Review: Aviation Traders Carvair

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Propeller aviation’s take on the Boeing 747, 9 years before the Boeing 747!

The Aviation Traders Carvair is perhaps one of the most obscure and strangely designed aircraft of all time, its concept stemming from a desire to transport both passengers and their cars, as well as various forms of cargo, across large regions and bodies of water without the need for slow and cumbersome ground or surface shipping. The result was an interesting concept to say the least, but one that didn’t really have long-lasting potential as a replacement for ferries, trains and trucks.

To understand the origin of the Carvair, we must first delve into the history of the Aviation Traders company.

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ATL’s first conversions were of former Handley Page Halifax bombers into cargo aircraft.

Aviation Traders Ltd. (ATL) was established in 1947 by then relative newcomer Freddie Laker, who had a desire to take surplus World War II transport aircraft and convert them into a variety of commercial uses. With leftover Douglas C-47 Skytrains now surplus to requirement, ATL began work selling and trading these units for airlines across the UK and Europe. ATL also provided spares for airlines in order to maintain their fleets of air force surplus aircraft.

However, the biggest ambition of the company was to convert many designs into new models, attempting to turn instruments of war into the prime movers of commercial aviation. At first, Laker considered taking former Lancaster and Halifax bombers and converting them for freight and passenger usage; eventually resulting in 6 converted Halifax bombers being sold to Bond Air Services as cargo planes. These converted aircraft were immediately put to work as part of the massive supply chain setup during the Berlin Airlift.

The Berlin Airlift was one of the pivotal factors behind the later success of ATL, the huge supply operation made to get around the Soviet blockade of the American, British and French sectors of the city requiring the use of hundreds of aircraft flying non-stop to keep the city from starving. Once the Airlift had ended in 1949, the converted ATL Halifax bombers went on to lead further lives in airline service. Meanwhile, ATL itself assisted in refurbishing converted Vickers Wellington bombers into the Vickers Viking passenger variant.

However, Laker’s ambitions were set higher than just converting existing aircraft models for other manufacturers, he felt the next step was to convert aircraft an market them under the ATL brand. As proven with the other ventures undertaken by ATL, converting surplus wartime planes into commercial service was a relatively inexpensive alternative to developing new models, thus the idea of creating his own aircraft range was in itself a viable option.

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The Bristol Type 170 Freighter aged quickly and was expensive to maintain due to various issues of metal fatigue.

In an attempt to make a splash on the aviation stage, Laker set his sights on creating a car-carrying ferry aircraft which would exploit the growing trend in continental holidays.

At the time, an aircraft capable of carrying cars already existed in the form of the Bristol Type 170 Freighter. The aircraft, which was launched in 1946 and had been developed during World War II as a transport aircraft, was not exactly a pinnacle of aviation technology, even for the time. During the four years since its entry into service it had aged woefully; being slow, cumbersome and too small to make it a viable alternative for airlines wishing to transport cars with speed and efficiency. The Type 170 had a maximum capacity of 3 cars and 20 passengers, and despite selling in large numbers to both military and commercial operators initially it was soon seen as too small and too rudimentary. This was compounded by car sizes during the early 1950’s gradually increasing, with adaptations and to lengthening to the Type 170 doing little to address the issue.

Furthermore, the Type 170 was prone to structural fatigue due to short flight times, frequent takeoffs and landings and the constant issue of turbulence on cross-channel services. The result was the aircraft becoming both incredibly dangerous and costly to maintain, ending in several deadly crashes.

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The distinctive forward hump of the Carvair became its most prominent feature, often compared to the later Boeing 747.

Laker chose to combat this issue by creating his own car-carrier aircraft based on the design of the Douglas DC-4 (and its military equivalent the C-54 Skymaster). Most DC-4’s and C-54’s taken on for conversion had been made redundant following the rise of jet aviation during the late 1950’s, with aircraft such as Boeing 707’s and Douglas DC-8’s taking up their primary functions. Furthermore, the advent of turboprop powered propeller planes such as the Vickers Viscount made piston-powered aircraft seem like something out of the dark ages. This resulted in DC-4 values dropping like a stone, with second-hand examples available for purchase at a comparatively piffling £50,000.

In order to design the Carvair, Laker took on a variety of design traits from contemporary transport aircraft, even the preceding Type 170. The cockpit was placed above the cargo doors on a hump, with cars being loaded onto the aircraft by way of a cargo loading platform. Laker commissioned a cardboard model of a DC-4 with this new nose arrangement, with cockpit above and cargo door below.  The aircraft was designed to accommodate five average-sized British cars plus 25 passengers as a result of the DC-4’s longer and wider fuselage. Furthermore, the aircraft’s interior was readily adaptable, becoming one of the world’s first Quick-Change (QC) aircraft.

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A car is seen being loaded aboard an Aer Lingus Carvair prior to a flight across the Irish Sea.

This allowed British Air Ferries (BAF), the aircraft’s launch customer, to adopt multiple interior configurations based on the number of cars it was expected to carry. In the summer season, for instance, the plane could be configured to hold 5 cars and 22 passengers, while in the winter it could be laid out to carry 2 cars and 55 passengers. Apparently this change in configuration could be done in 40 minutes, ideal for alterations between flights.

The DC-4 also proved to be ideal for short, low-altitude hops across the channel as the aircraft wasn’t pressurised. With a service ceiling of 18,000 feet, the aircraft didn’t need to pressurise and depressurise, thereby removing the need for costly maintenance to ward off the demon metal fatigue. The DC-4 was also much faster than the Type 170, being able to fly at 250mph using its four Pratt & Whitney R-2000-7M2 Twin Wasp radial engines rather than the Bristol’s 225mph top speed with two Bristol Hercules 734 14-cylinder sleeve-valve radial piston engines.

