Wings Magazine

Features MRO
Buffalo Makeover

The twin-turboprop DHC-5 Buffalo is a legendary STOL aircraft, which is why Arctic Sunwest Charters (ASC) of Yellowknife, N.W.T., flies two of them in the Far North.

July 28, 2009  By James Careless

Arctic Sunwest Charters is the only commercial Buffalo operator in Canada.


The twin-turboprop DHC-5 Buffalo is a legendary STOL aircraft, which is why Arctic Sunwest Charters (ASC) of Yellowknife, N.W.T., flies two of them in the Far North. Not only can the Buffalo get in and out of short permanent runways, but it can cope with makeshift strips on snow, ice and tundra. Best of all, the Buffalo can bring up to 18,000 pounds in a single trip, and offload it quickly via the aircraft’s roller floor, fold-down ramp and rear fuselage doors.

Still, the Buffalo is a vintage aircraft, whose technology dates back to the 1960s. The two Buffalos flown by ASC – registration letters C-FASV and C-FASY – were both built in 1981, and have the avionics to prove it. At least, C-FASV still does; C-FASY has been brought into the 21st century, thanks to an ambitious glass cockpit upgrade started in November 2008 and finished five months later. “It was a very big project,” says Larry Burkowski, ASC’s director of flight operations.

“But the changes we made have converted this aircraft into a cutting-edge flying machine, with lots of life left in her.”

Upgrading to a full glass cockpit meant tearing out the existing panels, laying new wiring, and interconnecting the Buffalo’s legacy systems with the new avionics installed.

Arctic Sunwest Charters decided to do full avionics upgrades to enhance safety and the aircrafts’ operational envelopes.  

The Project
Both C-FASY and her sister Buffalo C-FASV came to Arctic Sunwest Charters with factory-installed avionics. These included Garmin 150 navigation avionics boasting Jeppesen databases and three-line vacuum-fluorescent displays, plus Primus 40 Weather Radars. The rest of the cockpit was analog.

Due to Transport Canada-mandated upgrades, C-FASY and C-FASV were due to have new equipment installed in their cockpits. But given how useful and unique these Buffalos are in the North – in fact, Arctic Sunwest Charters is the only commercial Buffalo operator in Canada – “we decided to do full avionics upgrades,” Burkowski tells Wings. “It just made sense to give our pilots the additional advantages of moving map technology and other advances, to enhance both safety and the aircrafts’ operational envelopes.

In this instance, upgrading to a full glass cockpit meant “tearing out the existing panels and starting from scratch,” says Craig Parr, ASC’s Buffalo co-ordinator. “We also had to spend a lot of time going over wiring diagrams, laying new wiring, and interconnecting the Buffalo’s legacy systems with the new avionics we installed.”

What Was Installed
C-FASY’s glass cockpit is built around a Sandel SA4550 primary attitude display and a Sandel SN4550 primary navigation display. The SA4550 is an LED-backlit display that provides configurable single- or dual-cue flight director command bars, a glideslope/localizer deviation scale, plus a fast/slow indicator and audio mode warnings. The SN4550 is a full-colour moving map NAV system. Viewable in both 360-degree compass and a 70-degree ARC views, the SN-4550 supports GPS- or FMS-supplied waypoints, heading, bearing pointers for VOR and ADF, DME display and marker beacons. It comes with an internal Jeppesen NavData database.

C-FASY has two Garmin 430 GNS avionics, one serving as a backup to the other. Each serves as an all-in-one Communications, Navigation and GPS system, with the data being shown on a full-colour LCD map display. The 430’s COMM view features a VHF transceiver with 760-channel (25 kHz channel spacing) and 2,280-channel (8.33 kHz channel spacing) configurations. The NAV view provides conventional VOR, glideslope and localizer information, and the GPS system uses either a Jeppesen Americas or an International NavData card to illustrate 1,000 user-defined waypoints with 20 reversible flight paths (up to 31 waypoints each).

The Buffalo has been fitted with a Honeywell Mk VIII Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). This is a Class A TAWS that prevents controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents. The Mk VIII does this by applying alerting algorithms to data from the aircraft’s various inputs, then warning the crew with audio messages, visual indications, “and a display of terrain in the event the boundaries of the alerting envelope have been exceeded,” according to Honeywell’s website (

For Traffic Alert/Collision Avoidance, this Buffalo has a Collins TCAS II that analyzes an approaching or intruding aircraft’s altitude, closure rate, direction and range. This data is displayed on an LCD screen, with alerts being delivered in audio. Also on board are an Artex 406 ELT, Becker digital audio system, and a Latitude Technologies S200 to support satellite phone and remote flight tracking by the nearest air traffic control station.

The bottom line: With just 15,010 on C-FASY’s airframe – which was undergoing a C check during the avionics upgrade – this Buffalo has been born again!

Without a doubt, it was tough to fit these new systems into an old aircraft, even with the removal of the instrument panels and other major obstacles. But what complicated matters was getting the new systems to interface with the Buffalo’s legacy equipment.

“In particular, we had fun getting the autopilot to talk to the old systems,” says Craig Parr. “This was not surprising: We were mixing two different generations of technology. It took a lot of testing to get everything working 100 per cent.”

On the positive side, the avionics upgrade inside C-FASY’s cockpit was so complete that “it is almost like flying a brand new airplane,” Burkowski says. “Just look inside and you will see what I mean: The rebuilt C-FASY’s cockpit looks entirely different from the version we got from the factory.”

At press time, C-FASY had re-entered service in Canada’s North. Meanwhile, C-FASV was being scheduled for her refit, to let her catch up with her sister.

Was the project (the cost of which Larry Burkowski will not detail beyond calling it “substantial”) worth it? He thinks it was. “With these upgrades, we expect that the Buffalos will fly for us 10 years more; perhaps longer with continued vendor support,” says Burkowski. “This is an excellent aircraft that works well in the Arctic, and one that would be very hard to replace.”

Besides keeping this STOL capability, Arctic Sunwest Charters hopes to stimulate interest in other Buffalos needing similar upgrades. Although the Canadian Forces is upgrading its own Buffalos, other air forces may be interested in similar upgrades.

“The Buffalo is flown by the Egyptian, Brazilian and Peruvian air forces,” says Jay Dilley, director of business operations. “The hope is that other operators see the benefit in these upgrades and are stimulated into doing it themselves; this will ensure worldwide product support for all Buffalo operators.”

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Arctic Sunwest Charters will be flying two of the most advanced DHC-5 Buffalos in service anywhere on the planet!

Arctic Sunwest Charters’ Fleet
With all of Canada’s North to serve, Arctic Sunwest Charters has built a varied fleet that can cover everything from cargo to passengers.

For cargo-only missions, ASC flies two DHC-5 Buffalos. However, the company also has two Dash-8s, which can carry freight or be configured to handle up to 37 passengers in a pressurized, leather-seated environment. The company’s four Twin Otters can handle both kinds of missions, and do so using wheels, floats, skis or soft, oversized “tundra tires.”

Arctic Sunwest Charters also flies one 14-seater Beech 99 twin-turboprop, one King Air 100 twin-prop, two Navajo Chieftain eight-seaters and two venerable Turbo Beavers that can be fitted with wheels, floats or skis.

“We can fly anywhere that our clients need us to go,” says Larry Burkowski, ASC’s director of flight operations. “We have the pilots, and we certainly have the aircraft!” 


Stories continue below