Wizards and Merlins - the Restoration of a Canadair North Star

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After showing the Vintage Wings communications team around their North Star project, President Austin "Tim"  Timmins (top), Vice-President Jim Riddoch, Merlin engine restoration expert Ted Devey and Canada Aviation Museum restoration supervisor Mike Irvin (bottom) take a moment to pose with their dream. This pilot project to utilize the manpower of both trained and untrained volunteers under the supervision of professionals will prove to be the future of restoration work at the CAvM. 

Recently, Vintage Wings visited the Canada Aviation Museum to learn first hand about Project North Star - the Museum's supervised volunteer pilot program to help them restore not only a Canadair North Star, but several aircraft that have been stored outdoors for far too long. What we found gives us great hope for the future of large scale restorations at the Museum - a dedicated team of enthusiastic and friendly volunteers working together with and under the supervision of conservation professionals to achieve much needed forward progress on the restoration of a long-neglected airplane. And a huge and daunting project it is, but work progresses steadily nonetheless and with great pride and workmanship.  But let's back up a bit and explain some history.

Preserving for Posterity

For an airplane to escape a cruel fate, it must escape the inevitable, the planned. Over the past 106 years of flight since Kittyhawk, 99% (obviously a guess) of the more than 1 million aircraft manufactured worldwide have met or will meet with ultimate destruction. It does not matter whether they were breathtakingly beautiful or as ugly as flying cows. It does not matter that they failed in their task or were instrumental in deciding the outcomes of human history. It does not matter whether they were reviled or idolized. Nearly all will perish.

Some have fates that are delayed for years and even decades in vast desert graveyards. Some work their way down the food chain from star status airliners to third world cargo haulers, gun runners and even drug runners. Some rot in the far corners of the world, in swamps, on ocean floors and frozen rock strewn tundra, in broken down airfields. In the end, all airplanes fall from the sky, or are cut to pieces for their residual value.

Well, not all actually. A small fraction are ultimately saved from the salvage blade and the smelter's furnace because there are people in the world who think of them as more than just ingots. They do not look at these machines and see only metal. They see something not seeable - they see their souls.

These men and women who set out to pick what they can from the dumpster of history are people who would no sooner destroy an airplane than toss family photos and cherished mementos into the garbage. They are our historians, our museum curators and our restoration teams. They are for the most part people whose lives were touched by the very aircraft they seek to keep alive - as flight crew, ground crew, builders or researchers. Groups of these people can be found across the globe, close to the airplanes that have been selected by fate or by wisdom to live on when all others have gone. From Wanaka, New Zealand to Kissimmee, Florida; from Duxford, England to Harlingen, Texas and from Comox, British Columbia to Ottawa Canada, they battle on against seemingly insurmountable odds. This is the story of one small group of men and women who are fighting time and the economy to make a difference. This is the story of Project North Star.

A Canadian industrial Giant is Born

In the 1940s newly incorporated Canadair Aircraft Ltd of Cartierville, Quebec began construction of a new development of the Douglas DC-4 heavy transport. Known as the North Star, the aircraft was a complete redesign of the ubiquitous Douglas transport. First and foremost, it was not powered by the standard radial engines of its American progenitor, but instead, liquid cooled, Rolls-Royce Merlin inline V-12s were employed as they allowed a 35-knot increase in speed. Canadair was gearing up for the post-war airline boom and the extra speed would help convince the airlines to purchase. Even in 1946, airline executives could see the jet era coming over the horizon.


As beefy, noisy and anachronistic as the Canadair North Star was by the mid 1960s, it had both undeniable utility and a beauty that comes from her broad-shouldered work. Here a sister aircraft
(17511) of the Canada Aviation Museum's North Star thunders across the Canadian landscape. Sporting the old Red Ensign on her tail, this photo can be dated to before 1965. DND Photo


Canadair built 71 North Star airframes under various designations - North Star, C54GM, DC4M and C5 (one aircraft with radial angines).  Here a "Canadair Four" promo-aircraft in factory sales-tour paint scheme poses for a camera ship.  The North Star was in fact first designed and built for Trans Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) and commercial use. Its commercial airline service was surprisingly lengthy with the last North Star still working in the mid-1970s. North Stars saw first-line service with Canada's two major airlines - TCA and Canadian Pacific, and as the "Argonaut" saw effective service with BOAC. Most commercial North Stars were pressurized, while those in the employ of the RCAF were not - thus compounding the misery of passengers by driving through the more turbulent air at lower altitudes.  Trans-Canada Airlines devised a simple fix in their sheet metal shop called the McLeod Crossover which noticeably reduced engine noise in the passenger cabin. This was not adopted by the RCAF. Photo: Canadair via Jean-Francois Mongeau

Canadair would go on to build more than 70 North Stars for commercial and military use. The North Star saw long commercial service with Canada's two largest flag-carriers - Trans Canada Airlines and Canadian Pacific Airways. As well, British Overseas Airways (BOAC - now British Airways) purchased 22 North Stars which were re-designated Argonauts. After first line service with these major airlines, North Stars soldiered on well into the 1970s in the service of smaller airlines in more remote locales. It has been decades since the last commercial North Star was seen alive. Unlike the Ivory-billed woodpecker, there is no remote hope one will someday be seen again.

