de Havilland Canada Dash 8


An aircraft which brought the idea of propeller powered flight back into fashion. While the earlier Dash 7 pioneered the concept of Short-Take-Off and Landing (STOL) capable aircraft in commercial aviation, the Dash 8 perfected it, and has now become a linchpin for many significant carriers across the entire globe.

To trace the Dash 8, you need to look back to the previous Dash 7 of the early 1970’s, a four-engined turboprop airliner which was capable of landing on short runways, opening up many inner city airfields to the prospect of commercial aviation connections. Prior to the Dash 7, STOL flight was only possible through a motley crew of piston powered aircraft such as the Convair 240, which were noisy, uncomfortable and inefficient. The Dash 7 introduced such routes to reliable, smooth and efficient operation, thus making the idea of STOL flights a lucrative venture.

The original Dash 8-100, seen here in the company of a Beech 1900.

While the Dash 7 was a success with many airlines, its main drawback was the use of four-engines, which were deemed by many carriers to be inefficient. De Havilland Canada responded with the launch of the twin-prop Dash 8 project in 1980, which took the general underpinnings of the Dash 7 and improved them with a more aerodynamic body and, most importantly, the use of two engines. For the Dash 8 project, de Havilland Canada turned to their favourite engine supplier, Pratt & Whitney Canada, to design an entirely new engine which would meet the demands of the Dash 8. The engines had to be powerful enough to provide equivalent speed and performance as the Dash 7, but also be more efficient and still fulfil the role of a STOL airliner. P&W therefore developed, specifically for the Dash 8, the PW100 series engine, which provided double the power of the previous PT6 used on the Dash 7.

The Dash 8 was eventually rolled out in April 1983, with its first flight taking place on June 20th of the same year.  Prior to this, over 3,800 hours of testing had been carried out for more than two years to make sure that the PW100 engines were suitable for the task. Eventually, production versions of the PW100 were designated PW120, with certification granted in late 1983. The launch customer for the Dash 8 was NorOntair, a nationalised subsidiary of the Ontario Northland Transport Commission under the Government of Ontario, in early 1984. This was followed the same year by the purchase of Dash 8’s by

An example of a Dash 8-200 in the employ of Air Greenland, which sees such aircraft operate to some of the most remote regions on earth.

American regional carrier Piedmont Airlines, the first of many US customers for the aircraft.

The original variant was the Dash 8-100, a comparatively stubby aircraft which could only carry between 37 and 39 passengers, flying at a cruising speed of 289 knots over a range of 2,084km. The aircraft, when compared to the Dash 7, was considered a touch mediocre on fulfilling its promises, being louder than the Dash 7 while also requiring more runway to takeoff and land. The Dash 8-100 needed 3,000ft of runway to operate while fully laden, while the Dash 7 only needed 2,200. At the same time, the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter could also land in a shorter distance than the Dash 8 and was more well suited for smaller airport hops (though it lacked the capacity). Essentially, the Dash 7 worked better on the high-capacity city routes, while the DHC-6 worked its magic in the countryside at remote strips. So where did the Dash 8 find its niche?

The advantages of the Dash 8 came down to two points; it’s performance and efficiency. The Dash 8 cost much less to operate than the Dash 7 due to its light build and smoother profile, being able to recoup its costs with only a third of the seating capacity occupied by passengers. As for speed, the streamlined nose meant it could cut through the sky with greater ease, complimented by its tailor made PW120 engines. The result was a nimble little aircraft that could easily perform its task for half the price of the Dash 7, exactly what the airlines wanted.

A Dash 8-300, this example seen in the colours of Canadian Airlines regional subsidiary Time Air.

What resulted was the Dash 8 being a major success all over the world, particularly in Europe and North America. The 8 allowed many carriers to replace their ageing piston-powered alternatives, as well as earlier turboprops such as the Vickers Viscount. It also opened up city centres across the world to the prospect of direct air connections with reduced journey times between the plane and the central business district. While the Dash 7 had got the ball rolling, the Dash 8 was the one to spread the notion to the masses, with old airfields and small airports being quickly converted to accommodate this new breed of airliner.

The original Dash 8-100 was eventually complimented by two other variants, the Dash 8-200 and -300. The -200 and -300 improved the performance of the aircraft while also stretching the body to increase capacity. Pratt & Whitney continued to deliver increasingly tuned version of the original PW120 engine which would compliment the larger aircraft with equivalent performance. This was especially important as, by 1985, the Dash 8 was becoming encroached by the rise of the STOL regional jet, specifically the BAe 146.

Launched the same year as the original Dash 8-100, the BAe 146 was the last stand of the UK air industry to fight back after years of decline. A compact but spacious body and four powerful engines with increased speed and range made the 146 one of the most popular regional jet designs in the world of aviation history, being purchased by airlines

A Dash 8-300 working for British regional airline Air Southwest, which was one of the last operators of the type in the UK before it ceased operations in 2011.

all over the world. The 146 provided the Dash 8 with some stiff competition on its lucrative STOLport operations, but the 8 fought back through its efficiency (the Dash 8 consuming between 30 and 60% less fuel than the 146) and reduced noise (a major issue for inner city airports). In terms of performance, the aircraft were evenly matched with regard to landing at STOLports, both requiring approximately 3,000ft of runway to operate.

However, while the original Dash 8 series (also known as the Dash 8 Classic series) was indeed popular throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s, in 2000 the Dash 8 was given a revamp which would take it from obscurity into legend, this being the Dash 8-400, better known as the Q400.

The Q400 was an entirely new breed of turboprop and barely recognisable as a Dash 8. In fact, if it weren’t for sharing the same name and profile, you’d mistake it for a completely different aircraft altogether.

