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Entrepreneur Fred Kaneb invented the Dilbert Dunker

By on August 29, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments

Fred Kaneb’s biggest claim to fame is his wartime invention of the Dilbert Dunker, a gizmo designed to save the lives of U.S. air crews. (Kaneb family)

Fred Kaneb’s biggest claim to fame is his wartime invention of the Dilbert Dunker, a gizmo designed to save the lives of U.S. air crews.
(Kaneb family)


During his long life, Fred Kaneb, who has died at the age of 96, ran a series of successful businesses in Canada, including an oil company. His biggest claim to fame, however, is his wartime invention of the Dilbert Dunker, a gizmo designed to save the lives of U.S. air crews.

During the Second World War, many fliers died after ditching at sea because they were disoriented underwater and couldn’t escape from the cockpit. So Lieutenant Kaneb, of the U.S. Navy, led a team of engineers to build a survival-training device: They came up with a simulated aircraft cockpit on rails perched at a 45-degree angle above a pool of deep water. A trainee would be strapped into the cockpit (which even included an instrument panel) and then the Dilbert Dunker would be released, dunking the student under water. The trainee had to struggle to get out. To add to the challenge, the cockpit would invert upon hitting the water.

“It could be terrifying, especially on the third trip, when you had to do it blindfolded to mimic a night crash landing. You are completely disoriented when you are underwater and upside down,” said Sterling Gilliam, a retired U.S. Navy captain who is now director of the National Naval Aviation Museum at the Naval Airbase in Pensacola, Fla., where a Dilbert Dunker is on display.

The device borrowed its name from the klutzy Second World War pilot character featured in U.S. Navy wartime training manuals (not to be confused with the hapless office worker character in Scott Adams’s Dilbert comic strip in today’s newspapers).

Training on the Dilbert Dunker, which was depicted in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, became a rite of passage for naval aviators. (There was less danger of a crash landing at sea once planes were routinely equipped with ejection seats after the Second World War.)

The device’s inventor, Wilfred Kaneb, always known as Fred, was born on April 3, 1920, in Worcester, Mass. His mother, Agey, was from there and wanted to have her baby with her mother nearby. Baby Fred and his mother returned home to Cornwall, Ont., shortly after the birth. His Lebanese-born father, Thomas, was a travelling peddler who worked in and around Cornwall. Thomas saved his money and eventually opened a dry goods store and later bought the King George Hotel.

“My father and his brothers grew up slinging beer in the downstairs tavern,” said Fred’s daughter, Stephanie Kaneb.

Imbued with their father’s immigrant work ethic, all seven children in the family were studious and graduated from university. Two of the brothers, Fred and George, went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Just after graduating in 1943, Mr. Kaneb was seconded into the U.S. military, along with his brother and some other inventive types from MIT. George went on to work on artificial rubber, Fred on ways to save the lives of navy pilots.

When Fred Kaneb returned to Cornwall in 1945, he started Parisian Beverages, bottling and distributing soft drinks such as Pepsi and Orange Crush in Eastern Ontario. He left when he and his partner had a falling out over where the business should expand. “My father wanted to bottle water. His partner said, ‘Who will ever pay for bottled water?’ and they parted company,” Ms. Kaneb said.

His next two companies dealt with plastic moulding, the most successful being Fiberez, which made moulded snowmobile bodies and cabs for long-haul trucks. He also made fibreglass bathtubs and shower stalls, and that firm was bought out by American Standard, the plumbing-supply giant. In its heyday, Fiberez employed more than 50 people in Cornwall.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Kaneb was approached by one of his contacts in the United States from the Metropolitan Petroleum company. It wanted to import oil into Canada through the port of Montreal. Mr. Kaneb set up a company to do the job. It was to have been called Oilco, but there was a spelling mistake in the incorporation papers and it ended up as Olco.

The firm started by storing oil in giant tanks in Montreal East, selling house-heating oil and marine fuel to ships moored in Montreal. Olco then bought more than 300 gas stations from ELF, the French petroleum firm. It still operates 319 gas stations in Ontario and Quebec. Control of Olco was sold in 2005.

Mr. Kaneb and his family split their time between a house in the inner Montreal suburb of Town of Mount Royal, where they moved in 1961, and an orchard in Glen Walter, 10 kilometres northeast of Cornwall, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The 400-tree orchard, growing plums, peaches, apples and pears, was Mr. Kaneb’s major hobby and a way for him to get away from his other businesses.

“He loved to work. He would drive to the orchard at Glen Walter and be out on the tractor spraying trees or helping harvest the apples. We sold the apples locally,” Ms. Kaneb said.

Mr. Kaneb was an accomplished athlete. At university in the United States, he was an all-American tennis player and he continued to play on a tennis court at the property in Glen Walter. He played golf as a young man but gave it up later in life as he found it took up too much time. He had a sharp eye and once enjoyed skeet shooting. “He was a great shot, but just at targets. He didn’t hunt,” his daughter said.

Several years ago, Mr. Kaneb donated his papers to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.

Mr. Kaneb died at home in Glen Walter, Ont., on Aug. 9. Predeceased by his wife, Mayford (née Rintoul) Kaneb, in 1990, he leaves his children, Mark, Frederick, Stephanie and Vanessa; two brothers; a sister; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .

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