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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Story Of The Saunders ST-27

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The Saunders ST-27 made its first flight 54 years ago today, on May 28th, 1969. The regional aircraft was developed by the Saunders Aircraft Company, based in Gimli, Manitoba, and founded by David Saunders in May 1968.

The design of the ST-27 was based on components of the de Havilland Heron, which at the time was a popular, four-engined commuter aircraft capable of carrying up to 17 passengers. The stretched fuselage of the ST-27 could comfortably hold 23 passengers. The Heron’s four engines were replaced with two Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprops, the nose was lengthened to accommodate radar, and the vertical tail was increased in size.


Despite the improved operational performance of the aircraft’s turboprop engines, the ST-27 was never awarded US certification, limiting its appeal to airline customers and resulting in lower-than-expected sales. The aircraft also went head-to-head with the already popular DHC-6 Twin Otter.

A Saunders ST-27 aircraft flying above water.

Saunders had difficulty finding workers in Canada keen to embark on the project and, as a result, had the additional financial setback of bringing around 50 workers over from the UK for six months. After suffering initial financial woes, the project was later offered a lifeline and awarded funding from the Canadian Government, allowing the production of the ST-27 to continue.

ST-27 operators – from Canada to Colombia

In total, only 12 ST-27s were ever built, with a limited number of airline customers. One of the more successful ST-27 operators was Air Otonabee, which later rebranded as City Express. In 1974, the carrier began to operate the ST-27 from its base at Toronto Island Airport. By 1984, Air Otonabee was flying a fleet of five ST-27s, with the aircraft carrying over 25,000 passengers annually.

In 2009, Toronto Island Airport was renamed Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (YTZ) and is today home to Porter Airlines, which operates a fleet of Dash 8 Q-400s and Embraer E195-E2s to destinations throughout Eastern Canada and the US. Air Canada Express also has regular services to Ottawa (YOW) and Montreal-Trudeau (YUL) out of YTZ.

A Porter Airlines Dash 8-Q400 flying below the clouds.

Photo: Dennizn | Shutterstock

Other operators of the ST-27 included fellow Canadian airline Voyageur Airways and Colombia’s Aerolíneas Centrales de Colombia.

The ST-28, a shortlived attempt to start from scratch

Without access to the US market, the ST-27 was struggling. This led Saunders to build the ST-28 aircraft with a design based on the ST-27, but without any Heron components, that would meet all requirements to obtain US certification.

A City Express ST-27 parked at an airfield.

A prototype was finalized and debuted at the Farnborough Air Show in 1974, but just a couple of years later, funding dried up, the US certification process was taking longer than planned, and a lack of orders meant that the project was scrapped, and all assets were sold.

The last ST-27 was retired from service in the 1980s, and one example of the aircraft is on display today at the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Ontario.

Do you remember the Saunders ST-27? Did you ever fly on one before they were retired in the 1980s? Share your experiences by commenting below.

Sources: Ingenium Canada, rzjets

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