heavy use in Korea and Viet Nam. Beavers were the first aircraft used by the US Army to locate enemy radio transmitters during the Vietnam War. A well-kept secret at the time, Airborne Radio Direction Finding aircraft were kept at every major airfield in South Vietnam. The Viet Cong liked to move at night, so many of the missions were at night. The slow, low-flying Beaver, full of electronic gear and bristling with antennas, made a good platform for finding “Charlie.”

On the Internet I found photos of a Beaver in Vietnam, tail number 41701 and I’m trying to make my model look like it did back in 1964. After I add a few more antennas, some weathering and a few decals, it will be ready to “fly.” In researching 41701, I was surprised to learn that it’s still flying. Since starting life in the Army in 1954, it has changed owners a few times. Early on, it was fitted with floats and given a fancy paint job in place of its previous olive drab. Today, it’s actively flying out of Ketchikan.

I owe the success of many fishing and hunting trips to the Beaver. The last time I flew in one was a few years ago. A Beaver landed on the Mulchatna River and picked up my son, grandson and I after our float trip down the Koktuli River and carried us back to civilization.

Hundreds of these venerable aircraft are still flying today. As much as pilots and owners love the Beaver, it’ll no doubt be flying for many years to come.


Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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