As US, China Chase 6th-Gen Jets, Canada To Revive ‘Almost Forgotten’ C-23 Sherpa As Military Variant

Even as militaries worldwide plan fifth—and sixth-generation fighter jets, a quiet revolution is happening in Canada to revive the almost forgotten De Havilland Short C-23 Sherpa as a military variant.

Well-known as a supply aircraft in Western Europe during the Cold War in the 1980s, the C-23 came from a family of twin turboprop planes.

De Havilland Canada’s Vice President for Corporate Affairs, Neil Sweeney, speaking to Aviationweek on the sidelines of the CANSEC trade show in Ottawa on May 29, said a study was going on to see if the C-23 could be revived for the defense and firefighting markets.

The study focused on the feasibility of an aircraft for airdrops and paratroop missions. De Havilland also launched a market survey this year to gauge the demand for the C-23.

In addition, the aircraft got a thumbs-up from the U.S. Forest Service, which uses it to fly smokejumpers to counter forest fires, Sweeney said. In 2014, the U.S. Army gave away more than a dozen C-23s to the U.S. Forest Service.

De Havilland has not set any deadline for the revival and reintroduction of the C-23. According to Sweeney, the company would take a call only after evaluating the demand “against non-recurring restart costs.”

Sweeney was forthright: “If it’s a run of 10, I think the answer is no. If the run is 500, then the answer is probably yes… it all depends on what our recurring costs would be and then ultimately what the market would bear.”

Incidentally, De Havilland has had success with revivals: the Twin Otter and the CL-515 by De Havilland and its predecessor, Viking Air, which acquired the type certificates for the Sherpa family from Bombardier in 2019. (The De Havilland Canada DHC-515 and the Canadair CL-415 are a series of amphibious aircraft built originally by Canadair and subsequently by Bombardier and De Havilland Canada. In October 2016, the CL-415 program was acquired by Viking Air, aiming to produce an updated CL-515, since renamed the DHC-515 Firefighter, and to be produced in Calgary, Alberta, by De Havilland Canada.)

Incidentally, Indian regional airline Flybig operates De Havilland’s Twin Otter Series 400 aircraft. Flybig is owned by Gurugram-based Big Charter Private Limited and began operations in December 2020. It is focused on connecting Tier-2 cities within India.

C-23A with aft cargo door down – Wikipedia

The Workhorse Of US Air Force

The 1960s-era transporter would never win top scores for its looks. Featuring a fuselage like a box and two split vertical stabilizers, the C-23 has a long history.

It was built by the Short Brothers of Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1984-1997. Oakley Brooks, former President of Short Brothers USA, wrote that 60 C-23s in three variants were sent out to the U.S. military. These served commendably till 2014.

It was in 1981 that a decision was taken by Short Brothers to alter the Model 330 passenger plane. A workhorse for regional airlines around the world, the 330 was ideal for the modification. The aim was to bring in “a tough, versatile, low-cost aircraft with a 7,500-pound payload and large interior, powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PT6A-45R turboprop engines”.

The change included “a downward-opening rear ramp and open interior to allow paratrooper seats along the side fuselage and large tie-down cargo,” according to Brooks. The aircraft has a large cargo door forward of the wing on the left side. The remodeled 330 became the Sherpa and completed its first flight in 1982.

The first demand for the aircraft came around the time of the first flight from the United States Air Force (USAF) for its new European Distribution System Aircraft (EDSA). General Billy Minter, commander of USAF in Europe, wanted an aircraft to expedite and distribute spare parts among the air force’s many European bases during wartime.

Brooks writes: “Shorts won the open competition conducted by the air force for 18 aircraft, beating out Spain’s CASA 212…The Air Force designated the Sherpa as C-23A, and the 18 aircraft were delivered from March to December 1985. Shorts also handled logistics support for EDSA from a base at Zweibruecken, Germany. The system remained in place until the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, and the U.S. military began to reduce its presence in Europe.”

When the EDSA stopped functioning in 1990, the C-23s returned to the U.S. Of the 18, six went to the army, two to the Air Force’s test pilots school at Edwards Air Force Base, six to the Bureau of Land Management, and four to the U.S. Forest Service.

Later, a new model, the C-23B, was developed. It had a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-65AR engine and landing gear from the Model 360-300 (to permit higher gross weight). It had a rear ramp that opened down on the ground as well as up into the aircraft during flight.

This enabled paratroopers to jump out of the aircraft in-flight and drop cargo aerially. The C23-B had more payload, range, and performance than the C-23A. Once again, 14 of the new models were used by the U.S. Army National Guard (ARNG) for pick-up and distribution of major parts and assemblies for the rotary wing fleet from six Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depots (AVCRADs) located around the continental U.S. C-23Bs replaced the old C-7 Caribous (de Havilland of Canada’s DHC-4).

The C-23Bs saw action in Operation Desert Shield (late 1990) and Desert Storm (early 1991) in Kuwait and Iraq when ARNG sent six new Sherpas to Abu Dhabi to support the army’s intra-theatre cargo and personnel requirements.

Brooks wrote that “the final model of the Sherpa was the C-23B+”. The ARNG could get funding for additional aircraft beyond the first 14. Around this time, Shorts was bought over by Bombardier of Montreal, Canada.

The U.S. Army and Army Guard continued to use C-23B/B+ Sherpas in the Middle East. Around 18 aircraft were sent to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom to search for improvised explosive devices and transport personnel and cargo.

The aircraft was also used for relief after the 1998 Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, forest fires/flooding/blizzards in the U.S., support for U.S. Army Special Operations and Navy SEAL Team 7, and missions for the Multi-national Force and Observers’ peacekeeping requirement to ensure compliance with the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

Over the years, due to U.S. budget constraints, the Sherpas became “un-affordable – notwithstanding operating costs that are a fraction of CH-47 Chinooks and C-130s”. Brooks wrote that the “aircraft had become an integral part of the army’s fixed-wing component and will be missed by users worldwide.” The U.S. Forest Service took 15 C-23Bs in addition to the four C-23As from the EDSA.

  • By Veteran Journalist TB Ghosh
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