North Stars in the RCAF

It was with the Royal Canadian Air Force, however, that the Canadair North Star really etched her place in history. Of the 22 North Stars built specifically to order for the Canadians, all were unpressurized; all were unbearably noisy and all saw lengthy service plying the world. They carried Canuck soldiers, airmen, wounded, VIPs, diplomats and cargo to our far-flung commitments, outposts, airfields and battlefields. There are no airmen of 1950s and 60s RCAF pedigree who do not have a North Star story to tell. All the stories involve reliability, its workhorse stature and without exception endless hours of barely tolerable noise.

412 Squadron operated North Stars as VIP aircraft from their base at RCAF Station Uplands in Ottawa and for more than 20 years, North Stars with 426 Squadron of Air Transport Command operated from RCAF Stations Lachine, St Hubert and Trenton to points across the country and around the globe. 426's North Stars earned their spurs during the Korean airlift  with nearly 600 round trips completed. Each round trip required undeniable stamina from both the aircraft and the crews as the trip from their detachment base at McChord AFB in Washington State to Japan and back took more than 50 noisy flying hours.  The same 426 aircraft further distinguished themselves servicing the airmen and airfields of our NATO commitments in Europe during the 1950s and 60s.  It is a tribute to the impact and the legacy of the North Star that, when the modern Canadian Air Force was looking for a name for their newest general purpose passenger transport, they chose to name the Airbus A310 the Polaris (North Star).

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The Canadair C-54GM North Star, powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines, served Air Transport Command from 1947 into the mid 1960s. The North Star was the first aircraft to fly non-stop across Canada, from Vancouver to Halifax, on January 15, 1949, a distance of 2785 miles. North Stars were notoriously brutal on the ears and a long distance trip was often more of an endurance test for the crew and passengers than the aircraft. Photo: Peter Seemann

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Here, the Canada Aviation Museum's C-54GM North Star 17515 is photographed taxiing into the terminal at Dusseldorf in 1965. "One Five" and her sister North Stars put the RCAF Air Transport Command on the map. The North Star earned a reputation in the Air Force for reliability and flexibility as it plied the global routes for nearly twenty years.  Photo: Peter Seemann

A Stay of Execution

Almost from the outset, and certainly by the mid 1950s, the type was hopelessly outdated by quieter turboprops and faster jets. It says a lot for the type's reliability and economy that it would continue in frontline service with the RCAF until 1965.  Late in December of 1965, the Royal Canadian Air Force stood down from operations with the North Star at a special hangar ceremony in Trenton.  One of the aircraft that was on display for this special event was North Star 17515.  Within days, 17515 was in storage at nearby RCAF Station Mount View. The following year, by virtue of her pedigree, her condition and her importance to the history of the RCAF, 17515 was given a second chance at life. She was the chosen one. She was dusted off, and made ready for her last flight - this time just 200 miles to RCAF Station Rockcliffe in Ottawa and the two hangars housing the National Aeronautical Collection.

Given her immense size, North Star 17515 was destined for open storage on the ramp adjacent to one of the two major hangars housing the collection. It was here that her long wait for love and attention began. Her major apertures may have been covered, but still vermin and dirt found their way into her innards over a period of nearly 40 years. Paint faded and chalked, rubber de-icing boots fell to dust, lubricants thickened and dried up. She sat waiting year after year through brutal Ottawa winters, long rain-soaked springs and sweltering summers, and thousands upon thousands of days of UV radiation. She was a patient lady.


