By Sam Longo AME A&P
When it comes to aircraft, cargo haulers rarely get the limelight, but back in the late 1970s DeHavilland Canada managed to produce a record-breaking cargo classic, the DHC5 Buffalo.
Working as an airframe mechanic for DeHavilland in Test Flight, during that time proved to be an interesting and challenging job. The company was producing three aircraft, the Twin Otter, the Dash 7, and the Buffalo. Essentially our job was to sort out the bugs after final assembly. Test flights then generated additional snags that we worked away on until the aircraft was finally deemed ready for customer delivery. Usually the customers “delivery inspection” produced a second round of minor issues. Soon after those squaks were cured, the aircraft flew away.
Some flew away faster than others. I recall one particular foreign country purchased six DHC5s and sent a small army of inspectors for the pre-delivery inspections. For weeks we opened panels and did their bidding, as they got increasingly picky about everything imaginable. We did our very best to satisfy them but they refused to accept the aircraft. Finally word came down from on high that a special flying demonstration was being planned. On the designated afternoon we all slipped out the side door of the hangar to watch the show. A Buffalo took off and did a series of spectacular maneuvers, low level tight figure eights, STOL (short) take-offs and landings, etc. I remember being very impressed with what this “cargo” aircraft could do. Afterwards, the rumors circulated that with the demonstration completed the President of DeHavilland gave an ultimatum to the battalion of inspectors. He essentially said: If you can find another cargo aircraft that can do what you just witnessed for this price, buy them, otherwise take ours now! The inspectors and aircraft were gone within days.
There is no doubt that the Buffalo was a very special airplane. Utilizing two General Electric T-64 turbo shaft engines, each rated at 3133 SHP, spinning 3 bladed Hamilton Standard full feathering, reverse pitch propellers; the aircraft’s performance exceeded all expectations. During initial test flights Captain Tom Appleton noted the aircraft’s exceptional ability for rapid climb, and asked for permission to take a shot at a “climb to height” record attempt. Appleton got the okay and on February 16, 1976 he was successful, breaking the old record previously held by the Lockheed Orion. From take off to touch down, a flight duration of only 17 minutes, he managed to break six “time to height” records. His time of 8 minutes 3.5 seconds to 29,500 feet shattered the Orion’s record by 2 minutes and 22 seconds.
The Buffalo was designed specifically to improve on the already well established capabilities of the piston engine Caribou. A joint effort by the US military, Canadian Government and DeHavilland appeared to be a sound investment for the future. Ultimately due to a change in politics, the US orders fizzled out and only 121 DHC5s were produced. Despite spectacular, prototype trials, including using them in Vietnam it was decided to better utilize their American built Hercules instead.
Fortunately other orders trickled in. The company even toyed with the idea of a civilian variant but felt that it might hurt sales of the then fledgling Dash 7. Interestingly some strange versions of the aircraft did slip out of the hangar doors, including one equipped with “hovercraft” landing gear. The ACLS (air cushioned landing system) used two additional P&W PT6 engines to produce the required airbag airflow. Nicknamed the Bell Bottomed Buffalo, due to Bell Aerospace involvement, the prototype testing was very successful but the project never saw production. Another unique pair of Buffalos left the factory with lead lined walls, deluxe corporate interiors and the rear cargo door bolted shut and retaining a permanently installed air conditioning system. Painted externally in traditional camouflage they were indistinguishable from their cargo counterparts!
When my chance finally came for a ride on a test flight, I didn’t hesitate. My Buffalo joyride’s “corporate interior” consisted of military troop web seating. I couldn’t have cared less about my accommodations. I was just delighted to be going up. The pilot took off gently and retracted the landing gear. Just when I was about to feel sorry for myself, due to the lack of a STOL takeoff, he pulled back on the column and we climbed straight up. The altimeter spun around like a fan and soon my ears were popping from the altitude. We leveled off and flew out over lake Ontario where he immediately feathered the starboard propeller. The wing tip dropped dramatically and I thought I was done for. After spooling the engine back up we did a high speed touch and go at Pearson International, with a STOL pull out and wing over. After we touched down back at Downsview, I climbed out, ecstatic, nauseas and slightly weak in the knees. It’s still hard to believe the aircraft’s phenomenal performance. It was one heck of a joyride. Add to all this it’s ability to carry an 18,000 lb payload and it is very easy to recognize why it was so extraordinary.
Designed and built in Canada, the DeHavilland Buffalo was and still is one of the world’s leading class cargo aircraft, a flying testament to the unique talent and ingenuity of DeHavilland and the Canadian aerospace industry.