The ATL-98 Carvair might have never won an aviation award for its looks, but it was a very successful airplane back in the early 1960s. It was involved in a unique type of operations between the United Kingdom and continental Europe. Can you guess? The clue lies in its name! Take a closer look at its aft fuselage, wings and engines, and you will soon realize that the Carvair is based on the much nicer-looking Douglas DC-4.
Steering aviation in a new direction
English businessman and aviation entrepreneur, Sir Freddie Laker, developed the Carvair in the early 1960s. When state-of-the art jet airliners such as the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 were introduced, the price of piston airliners dropped dramatically and they suddenly became obsolete. Sir Freddie Laker saw an opportunity to buy second-hand DC-4s for a fraction of their normal price (50.000 GBP – barely 1.2 million GBP in today’s money!) and convert them for the purpose of ferrying cars across the English Channel.
And so, the Carvair, or Car-via-Air was born.
Ferry-flying your car from the UK to Europe was the ultimate hype in the 1960s
Back in the early 1960s, the only way for British people to get their car into the continent for a summer road trip was through archaic and slow ferry boats. However, ferry boats were not specifically designed to transport cars and as a result, were not equipped with doors to act as ramps for cars to roll on and roll off directly from their cargo holds. Instead, cars had to be lifted onto the boat using port cranes, which made the process long and inconvenient.
Before the introduction of the Carvair, another operator made an attempt at airlifting cars across the English Channel using the Bristol 170 Wayfarer. A military cargo airplane developed during the 1940s, its payload capacity was only 3 cars and 20 passengers. As the airplane was not aging well, the tight profit margins caused by its limited capacity couldn’t compensate for the high maintenance costs. The final blow to this operation was the quick increase in the length of cars in the 1950s, making it eventually impossible to even just load 3 cars. But the demand was there, and air ferry was about to soar!
First flight of the Carvair
The first ATL-98 Carvair prototype undertook its maiden flight in June 1961 from the ATL factory in Southend airport.
It was equipped with a front-hinged door, with the flight deck being positioned above the cargo area. It could accommodate 5 standard-size cars in the cargo partition and up to 25 passengers in an enclosed section at the rear of the aircraft, making it a much more profitable airplane than its Bristol competitor. Carvair got a lot of traction initially, with prestigious launch operators such as the Irish flag-carrier Aer Lingus, and the private airlines Air Ferry and British United Air Ferries (BUAF).
Connecting cars with the continent six times a day
The idea of being able to drive on a French road a mere 75 minutes after turning up by car at Southend airport gave the Air Ferry operations a well-deserved boost. Back then, Southend airport had its very own dedicated Car Ferry Unit terminal with state-of-the-art commodities for passengers including restaurants, duty-free shopping and an observation platform for onlookers. Bookings skyrocketed so much that passengers were advised to book several months in advance if they were hoping to fly with their cars across the channel on a Carvair operator.
By the middle of the 1960s, British United Air Ferries connected Southend airport up to six times a day with many European destinations such as the Channel Islands (Jersey and Guernsey), Cherbourg (FR), Le Touquet (FR), Calais (FR), Ostend (BE), Rotterdam (NL) and even Basel, Geneva and Zurich in Switzerland.
The decline of the Carvair
In the late 1960s, the concept of air ferries started to fall out of favor. At that time, ferry-boat operators started to introduce new boats equipped with roll-on / roll-off technologies, making them more convenient to use. As these boats were able to transport dozens of cars as well as hundreds of passengers, the nominal ticket price was much lower than that of the air-ferry solutions like the Carvair.
Air ferries lost even more momentum when the hovercraft services were launched in the late 1960s. These hovercrafts operated by Seaspeed were able to cross the channel in 35 minutes, while carrying over 250 passengers and 30 cars. Faced with two more affordable, quick and comfortable solutions, the Air Ferry air-bridges were about to collapse. In 1975, BUAF, the largest operator of the Carvair, discontinued the Air Ferry services.
A total of 21 airframes of the Carvair were produced over the years. Without question, it was one of the rarest and strangest looking birds in aviation history!
“The 5 weirdest aircrafts to every fly”, from the Huffington Post
“Carvair” on www.aerofiles.com
""British Air Ferries” on www.saadonline.uk
""British Air Ferries” on www.southendtimeline.com
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