Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history
Of all the employments offered by British civil airlines in the 1950s and ‘60s, piloting a Bristol Freighter on one of the short cross-Channel car ferry routes linking the UK with the Continent was surely the most gentlemanly. Sector lengths were almost ridiculously short, the airports used in the UK — primarily Southend and Lydd’s so-called Ferryfield — being very close to the coast, as were those ‘on the other side’ at Calais, Ostend and Rotterdam. As a result, a pilot could leave home in the morning, drive to the airport, fly several return trips and still be back in time for dinner.
Two companies, Silver City at Lydd and Channel Air Bridge at Southend, dominated the cross-Channel car ferry trade. A delightful story concerns Lympne airfield, Silver City’s base before the construction of Lydd. Among its other facilities, this grass airfield boasted a cricket pitch, and it is recorded that the groundcrew would sometimes engage in an impromptu cricket match, ‘Silver City vs passengers’, while waiting for an inbound flight.
Although not built for the purpose, Bristol’s Freighter Mk21 and 31 proved ideal, allowing two cars and their occupants to be taken on the short hop. The later, longnosed Mk32 Superfreighter was developed specifically to meet Silver City’s needs. With a 5ft extension to the nose, it allowed the loading of three (small) cars plus up to 24 passengers.
”Ferryfield boasted a cricket pitch, and the groundcrew would sometimes engage in an impromptu match, ‘Silver City vs passengers’”
By 1960, ferry competition was hotting up, and Channel Air Bridge was looking for a larger, more economical ‘five-car’ aircraft to ensure its continuing profitability. The airline, headed up by Freddie Laker, looked at the Blackburn Beverley and the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, rejecting both because of their high initial cost and unnecessary sophistication. The eventual decision was to go for a conversion of the Douglas C-54/DC-4, with airframes readily available on the secondhand market. This design was the Aviation Traders ATL-98, which used a basic C-54 with a new front fuselage and swing door allowing the ‘straight-in’ loading of cars, with the cockpit raised almost 7ft above. Following a competition, the new aircraft became known as the Carvair, a clever contraction of ‘Car via air’ suggested by the winning Southend resident. The prototype conversion was carried out by Aviation Traders Engineering Ltd, another company with which Freddie Laker was associated, at Southend and Stansted, and C-54 G-ANYB made its first flight as a Carvair on 21 June 1961. Named Golden Gate Bridge, this aircraft operated its first revenue-earning service, from Southend to Rotterdam, on 1 March 1962. Two further Carvairs had followed by year-end.
Channel Air Bridge merged with Silver City Airways on 1 January 1963, to become British United Air Ferries (BUAF). The Carvair’s range made possible new car ferry routes into Europe, with Geneva, Basle and Strasbourg planned as destinations from Lydd, BUAF’s designated ‘Carvair hub’. These, though, did nothing to improve the viability of the company’s car ferry operations. By 1967 all BUAF Carvair activity was back at Southend, and many of the long-haul routes had been discontinued, priced out by roll-on/roll-off ferries and improved road connections.
Scheduled cross-Channel Carvair flights finally petered out in 1975. Just 21 examples were built. As will be recorded in an Aeroplane Database later this year, some flew on elsewhere into the 21st century, their nose-loading capability and unobstructed 80ft main cabin giving them a distinct advantage in the ad hoc freight charter market. Not one currently flies, but what character they possessed!