By 1985, when Pierre Langlois shot this photograph of 17515, she was nearly 20 years awaiting some love and affection in the form of restoration. Back in 1985, the present day collection of the Canada Aviation Museum was housed in vintage Second World War era hangars (in the background) and attendant ramps from the long-gone RCAF Station Rockcliffe. For those of us who visited the collection often when it was thus housed, there exists nostalgia for the accessibility and simplicity of the collection. Though there was some hope back then that she would be saved from total deterioration, for the next 20 years she would remain outside, visited only by starlings, wandering visitors and the occasional photographer.  Photo: Pierre Langlois


In 1985, Canadair North Star 17515 patiently awaits the completion of the brand new National Aviation Museum (Now Canada Aviation Museum) being constructed in the background. Any hopes she may have had that this would be her new home were not to be. Towed across the field to be close to the Museum, she would continue to endure the harsh Canadian climate for two more decades - this time with no one to wander around her. Photo Pierre Langlois


One can only imagine what 40 years of this will do to a complex and fragile system like the Canadair North Star. This photo was taken 20 years after her arrival at the National Aeronautical Collection, and a full 20 years before she was finally brought indoors at the Canada Aviation Museum. At least the mice and starlings were temporarily out of action. Photo: Bill Ewing

Salvation Powered by Volunteers

As we all know, running a museum of fully-restored aircraft takes virtually all the money that said museum is allotted from government  and donors.  There is little, if any, left to take an aircraft that needs to be restored and do just that.  It is simply a balancing act between the day-to-day maintenance of a collection and the expensive facility it is housed in and the need to first stop and then undo the deterioration of aircraft in the collection that have been stored outside.  After the new Museum was built in the mid 1980s, there was a new excitement about the collection and its mission to educate Canadians. Compared to the smaller hangars that once housed the collection, the new museum was huge - but not huge enough. There is no doubt that for the next couple of decades museum conservators would look out their back door and feel the pain of the large aircraft that were forced to continue their wait out doors.  These included the North Star, Canadair Argus, CF-100, de Havilland Dash-7, Douglas DC-3, Rockwell Jetliner, Vickers Viscount, and the saddest and least able to defend itself of all - the Bristol Beaufighter. It was not from neglect, but from a form of conservator triage that these aircraft were required to wait in the elements. Museum staff would endure years of comment and complaint about the deteriorating condition of these aircraft, but there was little they could do about it until they could afford a place to put them.

By 2001 funding finally materialized for the construction of a large storage facility capable of bringing under cover all the aircraft presently in limbo and much more. This beautiful architectural gem was opened to much fanfare and joy in 2005. From that day on North Star would endure the worst of Canada's weather no more. She had a home. She also had champions who were now setting out to bring her back to her old glory - the members of Project North Star.

Project North Star was set in motion around the same time that funding was first granted for the building of the storage facility. If the North Star was going to come indoors, then it was time to work on her.  A group of dedicated men and women headed by former North Star navigator Colonel Austin Timmins, General Dave Adamson and Robert Holmgren set out to create a society of like-minded individuals who would volunteer their experience, skill sets, knowledge and above all time to assist the Canada Aviation Museum staff to bring about the full restoration of the Canadair North Star. They would work under the direct supervision of the experts at the museum to learn the skills necessary to conserve, restore and display a proper tribute to the legacy of the North Star.

If the museum, through lack of public funding, could not begin work on this magnificent beast in the foreseeable future, then Project North Star would step in with the manpower. Early on, the scope of Project North Star was expanded to embrace the other aircraft that had been stored outside along with 17515, but the North Star is still the primary focus of their efforts. Museum staff welcomed the public interest, the helping hands and the opening up of the way forward. They brought in Mike Irvin, one of the museum's experienced restoration experts, as Project Manager and gave him responsibility for Project North Star, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Today, 17515 no longer languishes on the back lot of the Canada Aviation Museum, but awaits her future in the new CAvM storage facility annex. Almost 40 years of outdoor storage were profoundly destructive in terms of corrosion and deterioration of such things as de-icing boots and fabrics. But today, she patiently awaits her future while a small cadre of dedicated volunteers administer to her sad state - one small component at a time. Photo: Peter Handley


From atop the central observation deck in the new storage facility at the Canada Aviation Museum, the full size of the Canadair North Star and the deterioration of her paint can be appreciated. Her port outer (No1) has been removed to the restoration wing of the museum where it nears completion of its conservation and restoration. All components being worked on must be removed and brought to the restoration workshops as volunteers must be supervised by CAvM staff.  Photo: Peter Handley


With her tail feathers removed and an engine in overhaul, the North Star is jacked at the tail to keep her balance. Other than the Canadair Argus (background) that she shares the hangar with, no other aircraft in the storage annex or even the museum proper takes up so much room. Photo: Peter Handley

Behind the Scenes

If one really wanted to know what Project North Star was all about, one should best call on them at lunch time at the Canada Aviation Museum on a weekday. It was here that I first met the team, gathered around a table in a small room at the back of the museum. Shoulder to shoulder, dressed in blue coats or overalls, sandwiches unwrapped and half eaten, thermos bottles open, they joked and shot good natured barbs back and forth across the table.  Though there was no room what so ever for any visitor to join them in the packed room, the welcome was apparent. From my position at the door, I was knocked back by a salvo of smiles and quips. This was going to be fun.

