Remembering the “Buffalo Nine”

News Article / August 9, 2017

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August 9 is “Peacekeeping Day” in Canada. The day was selected to commemorate the contributions and sacrifices of Canadian peacekeepers because, on that day in 1974, a Canadian Buffalo aircraft serving on United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) II was shot down, with the loss of all nine lives.

By James Griffith

It was a typically hot sunny day with light winds over the eastern Mediterranean on the early afternoon of August 9, 1974. United Nations Flight 51 chugged its way along the centre line of airway R-14, maintaining an altitude of 11,000 feet at a sedate speed of 205 knots. It was enroute from Ismailia, Egypt, to Damascus, Syria, via Beirut, Lebanon.

The cargo aircraft was an unarmed Canadian Armed Forces’ de Havilland Canada (DHC) Buffalo, tail number C-115461, painted in the unmistakable, distinctive United Nations livery of blue and white.

The U.N. was trying to referee the latest tension-filled peace settlement in the Middle East. Canada committed boots on the ground and tasked 116 Air Transport Unit (116 ATU) to provide logistical air support for the U.N. observers on the Golan Heights separating Syria and Israel.

Using three Buffalo aircraft, 116 ATU’s flight crews and ground support were based at Camp Shams, on the outskirts of Cairo. The unit operated scheduled flights six days a week, Monday through Saturday between Ismailia and Damascus, then back to Beirut for the layover.

Unfortunately the peace agreement was hanging by the most tenuous of threads. Navigating the relatively short distance between Ismailia and Damascus necessitated a rather convoluted route to avoid Israeli airspace – almost tripling the mileage. The routing took Flight 51 out over the Mediterranean, 50 nautical miles off-shore, then back inland just south of Beirut to cross the Syrian border 25 nautical miles east of Damascus under the eyes of everyone’s defence radars.

Captain George Garry Foster commanded flight 51 and Captain Keith Mirau was first officer. Both were rated as superior pilots. The navigator, Captain Robert Wicks, volunteered to fly all the extra flights he could get, so great was his hatred of “tenting”, his personal definition of dreary life at the dreaded Camp Shams.

Master Corporal Ron Spencer, the flight engineer, and Corporal Bruce Stringer, the loadmaster, filled out the rest of the crew roster. The four passengers – Master Warrant Officer Gaston Landry, Master Warrant Officer Cyril Korejwo, Corporal Michael Simpson and Corporal Morris Kennington – served on active duty with the Canadian Contingent, United Nations Emergency Force at Camp Shams.

The crew had filed a standard International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) flight plan as demanded by the peace agreement, guaranteeing them the same protection as civilian airliners. As well, Syrian military over-flight clearances had been passed to United Nations Headquarters (UNHQ) for distribution to all appropriate authorities . . .  Or had they?

A few minutes after passing Beirut, Captain Mirau made the compulsory position report to Beirut Air Traffic Control  over the Dakweh Beacon in  Lebanon at 12:46 p.m. local time, just before crossing the Syrian border. The ancient city of Damascus would have just been coming into view over the snub nose of the Buffalo. Captain Mirau promptly changed to Damascus ATC and repeated the routine position report. A few minutes later, the aircraft crew read back the Damascus approach clearance.

Six minutes later and 11,000 feet below them, an employee of the American Embassy in Damascus was returning from days off in Beirut. He was driving east along the Beirut-Damascus highway when, to his astonishment, a missile passed over him traveling in the opposite direction. He distinctly recalled seeing a second stage of the missile ignite, said he jammed on his brakes, stopped, leapt out his car and tried to visually follow the missile’s trajectory.

“At that time I noticed a silver-coloured plane flying in the air and it seemed to be smoking from the tail,” he said.

He said that he did not see an explosion or pieces falling off the aircraft. He probably witnessed a glancing blow or a near-miss by either a proximity or commanded detonation by a Soviet-made SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM).

It is impossible to imagine the frantic pandemonium going on the inside the Buffalo as white-hot, flesh-tearing, shrapnel ripped through it. Why did they not broadcast a distress call? It could be they did. Investigators revealed evidence that the Syrians had erased two-and-a half-minutes of conversation from the ATC communication tapes, and the Buffalo carried no flight data or cockpit voice recorders.

Back on the ground, the American was horrified to see a second missile strike the Buffalo in the left wing area approximately a minute to a minute-and-a-half later. This time, he said, “it bucked and it shook and I saw pieces fall”. It was clearly a direct hit. The left wing was on fire and the descent attitude had suddenly increased to a steep dive.

Seconds later a third missile struck the burning hulk in the cockpit area at about 500 feet above the ground. The witness explained, “The plane blew apart and she took a nose dive from what was left of it and it went straight into the ground!”

The Syrians rushed helicopters with medics aboard to the crash site immediately but it was obvious as soon as they arrived that there were no survivors.

According to the “Buffalo 461” website, a Canadian Board of Inquiry could not definitively determine if the missile attack was an error by Syrian air defences or a planned and deliberate attack on a U.N. aircraft.

National Peacekeepers’ Day

The Syrian missile attack on August 9, 1974 represented the single greatest loss of life in a single event by Canadian peacekeepers. In 2008, the government established August 9 as “National Peacekeepers’ Day” in Canada. The day provides an opportunity for Canadians to express the pride and respect they have toward personnel of the Canadian Armed Forces, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and provincial and municipal police forces, as well as Canadian diplomats and civilians, who have worked in support of international peace and security operations. More than 125,000 Canadian peacekeepers have participated in dozens of international efforts over the past six decades in countries around the world.

The Buffalo Nine are irrevocably linked forever to the DHC, Buffalo aircraft that carried them to their deaths. This rather humble utility aircraft, displaying the Canadian Forces registration number, C-115461 on its tail and known simply as 461, came to symbolize the sacrifice of the Buffalo Nine and all the “Blue Berets” who have died in the service of Canada as U.N. peacekeepers.

Jim Griffith of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is a former RCAF and Air Canada pilot. A longer version of this article originally appeared in Airforce Magazine, Volume 35, Number 1 in 2011. It is translated and reproduced with permission.

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