RCAF 429 (T) Squadron: Global Strategic Airlift …… Anywhere at Anytime

RCAF 429 (T) Squadron: Global Strategic Airlift …… Anywhere at Anytime

Story by Barry Griffiths

Photographs by Barry Griffiths (unless noted)

September 13, 2016

The largest aircraft ever to serve with the Royal Canadian Air Force is operated by 429 “Bison” Transport Squadron, a global airlift squadron based at 8 Wing, CFB Trenton, in Ontario. This high-wing, four engine, T-tailed, wide-bodied airlifter, is designated as the C (Canada) C (Cargo)-177 Globemaster III by the RCAF, and fulfills Canada’s long-standing need for a strategic airlift capability to support humanitarian and military operations around the world.  From their central location in Canada, these aircraft can be quickly deployed to transport cargo, troops, and oversized combat equipment rapidly from coast-to-coast-to-coast and anywhere else worldwide.

429 Transport Squadron is one of four squadrons attached to CFB Trenton and was originally formed as an RCAF bomber squadron attached to RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. In August 2007, 429 Squadron was re-activated to operate the CC-177 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft.

Recently, Aviation Photography Digest (APD) was invited to spend a day with the “Bisons” at CFB Trenton to view and experience some of the squadron’s tactical training flights and to discuss its various air transport missions in support of the Canadian Armed Forces global and domestic operations. 

The day’s visit began in 429’s briefing room where Maj. Christian Hirt, a member of the Transport and Rescue Standardization and Evaluation Team (TRSET), was reviewing the day’s flight training schedule with Maj. Shawn Duffy, Capt. Steve Atkinson and loadmaster MCpl. Guy Fortier. Both of these experienced pilots were each slated for a series of steep tactical descents and landings, maximum performance static take-offs, and tactical ground manoeuvers.

When the briefing was over, the aircrew boarded the waiting CC-177 (177701) for the afternoon mission and the pilots immediately completed a pre-flight cockpit check of the various systems, to ensure they were operating normally, while the loadmaster made sure everything was secure in the cargo hold.  The massive size of this airlifter was clearly emphasized when Maj. Hirt, the Aircraft Commander, stepped outside to inspect the aircraft’s control surfaces, pitot tubes and pitot static ports, landing gear, tires and turbofan blades, and was literally dwarfed as he walked around the four-engine behemoth.

The four-hour training flight began when Maj. Duffy started the engines, taxied out to the active runway, and launched the training mission with a maximum performance static take-off. As Maj. Hirt later explained, “We try to mitigate the risks when departing a hot zone by employing a maximum performance static take-off. We let the thrust build up to maximum and then release the brakes so we can get airborne quickly, with an initial climb-out attitude of between 20-25 degrees, and then execute a steep-climb turn.”

The CC-177 is designed to operate from unpaved, unimproved runways as short as 3,500 ft (1,064 m) and as narrow as 90 ft (27 m), with certain weight restrictions. However, with its maximum gross takeoff weight of 585,000 lbs (265,352 kg) it would require 7,740 feet (2,359m) of runway.

The large cockpit of the CC-177, high above the cargo hold, is accessed by a ladder and is quite spacious with two jump seats behind the pilots, and two bunks in the rear along with three more seats.  From the perspective of the jump seat, several features of this state-of-the-art, fly-by-wire aircraft were more reminiscent of a fighter jet than a heavy airlifter.  Along with the advanced digital avionics system there was a small side joystick instead of the yoke that one usually finds on a “heavy” transport aircraft. This side positioning allows the pilot to make smooth inputs to the control stick and be closer to the mission computer displays. There is also a Head-Up Display (HUD) system in front of each pilot that dramatically enhances flight safety by providing situational awareness on the approach and landing phase of the flight and also on the initial climb after take-off.

One of the advantages to the RCAF in meeting its worldwide military and humanitarian strategic lift commitments is that the CC-177 has a maximum range, depending on its payload, of approximately 5500 nm (10,186 km), and can therefore fly long distances without refueling.  However, when the flight crew is in the air for a prolonged period of time, it raises other problems that have to be overcome. Maj. Hirt made the point that, “It’s always a challenge to try and schedule our sleep cycles in such a way that we are ready for the next day or ready for the next take-off.  Therefore, we either give the crews shorter crew rests at between the 17 and 20 hour mark, or we give them 30 to 36 hours off so that they get two sleeps. We want to schedule the sleep cycles so that the crews are not tired when they show up for a mission.” 

In 2009, RCAF 8 Wing Trenton took command of Canadian Forces Station Alert, a signals intelligence intercept facility, located on the northeastern tip of Canada’s Ellesmere Island only 508 miles (817 km) from the geographic North Pole. This is the most northerly permanently inhabited location in the world and is supplied weekly throughout the year by the C-130J Super Hercules tactical transports of 8 Wing’s 436 (T) Squadron. In addition, the CC-177s of 429 (T) Squadron are tasked to fly the seven hour direct flight, from CFB Trenton to this high Arctic station, when a bulky or special cargo is required at Alert.

Every destination has its inherent obstacles and challenges and the CC-177 flights, to this destination at the top of the world, are no exception. Some of the potential problems the flights face are the rapidly changing extreme weather conditions, uncontrolled airspace, a lack of alternative airfields, and things not working or operating as well as they do down south. The challenges are especially daunting during the winter months when CFS Alert experiences high winds, extreme cold and is in total darkness 24/7.  In these extreme conditions the pilots of an inbound Globemaster III have to set up for a precision HUD-aided tactical landing to the threshold of the slippery 5,499 ft (1,676 m) long ice-and-snow-covered gravel landing strip and then depart with a maximum performance static take-off.

