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Delivery by flatbed truck is perhaps not the most dignified arrival for an iconic aircraft, but the last operational CC-115 Buffalo, No. 115-452, now resides in the reserve hangar of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, safely preserved for generations to appreciate.
The search-and-rescue (SAR) aircraft was unveiled in its final resting place on Nov. 28 after serving 55 years as a tactical transport and SAR platform for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
The DHC-5 utility transport turboprop rolled off the de Havilland Canada production line in 1967 and entered service in July with 429 Squadron in Saint-Hubert, Que. Its first international deployment was Operation Danaca, part of a United Nations Emergency Force established in 1973 to monitor the cease fire following the Yom Kippur War. Three CC-115 Buffalos, featuring a white paint UN scheme, were attached to the mission. One, No. 461, was shot down on Aug. 9, 1974, by a Syrian surface-to-air missile, killing all nine Canadian Armed Forces personnel on board.
No. 452 was then deployed on Operation Oxide to provide transportation assistance to Commonwealth election observers monitoring the February 1980 election in then-Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
Renowned for its remarkable short takeoff and landing ability, the derivative of the piston-powered DHC-4 Caribou was converted to a SAR role in the late 1970s. No. 452 would join the fleet at 19 Wing Comox, B.C., in the early 1980s, following its deployment in Africa.
The aircraft would serve in Summerside, P.E.I., and in Comox, before becoming a permanent fixture at 19 Wing. She was among the last six of the 15 DHC-5s originally acquired by the RCAF that were operated by 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron since the early 2000s.
The museum is still conducting research on No. 452’s operational history and notable SAR missions, explained Erin Gregory, curator of Aviation and Space, but its last operational flight was on Jan. 15, 2022, in a final demonstration of the Buffalo’s unique SAR ability.
Climbing through IFR weather around 19 Wing Comox, Captains Fahim Awan and Matt Hart of 442 Squadron conducted a training flight through the mountain range and along the contours of a valley near Strathcona Park before heading out over the Strait of Georgia to simulate a radio and bailing pump drop from 500 feet to a vessel in distress, up-wind, down-wind, and cross-wind drops of equipment bundles over Goose Spit, near the Comox marina, and finally Sea Rescue Kit (SRK) drops – life rafts tethered together – to members of the Powel River Coast Guard.
After a last flyover of the town of Comox, a salute to the many who have supported the aircraft, No. 452 landed on runway 36 and taxied through a shower from a row of fire trucks positioned to greet it, before stopping on a flight line of aircrews, maintenance technicians and other squadron members who had helped keep the Buffalo in service for over five decades.
“You only get to do that once in your career,” said Awan. “To be at the controls on that day in that moment is something I’m never going to forget. It was pretty special.”
“I was thinking about the responsibility we had to fly it that last day, to document it and share in that ceremonial last flight,” said Hart of the final mission. “[The Buffalo] has had so many roles, not just SAR. I’ll remember this for the rest of my life. It was a very sentimental day, for sure.”
Since that final mission, No. 452 was flown to 8 Wing Trenton, ON, in April 2022, and stored there until space could be created at the museum.
“We had to do a lot of shuffling around the hangar to make room for the Buff.” Said Gregory. “It’s a tight squeeze.”
In what they dubbed the “Buffalo Shuffalo,” members of the conservation staff carefully moved a 1950s North American Harvard 4, a Canadair CT-114 Tutor, and a North American P-51D Mustang IV to open floor space for the CC-115. Then, in early October 2023, the Buffalo was disassembled in Trenton, loaded on to six flatbed trucks, and reassembled at the museum over seven weeks by an 11-member team from Comox.
“We thought it was an important aircraft to acquire because of its long history and impressive capabilities,” said Gregory. “And it’s part of that de Havilland legacy. This is most likely the last Canadian designed and built search-and-rescue fixed-wing aircraft that we’ll ever have in this country, so being able to preserve it for the long-term inside was important.”
While all but one of the last six Buffalos are now with museums – No. 465 will serve as a training platform for the Canadian Forces Fire and CBRN Academy at CFB Borden, ON – most are in outdoor settings and will “struggle over time with exposure to the elements,” noted Col Maggie Jacula. “I think that is one of the reasons this is exciting for the Air Force.”
The CC-115 remains configured for the SAR mission and includes stretchers, jump seats, a fully functional galley, navigation station, and cockpit, with headsets and oxygen masks. Even the technical manuals and some logs are filed in the aircraft. Only the SARSAT box has been removed.
“Our goal here at the museum is to preserve it for research purposes for the future,” said Greggory, “so we want to keep it in the condition we received it.”
In addition to gathering more about the operational history of No. 452, Gregory is hoping to learn more about the stickers and markings in the aircraft that “tell a story that we’ll be researching. We want to gather oral histories from [aircrew] who served on the Buffs so we can develop a more fulsome story.”
Part of her interest in the Buffalo is its role in the SWINTER (Service Women In Non-Traditional Environments and Roles) aircrew trials, that were conducted between 1979 and 1985. “This was the first time that women were allowed to serve as pilots, navigators, flight engineers and loadmasters on aircraft,” she said. “The Buffalo was the first aircraft that all female flight engineers qualified on. It has an important historical role for women in the Air Force.”
The museum intends to display the flight suit of the first female engineer to qualify on a Buff as part of its Cold War exhibition.
Though the unpressurized cabin and the low altitudes at which the CC-115 often operated sometimes meant a turbulent ride for aircrews in the back, the Buffalo was “graceful” in flight, Gregory noted. “By all the accounts I’ve heard, people really enjoyed the experience of flying it.
“It’s a legend, and all legends have their time.”