Our arrival signaled a return to work in the nearby restoration workshop. This wonderfully cluttered facility is an airplane lover's dreamland. Filled to the open-webbed steel bar joists with airplanes, wings, engines, posters, parts tools, work benches and every conceivable thing to do with aircraft restoration, it exudes a vibe that was immediately felt by photographer Peter Handley and myself. For an aviation fanatic like the men I was meeting with, this was heaven; a place to spend time in; a place that could lower the blood pressure and give meaning to retirement.

The guys were eager to start the tour and because one them (Ted Devey) is also a Vintage Wings of Canada volunteer on our Hurricane XII project, I followed him and Jim Riddoch to the far end of the building where they were working on the Rolls Royce Merlin engine known as "No.1". As the port outer engine, this would be the first to be turned over on the North Star's start up check-list – a logical engine to begin with!   It was apparent from first glance that the work was of the highest caliber, that it was daunting in scale and that it was nearing completion.  From now on, I will let the photos and the caption do the talking.

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Two of the senior members of the restoration team known as Project North Star, Ted Devey (left) and Jim Riddoch discuss details of the restoration of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine removed from the port outer position of the North Star.  Thousands of hours have gone into the work so far, but much has been accomplished and as Ted says "This is Merlin 101" - the place where they will hone their skills at Merlin restoration. It is expected that lessons learned, tools made and experience gained will shorten the time for restoration of the other three. Photo: Peter Handley

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Two banks of six massive cylinders present themselves for discussion as Jim Riddoch (right), project North Star Vice-President  and Ted Devey explain to visitors some of their trials and fixes along the way. The team had to manufacture their own tools to remove or turn certain components, their own engine cradles and jigs. Their pride is enormous... and warranted.   Photo: Peter Handley

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The exterior of No.1 Engine, like the others, was in dire condition - filthy, broken, disconnected and corroded, but you would never know it looking at its condition today. All systems were broken down into components and all components were removed for high-pressure steam cleaning, glass-bead blasting or hand scrubbing - a daunting task if ever there was one. It was found that the core engine was in fairly good shape even after nearly forty years. The thick oil residues were still semi-fluid and had protected the cylinders and cam shafts from excessive deterioration. All parts that were corroded beyond use were remanufactured by volunteers with machining and metal working skills.  The goal is to have the engine in fully original working condition - the pistons, cranks and cams moving in their housings, but with no fuel, glycol or engine oil in the systems to cause leaks or corrosion. They can be turned over but never fired.  The workmanship is world class. Photo: Peter Handley

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The head covers for the port outer, fresh from the paint shop, sit on a workbench ready for installation. Thousands of photographs of each component, removal and replacement have been taken and painstakingly recorded in a master database. With hundreds of thousands of components, parts and fasteners, these recordings are invaluable in putting the Merlins and the North Star back together the same way they came apart. Photo: Peter Handley

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Senior Project North Star restorer Bruce Gemmill works on the engine mount and radiator housings for No.1 Merlin.  Even to the untrained eye, the work is beautiful.  All components were restored to original factory condition. This included remanufactured factory labelling of hydraulic, glycol and electrical lines - these being photographed and then replicated by graphics designers with the Canada Aviation Museum.  The view here looks forward from the position of the firewall towards the semi-circular oil and glycol radiators. Photo: Peter Handley

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"The rookie gets the nastiest jobs" jokes Project North Star's Vice-President Jim Riddoch (left). One of the newest members of the team, former diplomat Ron Lemieux got the dirty job of cleaning a radiator assembly while old hands chuckle (Riddoch, Mike Irvin and Bruce Gemmill) at his feigned distress. In fact all volunteers are unafraid to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Photo: Peter Handley

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No matter how deep inside the engine nacelle a part may be buried, no matter that a certain component will never see the light of day let alone the starry-eyed gaze of a visitor to the museum, no matter that it will never function as designed again, each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of systems, components, parts, fasteners, wires and labels will be conserved and restored as close to its original factory state as possible - such is the nature of museum-quality restoration. Here, volunteer John Tasseron explains the work being done to remanufacture a rectangular channel housing for a felt anti-abrasion strip - buried somewhere in the air induction system. Corrosion was so extensive on the thin metal channels that it required remanufacture. Not having the original machinery and methods necessitated the making of tools, jigs and another method to make just four.  And this was just one small insignificant part!  Photo: Peter Handley


