The R-985 Powered de Havilland Beaver: Arguably the Best Bush Plane Ever Built

With a big, nine-cylinder Pratt & Whitney strapped to the front, this 5,100-pound workhorse boasts a useful load of around 2,000 pounds, and it’s built to operate out of short and rough airstrips.

As the de Havilland Beaver departs the ground, the smile will be on the face of the pilot. Every time you lift off, it seems like a miracle that such a big, heavy plane can get off the ground so quickly, even with a heavy load.

By Crista Worthy with Steve Burak

Arguably the best bush plane ever built, the de Havilland Beaver will celebrate 70 years in the sky in August 2017. Here in Idaho where most of our friends tool around the backcountry on a weekly basis, it’s always the Beaver that draws the most attention. Seeing one fly by, low and slow up the canyon, as you stand on an airstrip beside the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, is sure to make your day. Harrison Ford owns about a dozen airplanes and has often said that if he could keep only one, it would be the Beaver. With a big, nine-cylinder Pratt & Whitney strapped to the front, this 5,100-pound workhorse boasts a useful load of around 2,000 pounds (exact numbers depend on how it’s configured inside, among other things), and it’s built to operate out of short and rough airstrips. Strap on skis or floats and you have the ultimate adventure airplane.


Officially known as the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 MkI Beaver, the aircraft was meticulously designed as a purpose-built bush airplane capable of carrying heavy loads into confined, and sometimes rough, areas. Conceived and built in Downsview, Ontario, Canada, much of the Beaver’s early flight testing was done on floats.

The Beaver made its initial flight in August 1947, and the first production Beaver was delivered soon thereafter, in early 1948. By the time production ended in 1967, approximately 1,650 Mk.I Beavers has been built, in addition to a single Mk.II prototype with a 500-hp Alvis Leonides engine, and 60 Mk.III turbo Beavers.

History of the de Havilland Beaver

After the close of World War II, de Havilland turned its attention to civilian aviation. They hired famous bush pilot Punch Dickins as their sales director. Dickins solicited suggestions for new aircraft from working pilots and received an overwhelming number of requests for a tough and powerful STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft, capable of being flown on wheels, skis, or floats, that could haul large and awkward loads into remote areas. Speed was not a priority, so long at the new airplane would be “faster than a dog sled.”

In September of 1946 de Havilland hired five engineers to develop the new aircraft: Phil Garratt, Jaki Jakimiuk, Dick Hiscocks, Fred Buller, and Jim Houston. The team came up with an all-metal design that relied on steel from the engine to the firewall, heavy aluminum truss frames with panels and doors throughout the front seat area, lighter trusses toward the rear, and all monocoque construction aft. Since all de Havilland Canada airplanes were named after animals, the company christened the new model the Beaver, after the hardworking mammal.

The Engine of the de Havilland Beaver

Because de Havilland was then a British-owned company, the airplane was initially designed for a British engine, most likely the inline 330-hp Gipsy. To maintain STOL performance, the wing was huge. But when Pratt & Whitney Canada offered to supply war surplus 450-hp, nine-cylinder radial R-985 Wasp Junior engines at a low price, the DHC-2 got the big wing and a more powerful engine, keys to its exceptional STOL performance for an aircraft that weighs over 5,000 pounds.

In 1949 the U.S. Army began searching for a new utility aircraft and chose the Beaver over the lower-performance Cessna 195. The outbreak of the Korean War led to hundreds of U.S. military orders and was followed by orders from around the globe.

De Havilland adapted the Mk.I to turbine power when it created the Mk.III Beaver, strapping a Pratt & Whitney PT6 up front. The turbine necessitated a number of modifications to the fuselage: the additional horsepower was managed by a larger vertical fin and rudder, while the potential change in CG was mitigated by a 28-inch extension to the fuselage behind the pilot’s seat.

Read more at Disciples of Flight.

One thought on “The R-985 Powered de Havilland Beaver: Arguably the Best Bush Plane Ever Built

  1. CW4 Will Roach (anybody know where he is; still alive?) gave me my Beaver check-out at Biggs Army Airfield, Fort Bliss, Texas in 1970.
    …”if you want to talk to the guys in the rear of the plane, use this funnel”…, {yeah right!}.
    My first mission in it was to act as co-pilot on a flight to Fort Huachuca, Arizona and return. Took forever! I love and miss this airplane like a favorite girlfriend from the distant past.
    One of my biggest disappointments of the Vietnam War was after my Birddog unit the 220th RAC got stood-down in Phu Bai and I ran into an old flight school buddy at Marble Mountain that told me they were about to get a Beaver assigned to their Mohawk unit down in Long Than, and no one was qualified to fly one. It’s mission was going to be “ass and trash”, i.e., flying the mail and/or troops for dental appointments or about to DEROS, etc. to Ton Sonhut Airbase in Saigon daily. Oh yeah! This was going to be my Lt. Milo Mindbender scam of the century moment! I planned to peddle a/c units on the side , small refrigerators, etc. around to bases opening or closing and grab some lobster flambe in Vung Tau at one of the two French restaurants there on my flight back to base. I had witnessed a Vietnam Air Force C-123 land and taxi to our area in Phu Bai and a US Air Force guy strolled down the ramp with a fistful of bills buying air conditioners from everybody’s hootches. Brilliant I’m thinking!
    I did get assigned there but my dreams came crashing down when they got their stand down orders some weeks later and were not taking on any more assets or my dream BEAVER.
    Dashed Beaver dream! Damn!

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