The roots of the Q400 went back to 1992 when de Havilland Canada, then under the ownership of Boeing, was purchased by Bombardier, with the Q400 project launched in 1995. As mentioned, pretty much everything on the Dash 8 was overhauled to create the new Q400, which internally made it unrecognisable when compared to the preceding -300. Upgrades included stretching the body to a capacity of 78 passengers, improvements to the avionics and on-boards systems, but the biggest change was to the engines. Performance was upped by way of employing brand new PW150A engines producing 5,071hp, the power of which allowed the Q400 to fly at a cruise speed of 360 knots, 90

Flybe are the single largest operator of the Dash 8 Q400, with 59 examples currently on their books.

knots faster than the preceding -300 and putting it in the same league as the BAe 146 in terms of speed, being only 40 knots slower. Q400’s could also operate at altitudes as high as 27,000ft, the highest a Dash 8 had ever flown. Earlier models had only a limited pressurisation and thus could only fly to 25,000ft.

The Q400 project was completed in June 1999, with US certification granted in February 2000.  European airworthiness acceptance, however, had been granted about two months earlier, with the launch of the Q400 with its first customer, SAS Scandinavian Air System, taking place on January 20th, 2000, approximately 10 months behind schedule.

The Q400 was a massive gamble by Bombardier, but a gamble which paid off due to the careful assessment of market trends by the manufacturer. Bombardier had noted that, during the late 1990’s especially, rather than replacing turboprops on STOL and regional flights, regional jets had created their own niche market. For the turboprops, the likes of the ATR 42 and 72, the Dash 8 family and the Fokker 50 had created a market for STOL aircraft with high efficiency but lower speeds, while the jets, including the BAe 146, the Embraer 135, the Fokker 100 and Bombardier’s own CRJ-series, had created their own market for high-speed travel between most STOLports (but not all like the turboprops).

As such, the Q400 was, and still is, a massive success in the world of regional aviation. The aircraft fulfils as many roles as possible, being incredibly flexible but sporting the perfect mixture of performance and size that makes it a highly lucrative purchase. The Q400 truly tipped the balance in favour of the turboprop, essentially killing off many variants of the regional jet, especially in the post-9/11 world. Higher fuel prices and

A Dash 8-Q400 in house colours, seen flying over the Grand Canyon.

lower passenger numbers meant that the likes of the BAe 146 were seen as dinosaurs and discontinued, while the Dash 8 has gone from strength to strength, being put to work on both high capacity operations from one major international airport to another, and on its specific role into small airports such as London City as a feeder aircraft.

The phenomenal success of the Q400 allowed Bombardier to see off the original Dash 8 Classic series, with the -100 being discontinued in 2005, and the -200/-300 in 2009. Since its launch, over 570 Dash 8 Q400’s have been delivered, with another 50 on order, which is more than double the number of Dash 8-300’s sold, and more than the combined final sales for both the -100 and the -200.

The Dash 8, however, has sadly not been immune to accidents and incidents. Since its launch in 1983, the aircraft has suffered 9 major accidents resulting in 124 deaths.

The first accident of a Dash 8 was on April 15th, 1988, when Horizon Air Flight 2658, a Dash 8-102, suffered an engine fire on climb out from Seattle/Tacoma airport. During the emergency landing, the aircraft struck ground equipment before smashing into two jetways at the terminal before being consumed by fire. Thankfully all aboard escaped.

The first fatal accident of a Dash 8 was on November 21st, 1990, when a Bangkok Airways example crashed at Samui Airport on Ko Samui island off Thailand during a heavy rainstorm and high winds. The crash killed all 38 people aboard.

The worst incident to ever befall the Dash 8 family (as of 2017) was Colgan Air Flight 3407 on February 12th, 2009. The Q400, while approaching Buffalo Niagara Airport with

A Continental Airlines Dash 8 Q400 similar to the aircraft involved in the crash of Flight 3407.

a flight from Newark, New Jersey, stalled and crashed into a house while preparing to land, killing 49 people on the plane and 1 person on the ground. The accident was later attributed to an inappropriate response by the flight crew to a stall warning.

Perhaps the most troubling accidents, however, to befall the Dash 8 family are its various landing gear failures. It has been noted that on many occasions, the Dash 8 has suffered a gear collapse or a failure to extend during landing. The incidents were first noted in September 2007, when two SAS Q400’s suffered gear failures on landing within four days of each other, followed a month by a third incident. The result was SAS withdrawing all Dash 8’s from their fleet by the end of that year.

This was not the first time Dash 8’s had suffered landing gear issues, with the first reported incident, and so far the deadliest, being in June 1995, when an Ansett New Zealand Dash 8 crashed into a mountain near Palmerston after the pilots were distracted by the aircraft’s gear failing to descend, killing four people aboard.

There have since been numerous incidents involving the landing gear failing to perform correctly on Dash 8’s, with a total of eight instances occurring in 2007 alone. Most of the

Alaska Airlines regional subsidiary, Horizon, is the second largest operator of the Q400, with 50 units currently in service up and down the Pacific coast of North America.

incidents were later attributed to improper maintenance by the airline, but, in the instance of SAS, Bombardier compensated them by providing the carrier with 14 new Q400 NextGen turboprops and 13 CRJ900 jets.

The Dash 8 is definitely destined to become a classic, and its earlier incarnations already are. The slow burning success of the Dash 8, together with the de Havilland Canada brand itself, can be likened to a rock band that starts out with early songs which achieve modest success before finding their truly explosive worldwide hit that propels them to stardom. De Havilland Canada is no different, with the DHC-6, Dash 7 and early versions of the Dash 8 being modest hits, but with the Q400 being the major breakthrough needed to secure their name and their reputation. The Dash 8 has cemented itself in the hearts of hundreds of airlines across the entire planet, providing a vital service to so many people on either busy commuter routes or to those hard to reach places.