Buffalo Airways C-46s: Two of the World’s Last Three Airworthy Commandos

Curtiss C-46 is a twin-engine transport aircraft that took off for the first time more than 80 years ago, in 1940. As such, it is no wonder that almost all of the 3,000+ airframes manufactured are now gone. At the same time, it is incredible that three still remain in active airline – albeit cargo – service.

One of those is operated by Alaska-based Everts Air while the other two are operated by Yellowknife-based Buffalo Airways. Recently, I had a chance to spend a few days in Yellowknife, watching Buffalo Airways in action among other things. In this article, I take a detailed look at the airline’s two C-46s.

Buffalo Airways C-46s: Two of the World’s Last Three Airworthy Commandos
A Buffalo Airways C-46 landing at Yellowknife Airport.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Fleet: Two Airframes Made in 1945

As mentioned earlier, Buffalo Airways currently operates two C-46s registered C-FAVO and C-GTPO on scheduled freight runs between Yellowknife and Hay River as well as on flights from Yellowknife further into the Canadian North.

C-FAVO: An Ex-Lufthansa Workhorse

Curtiss C-46 N9891Z 04Jun86
N9891Z in 1986. (Credit: Peter Garwood)

The first of the two C-46s that Buffalo Airways – C-FAVO – operates was originally delivered to the United States Army Air Force in February 1945, in the last year of World War II. It continued operating for the Air Force as tail number 44-77846 until early 1960s when it got a new lease of life in the civil world.

In its civil life, the aircraft was first operating with a US registration of N9891Z for about 30 years. During that time, it could be seen on Capitol Air, Lufthansa, Shamrock Airlines, and Transcontinental Airlines. After that, it was re-registered to its current Canadian registration. Prior to joining Buffalo Airways’ fleet in 1994, it spent a few years operating for Air Manitoba.

C-FAVO Air Manitoba
C-FAVO in Air Manitoba livery. (Credit: Reinhard Zinabol)

Currently, C-FAVO wears the full Buffalo Airways livery with “Buffalo” titles on both sides of its fuselage and on the bottom of its right wing. The aircraft’s tail is fully painted in the airline’s signature green color and features a small Buffalo Airways logo in its center. Its registration is painted in the same font as the “Buffalo” titles.

The one thing that makes this aircraft’s livery unique is Lufthansa’s crane logos painted on either side of the aircraft under its cockpit windows. The cranes remind people of the aircraft’s previous life just like British flags on the airline’s ex-Atlantic Airlines Lockheed Electras do.

Buffalo Airways C-46 C-FAVO
Starboard side.
Buffalo Airways C-46 C-FAVO
Port side.
Buffalo Airways C-46 C-FAVO Lufthansa
Lufthansa logo.
Buffalo Airways C-46 C-FAVO

C-GTPO: Mickey & Friends

Curtiss C-46F cn 22556 44-78733 N1258N Reno 23Sep66 [Peter B.Lewis via RJF]
N1258N. (Credit: SDASM Archives)
Buffalo Airways’ other C-46 – C-GTPO – is only slightly younger than C-FAVO. It was delivered to the United States Army Air Force in August 1945 with the tail number 44-78733. It continued serving in the military until 1950 when it was acquired by Flying Tigers and put into civil service as N1258N. Later on, it also flew for Wien Alaska Airlines, Conner Airlines, Shamrock Airlines, Trans Continental Airlines, and others under the same registration.

The aircraft was briefly re-registered to N519AC before being sold to Canada’s Air Manitoba in the mid-1980s. Air Manitoba operated the aircraft under its current registration and later in 1993 sold the aircraft to Buffalo Airways.

N1258N in Shamrock Airlines livery. (Credit: Bruno Geiger)

Unlike C-FAVO, C-GTPO does not wear the full Buffalo Airways livery as it lacks the “Buffalo” titles on its fuselage. Additionally, its tail is orange rather than green and the registration is painted in a regular sans-serif font rather than the serif font the airline uses in its logo.

What makes C-GTPO unique, though, are its windows – or rather the panels that cover them. On the port side, there are four panels with what look like spy cartoon characters. On the starboard side, it’s hand-painted Disney characters – Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Donald Duck, and Goofy – instead.

Buffalo Airways C-46 C-GTPO
Starboard side.
Buffalo Airways C-46 C-GTPO
Port side close-up.
Buffalo Airways C-46 C-GTPO Disney
Mickey Mouse and Pluto.
Buffalo Airways C-46 C-GTPO
Spy characters.
Buffalo Airways C-46 C-GTPO
Donald Duck and Goofy.
Buffalo Airways C-46 C-GTPO

Seeing the Buffalo Airways C-46 Commandos in Action

Over the three days that I spent on the Buffalo Airways ramp, I had a chance to see both of the C-46 Commandos fly in and out of Yellowknife a couple of times. Perhaps the most memorable of those movements was C-FAVO’s arrival from Hay River on the second morning of my visit.

