With 600 now in service, the Bombardier (née Canadair) Challenger is assured a place in history 25 years after its first flight on Nov. 8, 1978. A further almost 20 examples of the latest variant, the Challenger 300 (neé Continental), were in production at Bombardier’s Wichita factory at the start of last month, according to AvData. The database consultancy told AIN that all but seven Challengers built are operational: 81 out of 85 Model 600s; 65 out of 66 Model 601s; 133 out of 134 Model 601-3As; 59 Model 601-3Rs; and 262 out of 263 Model 604s–a total of 600 machines.
Introduction of this fourth distinct model, certified this year in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, might have seemed a very unlikely scenario in the project’s earliest days, when the program was in government ownership and losing money heavily. Canadair officials had made the questionable decision to design a new aircraft (developed from a Bill Lear idea) powered by a new engine, the Avco Lycoming ALF502.
In the mid-1970s, Canadair had been casting around for new ideas during a recession, while then owner General Dynamics (GD) was losing money following the end of hostilities in Vietnam. A small engineering team of 250 was preserved in Montreal in anticipation of the day business would pick up. After funding development and prototype production of the four-engine turboprop Dash 7, prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s government had acquired de Havilland Canada (from Britain’s Hawker Siddeley Aviation), and subsequent proposals to merge it with Canadair were resisted because the two companies operated in discrete markets. With little political choice but to treat Quebec as it had Ontario, the government bought Canadair in January 1976.
Shortly before this Canadair had been approached on behalf of Lear, who was said to have designs for a 14-seat, 5,000-mile-range, 600-mph business jet and interest from Federal Express for 40 aircraft for cargo hauling. Dubbed the LearStar 600, the project had similarities to thoughts developed by Canadair engineering vice president Harry Halton, and in April 1976 Canadair took an option to buy exclusive rights to the design.
With no knowledge of demand, but believing firm orders for 50 aircraft would be required to justify production, Canadair employed former Dassault Falcon Jet and Cessna Citation salesman James Taylor, who insisted on a market-driven rather than engineering-led airplane. Meanwhile, finance officials sought the estimated C$130 million (plus deposits) to achieve certification and begin deliveries. Banks provided half the money, with government guaranteeing the balance. Partnership talks with Saab in Sweden and Aeritalia came to nothing, although some Italian engineers worked for Canadair for 12 months.
An early conference with potential customers concluded that a larger cabin was required, and the fuselage diameter was increased 18 inches to 106 inches–much to the chagrin of Lear, who famously justified the compact Lear Jet cabin on the grounds that drivers did not get up to walk around in their Cadillacs. Canadair established an unusually ambitious timetable, hoping not to fall behind planned Gulfstream III and Dassault Falcon 50 projects. Despite estimates that first flight would take three years from launch, and certification a further two years, Halton decreed a 36-month schedule for the whole job.
FedEx interest led to a freight variant, which attracted orders for 25 ships, but engine selection then became an issue–the untried Lycoming ALF502 high-bypass fan or a costly, weighty General Electric CF34 that needed modification. Lear had planned on using the ALF502, and FedEx’s bad experiences with GE-powered Falcon 20s saw the Lycoming chosen following promises of additional power.
With days to run before options expired, Canadair launched what would later be known as the Challenger 600 in October 1976 with firm orders for 28 aircraft (in addition to 25 unconfirmed for FedEx). The price was set at $4.375 million and first flight was slated for April 1978, followed by deliveries less than 15 months later.
Experience with metal-to-metal bonding and machining (as opposed to fabrication) meant that manufacture presented few problems. The main challenge was to combine such a “widebody” business aircraft cabin with a new wing and novel engines–all to new FAR Part 25 airworthiness regulations.
A boost came in mid-1977 with orders for 21 aircraft, now called Challengers, by TAG Finance in Switzerland, but was offset by cancellation of 22 FedEx deliveries after deregulation removed restrictions on cargo payloads. Promises of a stretched Challenger led FedEx to sign a conditional letter of intent for 25, and the first Challenger was rolled out in May 1978, TAG ordering a further 10 to take overall orders to 127 aircraft. By then the price had climbed to $7 million. Only lack of daylight prevented three sorties being flown on the day of the maiden flight, which was seven months late, and six months rather than a programmed six days after the rollout. Almost 10 flight hours were logged in the first week.
