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Car ferries in the sky: the rise and fall of Carvair aviation traders

(CNN) – If an avid aviation enthusiast had to compile a list of the world’s strangest aircraft, the ATL-98 Carvair would certainly deserve a place of honor.

Its bulbous nose, seemingly out of proportion to the rest of its body, gives this now-defunct plane a chubby and unmistakable appearance.

And yet the Carvair, which made a cameo appearance in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” anticipated features we would later see in iconic aircraft types, like the Boeing 747.

This odd-looking aircraft was actually a heavily modified Douglas DC-4 airliner designed to fulfill a very special mission in the 1950s: to fly both cars and their drivers overseas.

To load Carvair planes, vehicles would be elevated to cabin level with a scissor lift and loaded through the front door.

Courtesy of Iberia Photo Archive

British car owners wishing to drive their own vehicles in continental Europe could choose between a slow and potentially fragile sea crossing, or simply jumping across the continent by plane – car and all.

The travelers went directly to the airport apron and into the belly of the waiting plane, as they would with a ferry that carries automobiles on the water.

Born of post-war travel dreams

Planes like the Bristol 170 Freighter and its larger derivative, called Superfreighter, began carrying automobiles as cargo from the mid-1940s, shortly after the end of World War II.

These planes were rugged machines that sacrificed speed and range for ruggedness and economy. They featured clam-shaped front doors that opened to the side to allow cars to be driven into the cargo hold, while the raised cockpit increased cargo capacity by making the entire length of the fuselage available for auto loads. -rolling.

As ingenious as this design might be, these planes had a rather limited payload and could carry no more than three midsize cars at a time.

Car ferries in the sky: the rise and fall of Carvair aviation traders

A car is loaded onto an Aer Lingus Aviation Traders ATL-98 Carvair at Bristol Airport in the UK.


In the late 1950s, with the war years in the rearview mirror and car ownership on the rise, legendary aviation entrepreneur Freddie Laker spotted an opportunity.

Laker, who would later be known for his pioneering, but unsuccessful, low-cost aviation ventures in the 1970s and early 1980s, came up with the idea of ​​building a bigger and better car ferry.

With the advent of the jet era, many WWII propeller planes such as the DC-4, or its military version, the C-54, were quickly becoming obsolete and could be purchased cheaply. . It worked in Laker’s favor.

One of the companies already in its portfolio, Aviation Traders Limited, had accumulated extensive experience in the refitting and reuse of a large number of military aircraft that had served during the war for civilian purposes, which made it well placed to execute his vision.

The result was the ATL-98, also called “Carvair” – short for “Car via Air”.

Connecting the UK to the Continent

To create this airborne car ferry, Aviation Traders Limited took a DC-4, cut its front section, and added an extra section to stretch its fuselage. Then it was fitted with the characteristic raised cockpit of the Carvair and two side hinged doors that allowed cars and other cargo to be loaded from the front.

The resulting aircraft would be capable of carrying up to five cars and 22 passengers at a time, a significant improvement over the Bristol 170 Freighter.

Better yet: this configuration could be adapted quickly and easily to meet the needs of the moment. For example, it could carry only three cars and 55 passengers or be converted to carry only freight or only passengers. If the latter option were chosen, the unpressurized cabin of the Carvair could accommodate up to 85 seats.

Car ferries in the sky: the rise and fall of Carvair aviation traders

In Spain, domestic carrier Aviaco’s Carvairs shuttled passengers – and their cars – between the Balearic Islands and mainland Spain.

Courtesy of Iberia Photo Archive

In car transport mode, vehicles would be elevated to cabin level with a scissor-type lift and loaded through the front door, while passengers would be seated in the back of the aircraft, as they would in a conventional airliner.

The Carvair was developed primarily for cross-Channel routes connecting the UK to mainland Europe. At its peak, Channel Air Bridge, another company in Freddie Laker’s aviation empire, operated 24 daily return flights from Southend Airport, near London, to Calais (France), Ostend (Belgium) and Rotterdam (Netherlands).

Eventually, the network would extend much further into continental Europe, with planes heading to Strasbourg on the Franco-German border and the Swiss cities of Geneva and Basel.

Car ferries in the sky: the rise and fall of Carvair aviation traders

In recent years, as interest in car ferries waned, planes were used to ship goods.

Richard Vandervord

In Spain, domestic carrier Aviaco used Carvairs to operate a regular air shuttle transporting cars between the Balearic Islands and the Spanish mainland, while Aer Lingus managed car transport operations between Ireland and the British cities of Liverpool. and Bristol as well as Cherbourg in France.

The Irish carrier has also used its Carvairs on regular freight services to several UK cities.

Why don’t we see car ferries in the sky today?

Twenty-one Carvairs were built between 1961 and 1968. But, simultaneously, faster and more efficient shipping options became available on most of the routes served by air car ferries and none of the new modern aircraft did. ‘has been developed for this niche market.

In the end, the concept simply faded away.

But the evaporation of the car transport market and chronic maintenance issues have not prevented Carvairs from continuing to operate as freighters for a range of freight operators around the world, from New Zealand to Australia to the United States, Europe and Africa.

Car ferries in the sky: the rise and fall of Carvair aviation traders

Twenty-one Carvairs were built between 1961 and 1968.

Courtesy of Iberia Photo Archive

Despite a rather high attrition rate, with nearly half of Carvair’s global fleet lost to accidents at some point in its nearly four decades of service, some of them continued to fly in least until 2007, when one of the last surviving cells crashed, without casualties, while trying to land at the mine in Nixon Fork, Alaska.

As of 2021, no Carvair is known to be operational, although a few cells are in long-term storage. Their seaworthiness is uncertain.

One of them is in Gainesville, Texas, where it has been stationed at the local airport for several years. The other belongs to Phoebus Apollo Aviation, a South African pilot training school based at Rand Airport on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Attempts to contact that company and check the condition of the plane have gone unanswered, although images that are publicly available (including those found on Google Earth) suggest it is no longer fit to fly.


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