While observing the airline’s DC-3 being loaded, one of the ramp staff kindly let me know that the C-46 had just landed and that I might want to see it make a “spin” at the end of a taxiway down the side of Buffalo Airways’ hangar where the C-46 often parks for loading and unloading. A couple of minutes later, the C-46 taxied right past me and did an amazingly precise 180-degree turn using minimum space and kicking some dust up in the air.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Arriving from Hay River
Taxiing in after arriving from Hay River.

As soon as the aircraft stopped, the Buffalo Airways team got into action.

One of the ground crew members started working on preparing the aircraft for its relatively long stay on the ground. He attached wooden jigs designed to prevent the aircraft’s elevators from moving to the horizontal stabilizer. He also attached a metal jig to the vertical stabilizer to prevent the rudder from moving.

Then he climbed aboard the aircraft and onto the wing through an overwing exit to place giant cushions between the propellers and engines.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Attaching horizontal stabilizer jig.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Vertical stabilizer jig.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Exiting through the overwing door.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Putting on engine covers.

In the meantime, a number of forklifts and Buffalo Air Expres trucks surrounded the plane.

First, loose cargo was manually unloaded. Then, the forklifts unloaded palletized cargo. Some of the cargo, which included everything from geese all the way to bicycle tires, was loaded onto the trucks and driven away. Other cargo stayed on the ground at Yellowknife Airport waiting to be flown further north to Norman Wells and Cambridge Bay among other places.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Unloading loose cargo.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Unloading palleted cargo.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Forklifts in action.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
A Buffalo Air Express truck being loaded.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Some of the cargo continuing to another destination by air.

It took the ground crew – and the pilots – just over 20 minutes to unload the plane.

With C-FAVO not scheduled to fly for quite some time, it was then towed to the apron in front of Buffalo Airways’ hangar. Actually, the “tow” bar was attached to the C-46’s tailwheel. As such, the aircraft was pushed rather than towed.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Coordinating the C-46’s towing.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Towing (pushing) in progress.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
The tow bar attached to the tail wheel.

Once the aircraft was parked in front of the hangar, the ground crew member who attached the jigs did one last thing before letting the aircraft sit on the apron. He made sure that there was enough oil in the C-46’s two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial piston engines.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Checking oil.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Adding more oil.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Operations
Job done.

A Detailed Look Onboard a Buffalo Airways C-46

In addition to watching the C-46s from the outside, I also had the opportunity to climb into C-GTPO and see what the C-46s were like on the inside. Climbing up a ladder and stepping into the cargo hold through the partially opened side cargo door was like traveling back in time.

Buffalo Airways C-46
Ladder leading into the C-46’s cargo hold.

The cargo hold felt quite spacey. With no panels covering the fuselage structure, it was possible to see the metal ribs that provided the fuselage with enough strength to be able to withstand flying in even the harshest conditions and the rivets that held the structure together.

There were no rollers on the floor. Instead, there was a manual pallet mover that could be used to move freight around the hold. Engine covers were stored at the back of the fuselage where it got narrower.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Cargo Hold
Cargo hold.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Cargo Hold
Buffalo Airways C-46 Exit
Buffalo Airways C-46 Covers
Engine covers.

Looking out through the few windows the aircraft had provided great views of the wings and radial piston engines.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Wing
Wing view.

Separating the cockpit from the cargo hold was a wooden wall with the Curtiss logo spray painted on it.

There was also a winch for, presumably, either moving or securing cargo.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Cockpit Wall
Cockpit wall.

Lastly, while the cockpit appeared to have some newer instruments, it also appeared largely unchanged from what I imagine it looked like when the aircraft was built in the 1940s.

Most notably, there were relatively few instruments, buttons, switches, etc. compared to modern aircraft of similar size, and the vintage yokes were visibly attached to the control columns with nuts. The two jumpseats behind the pilots’ seats were very bare bones too.

Buffalo Airways C-46 Cockpit
Buffalo Airways C-46 Yoke
Buffalo Airways C-46 Thrust Levers
Thrust levers.
Buffalo Airways C-46 Jumpseats


Together with Everts Air, Buffalo Airways remains one of the last two airline operators of the Curtiss C-46 Commando – an airplane that first flew back in 1940. The two airframes that Buffalo Airways still operates – C-FAVO and C-GTPO – can, among other flights, be seen on the airline’s daily freight run between Hay River and Yellowknife.

It was amazing being able to see the nearly 80 years old workhorses in action every day during my visit to Yellowknife.

With that, I would like to thank Buffalo Airways for giving me the opportunity to hang out in their hangar and on their ramp for a few days. For the latest Buffalo Airways-related content, make sure to follow Mikey McBryan – the airline’s General Manager – on Twitter.

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