The Aviation Traders ATL-98 Carvair; Oddjob Favorite

February 21, 2024

I think it is fair to say that for most Brits, the cross-channel ferry trip is something of an institution. For generations they have enjoyed the occasional trip to the continent to stock up on interesting food items and, more generally, cheap alcohol and tobacco.

With the invention of the motorcar British tourists began to have a new requirement; transporting their automobiles across to the continent, allowing them to explore further afield. Such was the growth in demand, especially post World War Two, that it inspired development in a range of new technologies to cater to it, most notably roll-on, roll-off ferries and the hovercraft.

But for some, the tiresome drive all the way to the ferry ports, the waiting to load and the meandering crossing times, well, it was all little too much. Far better surely would be to leverage another new technology that was, by the 1950s, becoming far more reliable and cheaper to acquire and operate.

The aeroplane.

Indeed, even as the first experimental services transporting cars and their drivers across the channel via surplus Second World War tank landing ships were being conducted, similar services were starting to be run allowing drivers to take their cars with them on aircraft. And amongst the main players in this field was Freddie Laker’s Channel Air Bridge airline.

Now I know there are there those amongst you who know who Laker was, but for those who don’t, Freddie Laker was something of an air travel visionary; kind of like an aerial Edison. He generally didn’t originate ideas himself, but he certainly grasped onto new concepts and ran with them.

For example, those low-cost airlines that we all moan about the terrible service on but which we all fly because it basically makes it affordable for most of us. Well, that whole thing basically we owe to Freddie Laker, who first really pioneered it on a commercial scale; in fact his Laker Airways was such an alarming factor on the trans-Atlantic routes that the major airlines basically cartelled up to drive him out of business.

But that was in Laker’s future, and in the 1950s he was primarily focused on the cross-channel air ferry market and his aircraft engineering and conversion business, Aviation Traders Limited (ATL), which had been established to convert surplus wartime bombers into transport aircraft.

Laker’s Channel Air Bridge had started its air ferry service utilizing Bristol Freighter aircraft, followed up with Bristol Series 32 Superfreighter aircraft.

But these were all very limited in capacity, with the original Freighters only capable of carrying two cars and a handful of passengers, while the Superfreighters could manage three cars and twenty passengers. Plus, vehicles were undeniably getting larger and all these factors, plus that the Superfreighters were rapidly wearing out meant that by the late 1950s replacement was critical for maintaining viable cross channel air ferry services.

Laker came up with a solution. Airlines and militaries were in the process of replacing their piston engine airliners with the new-fangled jets that were becoming all the rage and that meant that there was a glut of aircraft available for conversion to a new model of air ferry.

Laker set to work figuring out the best option and settled on the Douglas DC-4 and its military equivalent, the C-54, as the most suitable airframe. This aircraft had been built in large numbers and was in common service all over the world, but was obviously approaching the end of its service with major operators, promising a potentially good supply of cheap airframes and plentiful parts.

Laker’s ATL company, at its headquarters at Southend Airport, east of London, was able to take the big four-engine aircraft, stretch them and add a bulbous hump that now contained the cockpit, freeing up more space for an enlarged cargo hold that could now hold five cars, with 22 passengers in the rear of the aircraft.

Thus was created the ATL-98 Carvair.

On top of its greater payload the new aircraft offered the prospect of opening up new markets for air ferries by being able to reach further afield and achieve higher speeds. Laker projected that the Carvair would, as an example, be able to fly a motorist and his vehicle from Southend all the way to Lyon in not much over an hour-and-a-half, a trip that would take considerably longer for anyone using the cross-channel boat services.

And Laker thought that more may be achievable when the airlines began to retire their fleets of more advanced Douglas DC-6 and -7’s in the near future, though that proved to be optimistic.

As it was, the first ATL-98 took to the air in June 1961 and by early 1962 the type was at work on the longer cross-channel routes between the UK and the Netherlands, Switzerland and southern France, with the older Bristol Freighters covering the cross-channel hops.

Additionally, several other operators were interested in the comparatively high-capacity capabilities of the Carvair and orders for converted aircraft were placed by several airlines, with Aviaco flying the type in air ferry roles between Spain and the Balearic Islands and Aer Lingus operating Carvair’s between Ireland and the UK.

The type’s large – for the day – capacity also meant they were popular as freight transports and they often carried out contract work for international organizations like the United Nations all around the world. The large capacity meant that some users of the type altered the design to allow them to be more flexible, capable of being switched in short order from their mixed freight-passenger configuration to a high-capacity seating arrangement that allowed these aircraft to carry up to 85 passengers.

Plus, if any of you have a niggling thought in your head that you kind of recognize the Carvair but can’t place where you may have seen it….probably the movie “Goldfinger”. Yes, that is a Carvair that is being loaded with villain Auric Goldfinger’s Rolls Royce for transport to Geneva – an actual route flown by British Air Ferries, Channel Air Bridge’s successor.

But despite their apparent utility (and use by international master criminals) Laker seems to have misjudged the market for the type and between 1961 and 1968 only twenty-one Carvairs were built. Despite this comparatively small number they had very active life’s, even though the air ferry concept that they had been designed for gradually dwindled away by the late 1970s.

The Carvair’s found themselves employed on freight operations in remote locations such as the Australian outback, the Alaska wilderness, rural Africa and the jungles of Southeast Asia. Indeed, one was abandoned in Phnom Penh in 1975, and I haven’t been able to confirm the date this occurred, but I’m assuming it was when the Khmer Rouge took over.

These busy lives also meant that the ATL-98’s suffered a heavy attrition rate, with eight being lost to accidents, the last of which occurred in 2007 when a Carvair crashed landing on a small airstrip serving a mine in Alaska.

Considering that the Carvairs were built off existing airframes that had often seen a fair bit of use before their conversion, the long service life of the ATL-98 in such conditions is a testament both to sturdiness of the original DC-4 and to the competence of the Aviation Traders engineers. In fact, I haven’t actually been able to determine when the final commercial run for the type occurred, but it may well have been in the 2010’s.

Today it seems that two of the original 21 still exist, one in the United States and one in South Africa, and both are apparently non-fliers. But there are the occasional rumors on aviation message boards of schemes to maybe get one of these aeroplanes airborne once again, which I will admit I am dubious about.

But who knows?

Maybe one day in the future we will be able to see this bulbous beauty flying once again.


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