With passenger services to remote locations cut off or dramatically reduced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, proposals to utilize turboprop aircraft for cargo-only missions have surged.
In response to operator requests for temporary cargo reconfigurations, aircraft converters — and OEMs in particular — have turned to the Dash 8 platform. These temporary solutions now complement a sizable number of full-conversion programs for the Dash 8 already on the market or in development.
With signs of broader interest in freighter-configured Dash 8 aircraft, additional full-freighter conversion, and potentially purpose-built programs, may follow.
The Dash 8 platform reflects a byzantine tangle of interrelated businesses and reflects multiple mergers as well as the transfer of human capital across Canada, which has a strong demand for regional aviation.
Last year, Longview Aviation Capital completed its acquisition of the Dash 8 program from Bombardier. Shortly after, Longview revived the brand of the airframe’s original developer, De Havilland Aircraft Canada, which Bombardier acquired and folded into its aviation portfolio in 1992. Longview is also the parent of Viking Air Limited, which produces the Series 400 Twin Otter.
In April, the new De Havilland received regulatory approval for its Dash 8-400 Simplified Package Freighter (SPF) with Canada-based Jazz Aviation as launch customer. Not long after, in May, De Havilland announced the expansion of the SPF reconfiguration to the other members of the Dash 8 family: the -100, -200 and -300.
While Jazz Aviation ordered modification kits for up to thirteen aircraft, and Kenya-based 748 Air Services launched the -100 SPF with an order for four kits along with three -400 kits, the program appears to have gained a bit more momentum since then; De Havilland told Cargo Facts a total of six operators have now selected the SPF.
The SPF modification entails removing all seats from the passenger cabin and was originally meant as a stopgap solution for airlines to keep their aircraft flying and to deliver critical supplies. But De Havilland hopes to take advantage of the opportunity to appeal to operators on a longer term basis, using the SPF as a first step toward permanent conversions into full freighters.
According to the Cargo Facts Consulting Freighter Forecast for 2020-2039, the global feeder freighter fleet is expected to grow in the first quarter of 2020 from some 243 units to 420 units by the end of 2039. The net growth of 177, combined with 224 retirements, equates to an overall need for 401 freighters through 2039, consisting of ninety production ATR 72-600Fs and 311 conversions of various types, including the Dash 8 series.
Package-freighter conversion options already exist for the Q300 and the Q400, and Collins Aerospace is in the final stages of developing a large-cargo-door conversion of the Q300 for Air Inuit. While cargo doors on most jet freighter conversions are placed near the front of the fuselage, the Collins design places the door in the back, between the wing and the tail.
Collins expects to install the large cargo door in its first prototype Q300 large-cargo-door conversion soon, and will commence flight testing shortly after.
Given the time and investment required to develop a structural modification, and the commonality between the Q300 and the stretched Q400, Collins is also in a favorable position to develop a large cargo door conversion for the Q400.
At the same time, De Havilland told Cargo Facts that its development plans include several additional freighter solutions for the Dash 8-400. The company already produces a combi variant of the Q400, now in service with Japan-based Ryukyu Air Commuter, but is looking at package-freighter conversions of the aircraft, as well as a production version featuring a large cargo door.
But given the significant investment that a large cargo door represents, not to mention the operational change for carriers not currently moving palletized or large cargo, it remains to be seen whether multiple large cargo-door solutions for the same platform are necessary.
“We are in discussions with several potential customers and will make a decision on the Full Package Freighter upon confirming the market demand,” said Todd Young, chief operating officer of De Havilland. “Of course, the current aerospace industry environment will also impact the timing of our decision.”
Other programs for Dash 8 aircraft include a package-freighter conversion of the Q400 by Cascade Aerospace, and a package-freighter conversion based on the smaller Dash 8-100 by Voyageur Aviation Corp. Voyageur is subsidiary of regional aircraft lessor Chorus Aviation Inc., which also owns Jazz Aviation.
Ontario-based Wasaya Airways is currently the sole operator of the -100 package freighter but, during the crisis, Voyageur has seen a spike in interest in cargo solutions for the Dash 8, according to Cory Cousineau, its chief operating officer.
Regarding Chorus Aviation’s aircraft portfolio, Cousineau said, “We have access to aircraft.” The Chorus portfolio currently comprises eighty-two Dash 8 aircraft, according to its website. With kits on hand, the lead time for a -100 package-freighter conversion is just eight weeks.
Although Voyageur has not formally announced conversion programs for other Dash 8 variants, “Capabilities extend to other models,” added Cousineau.
Revisiting the flurry of new programs, interest from new operators could expand the feeder freighter segment, and those operating within it. But while the variety of operators removing seats and operating temporary cargo conversions has diversified, carriers haven’t yet flocked to permanent conversions.