Delays continued, with airworthiness approval taking 24 months, and the innately portly aircraft was 2,500 pounds above its target empty weight. The possible use of composites to lighten the airframe was rejected because Canadair knew little about the material, and mtow was therefore increased to permit more fuel to be carried.
Poor reliability and late engine delivery delayed certification flying, although Challenger S/N 1002 was nominally delivered in March 1979 (but leased back directly for test flying).
By late 1979, with just one Challenger (instead of a planned 11) shipped, Canadair acknowledged development was C$20 million over budget. Lower-than-expected customer deposits put the program C$70 million down, and banks sought guaranteed payments should the government sell Canadair. Then in April 1980 the first Challenger was lost when the drag chute failed to detach after being deployed during a deep stall; two crewmembers successfully bailed out.
This came just as production was approved for the longer Challenger E (later CL-610) and a CF34-powered CL-601 variant was announced. By mid-1980 the program was still a year behind, with drag, weight and fuel burn too high, and engine power and range too low. Canadair raised the mtow to accommodate higher completion allowances and more fuel.
Finally, restricted Canadian and U.S. certification was awarded in the second half of 1980 under the following conditions: no flight into known icing conditions; no use of thrust reversers; takeoff not above 33,000 pounds; and Vmo 320 knots. Lack of engines meant that aircraft delivered for completion shed their powerplants in favor of the next Challenger off the line. And still the bills came in–government “comfort” letters were sent to pacify lenders, as interest rates and company costs soared.
By mid-1981 the CL-610 (49 of which were on order, with another 30 under discussion) had become a new design too heavy even for more powerful CF34s and was postponed. Fortunately, nearly 40 percent of CL-610 customers converted to CL-601s, albeit with a $1 million discount.
Year’s end found Canadair in a very sorry state. Challenger program costs were almost 80 percent over budget at C$1.2 billion; deliveries were 33 instead of a projected 113; sales income was 50 percent short; and the aircraft price had soared to $9.5 million. One bright spot was Taylor’s success in selling 22 aircraft. Challenger S/N 1003 received a modified rear fuselage and nacelles to hold the CF34 powerplants, with which it flew as a CL-601 in April 1982; production examples followed in September.
Customers, including TAG, were declining to accept new aircraft because of poor performance just as manufacture reached five a month, so Canadair halted production in September 1982 for eight weeks (sacking 400 workers) before restarting at two a month. By now, government attention was attracted to the company’s plight and a new recession saw interest rates climb and customers cancel orders. Fearful that the government would kill the Challenger (if not sell off the company), officials wrote down inventory values to reduce asset worth to a negative C$1.1 billion.
Ironically, the design was finally starting to come good. The CL-601 was certified ahead of schedule, in February 1983, and the following month U.S. airworthiness officials issued approval on the basis of its test pilot’s radioed reports and telexed the certificate to Montreal even before the aircraft landed.
Following media and government criticism, most senior management were laid off in October 1983 and hundreds were made redundant as production slid to just 15 a year. Early in 1984 the government approved plans to form a new company, accepting the tab for C$1.35 billion of debt. With one bound “new Canadair” was free, retaining all the assets, the factories, equipment and inventory and C$350 million.
The final CL-600 having been shipped in 1983, operating losses fell and TAG renewed its sales agreements just as the 100th Challenger was delivered in March 1984. Within months the company was in profit, topped by the sale of seven aircraft to the German government. A new Conservative administration in Canada was mandated to sell crown corporations such as Canadair.
The enhanced Challenger CL-601-3A was announced in September 1985, but government sale plans went ahead. In August 1986 Bombardier beat four other bidders to write a new name in the aerospace industry sky. Bombardier subsequently went on to acquire de Havilland Canada, Learjet and Short Brothers.
Challenger prospects continued to improve as the -3A flew a month later, although the order backlog was in single figures, and Bombardier invested in product support and marketing. Although the proposed short-range Challenger S did not go ahead, the more powerful CL-601-3R in 1993 found favor, and the longer-range CL-604 was announced along with a cargo conversion (by Pemco). Later have come the narrower Challenger 300, larger, long-range Global Express and something called a regional jet. The rest is history.