The British Army has been involved in the 'aviation business' for almost as long as there has been aviation. The Royal Engineers formed balloon companies and man-lifting kite units in the 19th century, and a gondola from one of the British Army Dirigible No 1, the airship 'Nulli Secundus' of 1907, designed by Colonel John Capper and the showman/engineer Samuel Cody, is on display in the RAF Museum, London.
The Royal Flying Corps fought valiantly during WW1, until a 'shotgun marriage' with the Royal Naval Air Service gave rise to the Royal Air Force on the 1st April, 1918. The Army got into aviation in a big way during WW2, with the formation of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Air Observation Post squadrons which flew light aircraft, and spotted for the artillery (rather as they had in WW1).
The military glider had a fairly short life, and by the early 1950s, the days of infantry being delivered behind the front line by unpowered aircraft were over. In 1958 the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Air Observation Post squadrons were amalgamated and the new Army Air Corps was born! A mix of rotary wing and light fixed wing assets was needed, and specifications were soon formulated in the new AAC HQ at Middle Wallop. Soon it was decided that the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver - originally designed as a back-country 'bush aircraft' - was admirably suited for a general duties aircraft to undertake many tasks for the British Army; after all, the US Army had come to the same conclusion and ordered it as the U-6. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-935 Wasp Junior engine of 450 hp, the prototype DHC-2 had first flown in August, 1947, the production costs being eased by the offer of cheap WW2-surplus Wasp Junior engines from P & W Canada. This gave the Beaver a top speed of 158 mph (and a cruising speed of 143 mph) and a range of 455 miles.
The Army Air Corps took delivery of the first of their 46 Beaver AL.1 aircraft in 1961, and it was soon as busy as ...well, a beaver, actually! The type could carry the pilot and five passengers on communications duties, but was also used for carrying freight (1,200lb of cargo), supply dropping (up to 800 lb of stores carried underwing), dropping parachutists, pilot training and aerial photography.
The aircraft you can see above, XP821, is on display at the Army Museum of Flying, Middle Wallop, and has a strange tale to tell. It is a survivor of the conflict which raged across South East Asia from 1955 to 1975, through the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a war which Britain officially had no part in. The story starts simply enough with XP821 being sent overseas to fly as part of No 4 Wing, AAC and 130 Flight, Royal Corps of Transport in Malaysia and Singapore on general duty sorties which lasted until 1970. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London then made a request for an aircraft and Army Air Corps pilot for use by the British Ambassador in Vientiane, Laos. On arrival in country the aircraft was given its distinctive white/grey colour scheme and titles to display its neutrality (or so it was thought). However, this did not appear to deter the 'other side', as when flying up the Mekong at treetop height, it took a Russian-built RPG-7 clear through the port wing. This armor-piercing round just missed a main fuel line. The AAC pilot continued on, and was able to make a safe landing. XP821 left this hazardous duty in Laos in 1975, and shortly afterwards was retired. It is displayed here in its 'diplomatic markings' as quite possibly the only British aircraft to be damaged in a combat situation in the war in South East Asia.
The Beaver was much loved by all who flew her, and is continuing to earn its keep in the back country of Canada and Alaska to this day. Despite the production lines having shut down in 1967, Viking Air of Victoria, Canada has purchased the 'type certificates' for the aircraft from the successor company to De Havilland Canada, Bombardier, and is producing new turbo-prop powered aircraft, as the DHC-2T to this day! Although companies can 'zero-time' a DHC-2 or even fit it with a Polish-built PZL-3S radial of 600 hp, or a Pratt & Whitney PT-6 turboprop, as spares for the original wartime Pratt & Whitney engine are getting scarce.
On wheels, floats or skis, rather like that other classic, the DC-3, it has been found that the only replacement for a Beaver - is a Beaver. However, the British public have not been deprived of the distinctive sound associated with this aircraft and the Pratt & Whitney engine - the howl as the propeller tips go supersonic at high power settings - because the Army Historic Flight still keeps one in flying condition for appearances at airshows!