February 12, 2021

An RCAF CC-177 took part in Operation Boxtop in early February, open sources confirm

One of the Canadian Forces' yearly operations is #OpBOXTOP, which refuels Canadian Forces Station Alert, and it takes place ~twice a year, using transport aircraft from 8 Wing / Trenton. Since the Government of Canada bought 5 CC-177 Globemaster III heavy transport aircraft (from 2007-2014), they have supplemented the CC-130 Hercules fleet which make frequent flights to CFS Alert. In order to fly in and land the extremely heavy plane, laden with fuel, they have to wait for the ground to be sufficiently frozen to accomodate the extra weight.

On February 11th 2021, Canadian Forces Operations (@CFOperations) published the following message on Twitter.
"From Jan 31 to Feb 5, a @RCAF_ARC CC-177 Globemaster III delivered ~78 000L of DF-8 fuel to Canadian Forces Station Alert to sustain station operations at the northernmost permanently inhabited place on earth! #OpBOXTOP"

This caught my eye because the number on the plane pictured is clearly visible, and all the aircraft's timelines should be well defined using open sources. Let's verify the flight history of the CC-177 fleet and figure out which of the five RCAF CC-177 Globemaster IIIs was used in early February to ferry fuel to CFS Alert.

We know Joint Task Force North (JTFN), with a presence in Whitehorse and Yellowknife, will be involved as part of the CFS Alert resupply mission, as would be 440 Transport Squadron, attached to 17 Wing / Winnipeg, but I hadn't noticed previous #OpBOXTOP missions going West, I usually see them fly North from Trenton. 

The tweet above contains a link which shows you, using the ADSBexchange web page, where all the Canadian Forces CC-177s have been today. Using those same identifiers you can use any aircraft tracking site you like to research their history. Below I provide links to Radarbox, which provides a history of the aircraft which is easily readable, then use ADSBexchange to confirm the data. That's two sources using different networks of physical receivers, ensuring redundancy and accuracy.

177701 (C2B3D7)
177702 (C2AFC7)
177703 (C2B3EB)
177704 (C2B3F5)
177705 (C2B3FF)

177701 (C2B3D7)
177702 (C2AFC7)
177703 (C2B3EB)
177704 (C2B3F5)
177705 (C2B3FF)

If you spend the time compiling that data into something usable, you map out the schedule like this; the yellow dates are when #OpBOXTOP's shipments were said to be taking place.


From this analysis the only flight that could possibly have been used is CFC3646, but that seemed unusual for #OpBOXTOP because it headed in the wrong direction for CFS Alert, at least for the part of the flight we could track using open-source tools.

On 2021-01-30 ~15:30 Z RCAF CC-177 177704, call sign CFC3646, took off from CFB Trenton

177704 landed at Eielson Air Force Base ~22:45 Z, 2021-01-30

Radarbox independently confirms the data

They departed 2021-01-31 ~02:00Z, and headed in the direction of Whitehorse, YT, not overtly towards Alert, but could have been picking up personnel for the trip.

No additional data was available from RadarBox

177704 doesn't reappear until 2021-02-08, in a direction that looks like they're coming from Yellowknife or Whitehorse, both locations of Forward Operating Locations.

ADSBexchange confirms the findings.

Flights to Alert are common, flights to Alert with the CC-177 are less common, only taking place ~twice a year. Callsigns used are usually CFC85 and CFC86. That information can be found in aircraft incident databases, like this one

If we feed those callsigns back into the Radarbox database, we have a list of all the Boxtop missions (and others to Alert, not just Boxtop missions) CFC85 and CFC86 (even CFC87 once)

Here is a flight by 177705 which I believe was an #OpBOXTOP mission flown on 2021-01-04; it's heading in the right direction for Thule or Alert.

Again confirmed by ADSBexchange, CFC85 returned 2021-02-06 as CFC86 (which seems to be routine)

Based on all that flight data I was unconvinced that the flights mentioned went to Alert, not just Yellowknife or Whitehorse; I needed something else to correlate with. What about previous years?

I learned that indeed part of #OpBOXTOP is being flown from Yellowknife to Alert, but I am sure part of the mission has previously been flown in from Thule, Greenland. I'm not sure what principally decides if they're going to fly supplies in from Thule vs Yellowknife, or both. At least I know for next time, and will keep an eye out for an authoritative answer regarding the difference between #OpBOXTOP via Yellowknife, vs via Thule. I still don't know why they went to Alaska along the way, that also seemed unusual to me.

My apologies to @CFOperations for not understanding where the mission was taking place, I had expected them to fly direct from Trenton as they had before. Public affairs do a great job and are frequently under appreciated by the public and the press.

"A Hercules C-130J is being off loaded as a C-177 Globemaster III lands at Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert. Both aircraft carry supplies for the station in support of Operation BOXTOP" Photo: MCpl Shilo Adamson (April 25, 2012) IS2012-4006-7
"A Hercules C-130J is being off loaded as a C-177 Globemaster III lands at Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert. Both aircraft carry supplies for the station in support of Operation BOXTOP"
Photo: MCpl Shilo Adamson (April 25, 2012)