The aircraft was christened Carvair (a portmanteau of the term Car-Via-Air) and made its first flight on June 21st, 1961.

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British Air Ferries operated Carvair’s as late as 1978 on cross-channel services.

The relative low cost of converting redundant DC-4’s to Carvair’s (costing only £80,000) compared to developing an all new design made it immediately attractive to prospective airlines all over the world. In the UK and Europe, the aircraft was a popular buy for airlines that transported large numbers of passengers across bodies of water, specifically the English Channel and the Irish Sea. Ferries at this point in time were very archaic in design and could only trundle along at a Victorian 20mph. On average, a cross-channel ferry could do approximately four trips per day, while the Carvair, if pushed, could do eight. The aircraft also provided a vital link for services to the Channel Islands, being used to transport cars from both France and England to these popular holiday destinations.

Elsewhere in the world, the Carvair was put to work on a variety of roles, most notably in Canada. These aircraft were primarily used for transporting vital equipment to remote airfields in the far north of the country, though they also found work on regular cargo flights between major cities.

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A still from the hit movie Goldfinger, as the eponymous villain’s Rolls-Royce is loaded aboard a Carvair bound for his secret factory in Switzerland.

However, problems quickly arose when several Carvair’s suffered major crashes throughout the 1960’s. In 1962, 1967, 1968 and 1971, Carvair’s were involved in fatal accidents, the root of which was determined to be catastrophic engine failures either on takeoff or mid-flight. It was noted by many pilots that the nearly 30 year old Twin Wasp radial engines had serious performance issues that, if not addressed, would result in complete failure and possibly a crash. While it wasn’t impossible for ATL to convert the aircraft for the use of turboprops instead of their original piston-powered engines, as had been tried and tested on various Douglas DC-3’s, the company chose not to invest in replacing these faulty powerplants and the problem would pervade throughout the aircraft’s entire working life. In all, eight of the twenty-one aircraft built would be destroyed by crashes largely attributed to engine failure.

Carvair conversions eventually ended in 1968, with an aforementioned 21 units being built. These aircraft, however, led charmed lives in the service of cross-channel operations, one Carvair aircraft being featured in the 1963 movie Goldfinger. In James Bond’s third outing, the Carvair is seen having the villainous Auric Goldfinger’s Rolls-Royce Phantom III being loaded aboard through the front cargo door.

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The introduction of Seaspeed Hovercraft services reduced cross-channel ferry times to 35 minutes while carrying double the load of the Carvair.

However, the concept of car-via-air transport was not one steeped with longevity. As time went on the costs of flying cars by plane increased and thus the number of cars these planes were able to ship didn’t make the profit it had done before. On top of that, the ageing design of the DC-4 meant that maintenance costs continued to rise. Furthermore, development in ferry travel, including improved on-board amenities and quality of services together with a much cheaper fare, meant that travel by boat was starting to make a comeback. This was compounded by the advent of Seaspeed in 1965, which could cross the channel between Dover and Calais in just 35 minutes while carrying several times more passengers and cars. The final nail in the coffin of Carvair operations came when car rental agencies began to take hold in Europe and the UK during the mid to late 1970’s, meaning that holidaymakers had no need to bring their cars with them when they went abroad. The result was the retirement of Carvair’s from cross-channel services by the end of the decade.

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The last airworthy ATL Carvair, N89FA, seen on the ground at its Gainsville home in Texas.

This wasn’t the end for Carvair’s though, many aircraft remained in operation as cargo planes in Africa and the Caribbean well into the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Even today, one Carvair remains in airworthy condition, that being N89FA of Gator Global Flying Services in Gainsville, Texas. The aircraft, which is used on ad-hoc cargo operations, had its FAA airworthiness certificate renewed in February 2018 and is now legally able to fly until March 2021. In another ironic twist, this aircraft is notable for being the one used in the filming of Goldfinger back in its BAF days, before eventually being sold to Falcon Airways and later owned by Mercantile National Bank of Dallas, hence why it’s ended up in Texas.

Another aircraft of note is the final Carvair built, that being 9J-PAA. This aircraft was delivered to Ansett of Australia in 1968, but through a complex history eventually found its way to Zambia. It remained in commercial service until 2009 whereupon it was retired and put up for preservation at an aviation museum in Rand, South Africa. It’s interesting to note that the Carvair is sat adjacent to a former South African Airways Boeing 747-SP, the design features of which have often been likened to its propeller predecessor.

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9J-PAA was retired from regular use in 2009 and has now been retired to the quiet life of a museum piece.

These days the Aviation Traders Carvair is not often remembered by the wider aviation community, due largely to the fact that it wasn’t exactly an original piece of aircraft engineering. In fairness, the Carvair was never built to take on the world and there was a sense of inevitability to the gradual decline and eventual failure of car-via-air transport. These operations had been mostly unprofitable throughout their existence and despite its increased size and speed the Carvair simply couldn’t redress that balance.

Regardless, the Carvair is among one of the most iconic aviation designs of all time, the embodiment of what a Boeing 747 would look like as a piston-powered airliner. It made for a useful car carrying aircraft and even found a niche for itself carrying cargo during its latter years. The fact that one is still airworthy and regularly flies today is truly a testament to the design prowess of  this mighty aircraft.


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