The mighty Buffalo arose from a 1962 US Army requirement for a short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft capable of carrying the same payload as a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter. To facilitate that requirement, de Havilland based its design on its DHC-4 Caribou, which was in widespread use with the Army. The DHC-5 Buffalo was larger and designed for intra-theater tactical airlift for operational theatres like Vietnam. Designed as a combat aircraft, the Buffalo had self-sealing fuel tanks in case it took small arms fire; and it was not pressurized because it was meant to operate below 10,000ft. As noted, the Buffalo has a cabin size similar to that of the Chinook helicopter, and a similar square body design and ramp that facilitated roll-on roll-off capability for equipment that was widely used in the Vietnam conflict. Four aircraft were delivered to the US Army, but politics intervened, and no further aircraft were purchased by the Army.
In 1967, the RCAF acquired 15 Buffalos that were first utilized in the tactical transport role. This function was re-rolled to transport and search and rescue (SAR), because the Buffalo was known for its incredible STOL capability. It was also perfectly suited to the geography and the highly variable weather conditions that are encountered in the coastal and mountainous regions of British Columbia (BC) and the Yukon Territory.
Operated by 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 19 Wing, Canadian Forces Base Comox, BC, the Buffalos were the last of six aircraft that have operated with the RCAF in recent years. The retirement comes as parts obsolescence and maintenance issues have made the platform increasingly difficult to support, and as the squadron shifts its focus to Canada’s new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, the Airbus CC-295 Kingfisher.
The Buffalo was known for its incredible STOL capability. It was also perfectly suited to the geography and the highly variable weather conditions that are encountered in the coastal and mountainous regions of British Columbia (BC) and the Yukon Territory
Buffalo soldier met SAR requirements
“We use the Buffalo in the SAR role because it’s a great airplane for being down low and slow. The props have a 12ft diameter from tip to tip, which means it’s got lots of power when we need it,” said Major Ryan Port, a RCAF pilot who flew one of the last operational Buffalo aircraft (callsign SNAKE 465). “The Buffalo is still a very capable aircraft, and it meets what we need for the conditions we fly in. We’ve been upgrading it over the years, so it’s got a nice modern cockpit for an old aircraft, but with that said, we’ve had to slow down on a few things because the airframe is ageing. One of our biggest problems is there is nobody that maintains the engines anymore, which means we have no capability to ‘zero-hour’ those engines. So, the Air Force had to make the decision on when to cease operations, and that day has now come, and the Buffalo is being put out to pasture.”
The final flights in January 2022 were part of a symbolic farewell tour for the base and for the community that supported the aircraft. They were also serious business, as both Buffalo crews conducted hours of high-value training in coordination with the squadron’s AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant helicopter, and with seaborne assets from Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (RCMSAR) and the Canadian Coast Guard.
During the training evolutions, the Buffalo dropped smoke markers, de-watering pumps, emergency communication gear, sea rescue kits, and bundled drops of various SAR equipment. The Buffalos also conducted ‘valley shoots’, which is a flight profile that sees the aircraft fly low in mountain valleys so SAR Technicians can get visual contact during SAR missions in tight and confined areas that would otherwise be difficult to view from higher altitudes.
“It was a privilege to fly the Buffalo in the last operational missions today. The conditions that we saw are perfect SAR training – we were in and out of clouds, working it hard with boats, and working over the ground doing valley shoots. That’s what we do every day when we train, so we flew it right up to 16:00hrs when the order was for the aircraft to cease operations. It was a great way to continue working full-out right to the very end,” said Major Port.
I don’t feel sad that we’re retiring the airplane – I actually feel comfortable because she’s had a great life.
“Aircraft 452 and 465 are the last two RCAF Buffalos, and probably the last two flying in the world. We brought all the crews in for today, and you were one of the lucky ones to be onboard with us,” said Port. “I don’t feel sad that we’re retiring the airplane – I actually feel comfortable because she’s had a great life. To look at imagery from 1967 when we took delivery of these airplanes, and through the 70s, 80s, 90s and into the 2000s and where we are now, this airplane lasted that entire time – it’s been there since before I was born, and it’s just kept on going.”
An honor to be part of Buffalo SAR history
Captain Fahim Awan, a pilot in the last operational Buffalo (callsign SNAKE 452), also shared his perspective of the day: “It was so special to be chosen as part of the crew for today, and it’s an honor to be part of the rescue cadre that goes out and does this job. I was very happy that we got most of the squadron’s Buffalo-flight out so everyone could be part of this day. I don’t think there was anyone on the crew that wasn’t touched about the significance of the day.”
Adding his thoughts about the Buffalo aircraft itself, Awan said: “The Buffalo is an amazing aircraft – the things it’s done over the past 55 years in Canada, the number of people it’s affected and saved, it’s amazing. It’s so maneuverable that it instills a lot of confidence in you as a pilot – you’re never worried about yourself in this airplane. It’s a stable platform to jump from or to do equipment drops, and what it can do in the mountains is incredible. It was fantastic flying the aircraft today – we did an incredible amount of work considering the weather, so I think we got in about as much as we could, which is a testament to the aircraft, but more importantly to everyone in the squadron who ensured our final operational flight was a success.”
The six Buffalo aircraft that 442 Squadron operated have been slowly disseminated to museums and air parks across Canada, with the last aircraft yet to be transferred to their final destinations.
Speaking of their fate, Major Port said: “I’m happy that we’re not shredding any of these airplanes, and that they’re not being sold to anybody else. It’s great that we’ve got them going to museums across Canada – I just flew one to Summerside, PEI, a couple months ago, so we’ve got one on the east coast, and we’ve got one here at Comox, and we’ve got one in Trenton, and we’re probably going to put one in Ottawa, which will be great; so they’ll be around for people to see for years to come. I feel proud knowing that I can look at that airplane and say I flew it and I’ve signed my name on the inside, so to be chosen to fly in the last operational flights is a great honor in my career.”
In all, de Havilland Canada manufactured 122 DHC-5 Buffalo aircraft, which have flown with numerous air forces and civil operators around the globe.
A new era with the CC-295 Kingfisher
The RCAF now shifts its focus to its new Airbus CC-295 Kingfisher fixed-wing SAR aircraft. Specifically designed to perform SAR missions across Canada, the Kingfisher brings with it an entirely new SAR capability with a suite of modern sensors that will allow crews to locate persons or objects from more than 40km away. These sensors include an Electro-Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) sensor, a search radar, Automatic Identification System (AIS), all of which are enabled with sensor fusion through Airbus’ Fully Integrated Tactical System (FITS) workstations. The Kingfisher’s modern communications systems will also increase inter-operability with other search and rescue assets, such as the CH-149 Cormorant. The capabilities resident within the Kingfisher will necessitate a new concept of operations for fixed-wing SAR crews, which is one of the core functions that 418 Search and Rescue Operational Training Squadron at 19 Wing Comox is tasked to develop.
The fleet of 16 Kingfisher aircraft will be replacing the CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130H Hercules fleets in their search and rescue role at four locations across Canada. Initial operational capability for the Kingfisher is yet to be announced.