CC-177 Globemaster III landing and take-off at CFS Alert. Video Credit: CF Image Gallery

As Maj. Hirt so aptly put it, “You earn your money when you fly up there.” He expanded on this point further when he said that, “Since the options in the Arctic are so limited, you have to have a Plan A that is pretty solid, plus a Plan B that is also very solid. I have only diverted four times in my flying career and three of those times were in the high Arctic. Before pilots are sent up North, they have to go through several special training flights to become aware of some of the unique Arctic flying conditions and procedures they may experience.”

MCpl. Guy Fortier, the loadmaster for this training mission, is the third member of the CC-177’s crew and he has a work space underneath the flight deck, at the head of the jet’s cavernous hold.

The loadmaster is a highly trained individual who starts out as a traffic technician (known in the US as an aerial porter) and becomes proficient in all aspects of loading and off-loading various types of cargo, including dangerous goods and passengers.  Then, after a 12-week basic loadmaster course at Altus AFB in Oklahoma, has six months of operational training before becoming a qualified loadmaster.

MCpl. Fortier described some of the cargos he has had to handle and felt that loading “rolling stock” was a challenge for a loadmaster. “When you have to load different kinds of vehicles that you haven’t seen before, with low profiles and long wheel bases, it can be difficult. Also, when we land, there may only be a two or three-hour window, so you have to set up your load to be off-loaded quickly.”

The loadmaster is also involved in assisting the flight crew in some of the aircraft’s special tactical ground operations. For example, the combat offload procedure takes place when the aircraft lands in an austere location, with limited or no offloading capabilities. The afternoon’s training operation for this simulated combat offload took place at CFB Trenton after the CC-177 had landed and taxied to the adjoining taxiway. When the aircraft had come to a complete stop, the loadmaster lowered the rear ramp and the pilot ran up the engines to maximum thrust power. The loadmaster then quickly released the locks on all the cargo pallets and, as soon as this was done, the pilot released the brakes and the aircraft surged forward. The effect is like the magic trick where the tablecloth is ripped off the table without upsetting the dishes. Same principle – the aircraft is pulled out from under the pallets.

The three-point star turn is another unique ground manoeuver in which the loadmaster plays an integral role. This particular manoeuver took place at CFB Trenton/Mountainview after the CC-177 had completed a steep tactical landing and had come to a stop at the end of the narrow runway. As the two pilots set the aircraft up to execute a 180 degree star turn on the runway, the loadmaster lowered the ramp and positioned himself at the rear of the aircraft. He then became the pilot’s “rear-view mirror” and relayed the distances remaining to the edge of the runway as the aircraft’s backing-up ability was used to safely perform a three-point star turn. 

The CC-177’s ability to fly long distances and land in remote airfields makes it a premier transporter for military, humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.  In the last ten years, the men and women of 429 (T) Squadron have flown humanitarian relief missions to disaster-stricken countries around the world.

2007 Hurricane Dean: Emergency relief supplies to Jamaica

2010 Operation Hestia: Emergency response to earthquake-stricken Haiti

2013 Typhoon Haiyan: Emergency response to typhoon devastation in the Philippines

2015 Earthquake: Humanitarian support to devastating earthquakes in Nepal

Maj. Hirt has flown CC-177 humanitarian relief missions and counts them as among his career highlights.  “When you are flying relief missions to a country such as the Philippines, after it has been devastated by a hurricane, or to Nepal, after it had suffered from an earthquake, you have a special feeling of purpose. In my case, it was noon on Monday, when I was making lunch with my daughter, and I received the call to report to base for a relief flight. By 5:00pm I was taking off for the Philippines and we arrived there early Wednesday. Things can happen very quickly!”

The scope of this aircraft is unparalleled by any strategic airlifter Canada has ever flown before and, during the afternoon’s CC-177 training flight, there were many opportunities to appreciate the unique capabilities of this massive aircraft. From a performance point of view, there is really no other aircraft in the world that can touch it as it is an incredibly nimble and versatile military workhorse, fully operational with a crew of three. These “Bisons” are rapid, reliable and flexible. What other aircraft can haul three CH-146 Griffon helicopters with refueling tanks, or one Leopard 2 tank, or as many as 102 paratroopers and land on the same unpaved runways, in remote locations, as the smaller C-130 Hercules?

The men and women of the RCAF’s 429 “Bison” Transport Squadron are highly-trained consummate professionals who are proud to make a difference with their wide range of air transport roles supporting the initiatives of the Canadian Government.  As Maj. Hirt so aptly put it, “In all of our missions the people you are working with make the job so much better. Everyone is pulling on the same rope and come with the same focus and want to get to the destination as fast as possible to do whatever is required. That’s what builds a team; personal good feelings …… and the camaraderie in the 429 Squadron is very high.”

APD would like to thank Maj. Christian Hirt (SE-7 CC177), Transport and Rescue Standardization and Evaluation Team (TRSET), 1 Cdn Air Div HQ Det Trenton and 2Lt. Jennifer Howell, 8 Wing Public Affairs, Canadian Armed Forces, for their assistance in making this photojournal possible. It was most appreciated!

 Click on an image below to page or swipe through the gallery:

CFB Trenton 8 Wing Aircraft

Barry Griffiths on EmailBarry Griffiths on Flickr
Barry Griffiths
Barry Griffiths is a published author, wildlife photographer and naturalist. After a successful career as an educator, he became founder and President of Quest Nature Tours, a company specializing in worldwide nature tours and expedition cruising. On his retirement from these endeavors, he continues to photograph wildlife and pursue his lifelong interest in all aspects of aviation.

Barry can be reached at: [email protected]
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