A Puffalo! A Puffalo! My kingdom for a Puffalo!, Part 2

The de Havilland Canada CC-115 Buffalo used to test the Air Cushion Landing System. Anon. “Air cushion landing system Buffalo taxi tests prove successful.” The Canadian Aircraft Operator, 1 May 1974, 1.

Welcome back, my eager to learn reading friend, to the continuing saga of the air cushion landing gear. Do you remember the names of the main players? Yes? No? No matter. You can go back to the first part of this article. There will be a test. Just kidding.

Having realised that the concept actually worked, the Flight Dynamics Laboratory of the United States Air Force (USAF) and the Bell Aerospace Company Division of Textron Incorporated, a new name adopted around January 1970, decided to test the Air Cushion Landing System (ACLS), as the device was now called, on a good size aircraft. The company may have looked at two or more candidates. In the end, a Canadian-designed short take off and landing (STOL) military transport plane, the de Havilland Canada DHC-5 Buffalo, proved to be ideal for the job. After all, the conversion could be done relatively quickly and at a fairly low cost. There was also plenty of internal space for instrumentation. In late 1970, Bell Aerospace signed a contract with the Flight Dynamics Laboratory. Around May 1971, the USAF and Canada’s Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce agreed to share the cost of a research and development program. As a result, the Canadian Armed Forces were told to provide one of its CC-115 Buffalos, as these machines were called by the military.

At this point, my long suffering reading friend, you might be bracing yourself for a long digression / pontification on the history of the Buffalo. Fear not, I shall not drop this cargo on your head. At least not today, which is a pity, for the story of the Buffalo is a truly fascinating one.

In the fall of 1972, United Aircraft of Canada Limited, a subsidiary of the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Division of American aerospace giant United Aircraft Corporation, supplied two ASP-10 air supply packages used to inflate the Buffalo’s ACLS. These highly original power plants were derived from the world famous PT6 turboprop / turboshaft engine. We would love to write about this most fascinating power plant but this urge to digress must be resisted. You are heartbroken, I know, but, to quote a character of the 1987 romantic comedy and cult movie The Princess Bride, get used to disappointment. And yes, I used another quote from the movie in a February issue of this blog / bulletin / thingee.

De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited, a world famous aircraft maker based in Downsview, near Toronto, Ontario, and a member company of British aerospace giant Hawker Siddeley Group Limited, installed the two air supply packages on the Buffalo chosen for the trials. This aircraft then flew to the Bell Aerospace factory where it received the largest ACLS made thus far. The modified Buffalo, now known as the XC-8A Buffalo, an American designation, flew around August 1973. The air cushion may have been inflated in mid air but was not used on take off or landing. Testing continued until November when the USAF took over the aircraft. This new phase of the trials began in January 1974, under the auspices of the Flight Dynamics Laboratory. Taxi trials with a fully inflated system began in April. The first take off took place in March 1975. The Buffalo spent some time at two Canadian Forces Bases, Cold Lake, Alberta, and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in early 1976, for cold weather trials. This writer does not know if the aircraft ever landed with a fully inflated system.

The Puffalo or Bell-Bottomed Buffalo, as the aircraft was nicknamed, proved able to negotiate all sorts of terrain, from sand to ice, including areas filled with craters 1.75 m (5 feet 9 inches) deep. Although fully successful, the trials showed that a great deal of research would have to take place to increase the service life of the skirt that contained the air cushion of the landing system. The ACLS program thus ended in March 1977. The ACLS-equipped Buffalo was given back to the Canadian Armed Forces in May. De Havilland Aircraft of Canada, a crown corporation since June 1974, soon returned it to its original condition. This Buffalo still existed as of early 2018.

Given the likelihood that the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), a new name adopted in August 2011, will ask the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, if it wishes to add a Buffalo to the national aerospace collection, this writer would like to suggest that the former ACLS-equipped aircraft be chosen, if it stills exists when the offer is made of course. If truth be told, yours truly has already submitted a request to that effect.

The Bell Aerospace Light Air Cushion Triphibious Aircraft. Bernard Shaw, “Canada’s Lightplane Industry.” Canadian Aviation, November 1983, 41.

The Bell Aerospace Light Air Cushion Triphibious Aircraft. Bernard Shaw, “Canada’s Lightplane Industry.” Canadian Aviation, November 1983, 41.

Interestingly enough, in the early 1980s, Bell Aerospace put forward the idea of developing a Light Air Cushion Triphibious Aircraft (LACTA), an eight-seat utility single-engine aircraft. Given that the American company has agreed to transfer the project to the Bell Aerospace Canada Division of Textron Canada Limited, the Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce subsidised a portion of a research program. The Lake LA-4 light amphibian used to develop the ACLS was modified a second time. It may not have flown in this form. Considered too complex and costly, the LACTA project was abandoned at an indeterminate date. This decision signalled the end of the only project fully supported by the federal government to develop a new generation private / light aircraft during the 20th century.

A fascinating story, isn’t it? But wait, there’s more, and… Fear not, my reading friend, yours truly is not trying to sell you a useless gadget, be it a super powerful flashlight or a jet powered snow blower. I simply hope you will return to this website to read the third and last part of this article.

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Rénald Fortier