Unlike Pigs……. Cars can fly !

The story of the UK’s Air Ferry services using those eccentric aeroplanes the Bristol Freighter and the ATL Carvair.
By keith Bradshaw.

In 1948 the fledgling airline Silver City came into being. Initially as a freight airline it decided to try it’s hand at a new venture and offer Air Ferry services from its base at Lympne airport in Kent over to Le Touquet France. Using Bristol Freighter aircraft it could carry two cars and a number of passengers across the channel much quicker than the slower and infrequent ferry boats. This venture was a huge success and by 1957 the airline had crossed the channel more than a million times.


Photo credit RuthAs
A long nose Bristol Freighter Mk32 at Southampton in 1954. This version of the Freighter could carry three cars.

With the grass runways at Lympne often being waterlogged Silver City moved their operations in 1954 to Lydd airport. Known as Ferryfield, with its concrete runways all year round operations could be assured, this allowed the Silver City fleet of Bristols to each average eight sectors a day for every day of the year. By 1959 Lydd had become one of the busiest airports in the UK with more movements than even Gatwick. This same year Silver City carried 250,000 cars across the Channel and come the early 1960s was averaging 40,000 crossings a year.


Photo credit Richard Goring
Channel Air Bridge Carvair at its base at Southend in 1962.

In 1955 Freddie Laker set up airline Channel Air Bridge who had an air ferry operation from Southend using Bristol Freighters and the long nose Mk32 version. CAB operated from Southend across to Belgium, France and Holland. The airline operated 24 round trips a day from Southend to Ostend in conjunction with the Belgium airline SABENA. By 1962 ATL Carvairs ( a Douglas DC-4 conversion by Aviation Traders Ltd at Southend ) had joined the fleet which enabled longer range routes to be offered, to places such as Strasbourg and Switzerland. The Carvairs were so named because it stood for Car-via-air.


Photo credit Richard Goring
A British United Carvair powers away from Southend in 1964.


Photo Credit Richard Goring
A BUA Bristol Freighter MK32 at Southend in 1962.

In 1959 the British United Airline group bought Channel Air Bridge and three years later added Silver City to it’s group naming the airline British United Air Ferries. The CAB aircraft continued to operate from Southend and the Silver City planes likewise from Lydd, however both were now under the British United Air ferries banner with the planes being painted in the BUA livery.


Photo credit Anne Burgess
A Ford 105E Anglia makes its way up the ramp of a Silver City Bristol Freighter at Lydd in 1960.


Photo credit Eduard Marmet
A BAF Carvair seen in 1975 showing clearly the small passenger cabin at the rear.

 By 1963 BUAF were carrying 137,000 cars a year, however the airline name was not to last long as in 1967 British United restructured and BUAF became British Air Ferries. It was this same year that the Bristol Freighter services from Southend finally ended as competition from the Roll on, Roll off ferries started to have an effect but it was not until a decade later that all car ferry services finally came to an end when they could no longer compete with the larger, reliable and frequent ferries now crossing the Channel.


Photo credit Richard Vandervoord
A picture taken in 1979 over Southend of a Falcon Airways Carvair on a test flight before its delivery to the USA.

The Carvairs however continue to earn their living as general cargo aircraft but were slowly sold off by BAF to other operators around the world. There is believed to be one example still airworthy and that is based in Texas USA.


Photo credit Ken Fielding
A BKS short nose (2 car) Bristol Freighter at Liverpool in 1964.

With the UK airlines making good money out of the Air ferry business its not surprising that some foreign airlines also joined in the fun, Aer Lingus competed with BKS on the Dublin to Liverpool route, SABENA shared the Southend Ostend route and a number of French companies also plied their trade over the Channel.


Photo credit arpingstone
Aer Lingus Carvair at Bristol in 1969. The origins of the DC4 can clearly be seen.


Photo credit Christian Volpatti
A Bristol Freighter MK32 of Compagnie Air Transport at Le Touquet in 1969.


Photo credit Richard Goring
A SABENA Freighter (on lease from British United) takes off from Southend in 1964.

But all of them operated the wonderfully unique British (or British converted) aeroplanes, the Bristol Freighter and the ATL Carvair. Sadly there are no Carvairs preserved in the UK but the good news is a Bristol Freighter has just been returned to its birthplace at the Bristol air museum and once restored will become the only example on display in Europe. So next time you are being whisked efficiently across the Channel by ferry look up and listen and you may just hear the drone of those wonderful piston engines from a bygone era of the Air Ferry services.