For each part requiring more than just a cleaning and a recording, there are drawings to be made to enable measurements and written descriptions of how it will be made - this component is described in the caption in the previous photo. Photo: Peter Handley


Volunteer John Tasseron experiments with steel scraps to create a small tool to help with the restoration work. Utilizing the high quality presses, lathes and restoration equipment under the supervision of CAvM staff, John and others have learned the skills that enable the restoration to move forward. Photo: Peter Handley

After viewing the work in progress, we took the long walk from the workshops through the main museum hall outside again to the new and futuristic storage building. A vast cavern of vapour-lit space, it houses a second large collection of aircraft - some fully restored, others, like a TCA Viscount, just the way they looked when they were dragged in from the ramp after decades of outdoor storage.  Not many people get to come inside this facility, except on special days like the Classic Air Rallye.

Under the unrelenting glare of the lights, the North Star looked like a work in progress - parts missing, windows removed, control feathers gone, paint in terrible condition. But here and there, there were significant signs of progress.  Once again, let's let the photos do the talking.

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Though No. 1 engine has been removed to the workshop and nears completion, work has still progressed on other components such as cockpit seats and this immaculately restored cherry-red spinner and assembly. In addition, Hope Aero from Mississauga, Ontario has become an invaluable partner and sponsor by overhauling, free of charge, two of the four massive propellers - with the others to be done later.  Hope specializes in propeller work and has donated the overhaul of these mighty blades with employees doing the work when schedules allow.  Projects of the scale of the North Star rely on sponsors like Hope Aero who not only provide much needed expertise, but understand the importance of maintaining our heritage.  Photo: Peter Handley


This is the condition of an un-restored spinner, propeller and hub assembly prior to the magic of the Project North Star team and their sponsors Hope Aero.  Photo Peter Handley


Back in the day, passengers on non-military North Star and Argonaut airliners travelled in some degree of comfort albeit cacophony, with a wide aisle and roomy seats. Safety was less of an issue of course with overhead luggage storage ready to deposit hardcase suitcases on the heads of passengers in the event of severe turbulence. Photo via Jean-Francois Mongeau

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Today, the interior of the only remaining Canadair North Star has been stripped bare by time and restorers and has a grim and forlorn appearance. Some day in the distant future, visitors will be able to look inside and see how RCAF military personnel, medical evacuees and cargo were carried around the world. Photo: Peter Handley


Decades in the sun and alternating freezing and burning temperatures have played havoc with the paint, but the skin is in remarkable condition. Old roundels. serials and Canadian flag will eliminate guesswork and research into the North Star's final paint scheme - she will be painted exactly as she was delivered to the museum. Photo: Peter Handley

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A long-gone RCAF jokester wrote the word "BANG" on the leather holster for the Very signaling pistol. In every restoration, there are little vignettes like this cowboy-style holster and its unknown comedian that reveal themselves on closer examination. Photo: Peter Handley

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The cockpit of a commercial North Star reveals a busy dial-filled work environment, typical of the last generation prop-liners. The 4-man crew on trans-oceanic flights consisted of pilot, co-pilot, navigator and engineer. Photo via Jean-Francois Mongeau

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The one-time pristine front office of the North Star has been gutted of her control panels, crew seats and much more. A diagram printed on coroplast reminds restorers where instruments must go when the time comes. The crew seats have already been fully restored and await installation in the years to come. Dark, dingy and looking like a fire had raged through recently, this mess will some day look like the well cared-for control centre of a powerful aircraft in the service of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Photo: Peter Handley

After touring the North Star restoration work with members of the team, two facts are very evident. The first is that the work ahead is daunting - complex, hugely time-consuming, expensive and sometimes confusing. The second is that the men of Project North Star are un-daunted by all this.  They fully understand that the task they have taken on will take many years, but they cheerfully move forward because they simply love what they are doing. Many understand that it is quite possible that their goal will not be achieved during their lifetimes, but like the Egyptians and the pyramids, they move onwards up that hill. Though the final goal is to complete the museum-quality restoration of an entire aircraft, they find great joy in restoring one component, one system, one part of history at a time. The perfect restoration of a radiator assembly, a Merlin engine, or simply the design and manufacture of a simple tool to extract a part becomes the project. It is good enough that it is joyful and prideful work. The payoff is continuous - camaraderie, knowledge, skills.

By looking at the project one component at a time, they are not overwhelmed by the work ahead. In fact they embrace it. Hell... there are other aircraft to work on after this one!

If you want to learn more about the North Star, we recommend you read Larry Milberry's excellent history on the type called "The Canadair North Star".

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