With Lufthansa as its first customer, Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier became one of the biggest aircraft makers worldwide. It all began with snowmobiles
Valcourt, Quebec is surrounded by green fields. Its pretty houses have well-kept lawns and window boxes full of flowers. The picturesque little town just an hour and a half by car from Montreal is a country-dweller’s dream. At least during the summer months. “Things are very different in the winter, especially when we had snow on the ground for six months of the year,” says Luc Ménard. There was no winter maintenance “and the snow was piled up two meters high along the roads. Horse-drawn carriages were the only means of transportation back then,” he adds as he guides his visitors through the J. Armand Bombardier museum.
Anyone researching the early history of Bombardier, the global aircraft maker and manufacturer of railway trains, will end up in Valcourt. Joseph- Armand Bombardier was born there in 1907. His family expected him to become a priest but he became a mechanic instead. Joseph-Armand was a technical genius. He built his first snowmobile at the age of 15 and opened his own garage when he was 21. It’s part of the museum today. He made his money doing repair jobs but worked tirelessly on designing vehicles that could be driven through deep snow.
Bombardier’s pioneering work took an abrupt turn in 1934 when his son Yvon, who had been seriously ill, died tragically on the way to the hospital because the winter roads were blocked with snow. Bombardier stopped working on small snowcraft and turned his attention to big passenger vehicles. His breakthrough came in 1935 when he invented the sprocket wheel/track system that worked in snow. Bombardier received his first patent for the B7 snowmobile, which carried seven passengers, in 1937. From then on, his business flourished. “His great achievement was to find a way to overcome the isolation of rural areas,” explains Luc Ménard. The sprocket became his company logo and remained it even after 1949, when the government of Quebec introduced snowplowing as a public service on rural highways, causing snowmobile sales to slump.
In the late 1950s, Bombardier turned his hand to designing smaller Ski-doo snowmobiles for one or two passengers. When he died in 1964, the inventor owned over 40 patents, but he never saw his company become a global enterprise. His son-in-law, Laurent Beaudoin, was responsible for that development.
Looking for technical innovations to overcome the rigors of nature, as Bombardier did, was something of a leitmotif for many companies in Canada, a huge country distinguished by endless forests and wide open spaces, high mountains, plenty of water and extreme climate zones. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many of the world’s iconic aircraft were manufactured by Canadian companies. For instance the Beaver bush plane (first flight: 1947) and the twin-engine Twin Otter (first flight: 1965) for 20 passengers, both built by de Havilland Canada (DHC). Or the Dash 8 turboprop passenger plane which made its maiden flight in 1983.
Another Canadian aircraft manufacturer that could look back on a long tradition was Canadair, which developed the Challenger business jet (first flight: 1978). Canadair and de Havilland were both bought up by the newly established Bombardier Aerospace between 1986 and 1992. Bombardier Aerospace developed the two-stroke Challenger into a 50-seater regional jet, the CRJ. It was a global success. Since then, various different, also stretched, versions of the CRJ, have been delivered to customers around the world. Through 2013, Bombardier had built nearly 1,700 CRJs at its headquarters in Montreal. Lufthansa operates the CRJ700 and CRJ900 versions. “The CRJs are a reliable, high-quality, well-designed workhorse,” says Jean-Guy Blondin, CRJ Program Director in Montreal. “We Canadians build on the spirit of innovation that is our rich heritage.”
The Canadians are currently focusing on the next big step. They’re developing the CSeries, a new family of commercial jets. In 2009, Lufthansa ordered 30 CSeries jets which seat around 115 passengers. These are scheduled to go into service for Lufthansa’s group partner SWISS. “We couldn’t have asked for a better launch customer than Lufthansa,” said Gary Scott, then president of the commercial aircraft business at Bombardier. “The CSeries sets new standards as the greenest aircraft in its class.” The new jet combines the short takeoff and landing features of the four-engine Avro (which it is set to replace) with the reach of an Airbus A319, which it owes in part to a new type of engine. “Being able to take off and land on short runways like London City or Florence and reducing noise pollution to less than half – that’s a technical quantum leap,” says SWISS boss Harry Hohmeister, “and the main reason for our decision.”
Lightweight materials and new engine technologies make the new jets more fuel efficient than the old Avros, too. SWISS will be able to reduce fuel consumption by more than one quarter. Another bonus: Passengers can look forward to more space in the CSeries’ cabins. “Classic Canadian planes like the Beaver and the Twin Otter are being built again today and I think the CRJs and the CSeries have what it takes to become evergreens, too,” says Gary Scott. If only Joseph-Armand Bombardier were still around today.