The Avro York: an Unsung Hero 

Its design was derived from the much-loved Lancaster bomber and it became the hero of the Berlin airlift, even serving as Winston Churchill’s personal transport. The Avro York first flew on July 5, 1942 

Just a year-and-a-half after the first flight of the Avro Lancaster, its famed designer pulled it out of the bag again with a civilised version: the Avro 685 York. Many elements of the new aeroplane would be identical to the Lancaster and were derived directly from the design of the bomber. The major change between the Lancaster and the York would be that this most recent design would perform as a transport aircraft rather than a heavy bomber. 

The design of the Avro York featured a boxy fuselage in comparison to the Lancaster. The high wing was mounted on the fuselage, meaning that the aeroplane had an increased internal volume in comparison to its bomber cousin. It could carry a total of 56 passengers and for this, required a total of five crew members. Its maximum speed was 298mph and it had a service ceiling of 23,000 ft. 

The prototype of the Avro York first flew on July 5, 1942. It was just a year and five months since the Lancaster had performed its maiden flight, and some would say that it was too soon. With World War II fully underway, the need for civilian transport aircraft had dwindled. What was needed now were aeroplanes that could be taken into warfare, fighters, and bombers. Admittedly, there was a shortage of large transport aircraft, but the decision to build a new design, rather than ramp up production of existing types, would be a risky one. As a result, the development of the York began in 1941 but production was put on hold to divert resources to the production of the Lancaster. The Avro York, therefore, would not enter service until 1944, when some might say the initial ‘wow’ factor of the design it was taken from had faded slightly. 

Christened LV626, the first Avro York took off from Ringway, Cheshire. Initially, there had been hopes that the York would serve as a high-capacity paratroop carrier, due to its passenger capacity of 56. However, early trials showed that the non-retractable tailwheel created too great a hazard for paratroop jumping and so this idea was cast aside. Nevertheless, the type received widespread notice when the third prototype, LV633 Ascalon, became Winston Churchill's personal transport.  

The Avro York is quite possibly most well known for its extensive involvement in the Berlin Airlift 1948-1949. As the most effective British transport of the time, in both military and chartered capacities, Avro York from seven different RAF squadrons flew supplies into Gatow during the Airlift. One squadron in particular is noted for their involvement with the Avro York during the Berlin Airlift. 59 Squadron, based as RAF Abingdon, were one of just 10 RAF squadrons to be given the pleasure of flying the York. Taking part in Operation ‘Carter Paterson’, 59 Squadron was involved in the second wave of Yorks and arrived at the main RAF base at Wunstorf on July 5, 1947. The delivery of supplies from the UK via Wunstorf began on July 10, 1947. Avro York MW173 ‘Zipper’ of the 59th flew 7695lbs of dehydrated potato into Gatow, believing that the Soviets would back down after just a month. This, however, was not going to be the case. As a result, ‘Operation Plainfare’ was put into action on August 4, 1947. This operation saw the Avro Yorks carry 637 tonnes of supplies into Berlin over the course of some 90 sorties. 

Throughout the entire airlift, the number of Yorks operating would increase considerably. Under the plan that outline ‘Operation Plainfare’, it was decided that 30 out of the available 43 Yorks would fly 120 sorties daily. Unfortunately due to unpredictable weather, the total of sorties was reduced to 100. During this time, the Avro York began to show signs of unserviceability. Designed as a transport and civilian aeroplane intended for long distance flying, the York was now flying short trips and carrying far higher weights than it was meant to upon design. The resulting strain on the undercarriage meant that there were many structural and technical failures. Ultimately, most of the aircraft accidents during the Berlin Airlift involved the Avro York, leaving a bittersweet shadow in its wake.  

In total, 258 fully flying Avro Yorks were ever produced. The type retired in 1964. The UK now has the pleasure of playing host to the only two surviving full aircraft left, which are both on display in museums.  

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