The Aviation Traders ATL-98 Carvair was a large piston four-engined transport aircraft. It was a Douglas DC-4-based air ferry developed by Freddie Laker's Aviation Traders (Engineering) Limited (ATL), with a capacity of 25 passengers and five cars, loaded at the front.
Design and development
Freddie Laker's idea to convert surplus examples of the Douglas DC-4 and its military counterpart the C-54 Skymaster to carry cars, was a relatively inexpensive solution to develop a successor to the rapidly aging and increasingly inadequate Bristol 170 Freighter, the car ferry airlines' mainstay since the late 1940s.
The Bristol Freighter's main drawback was its limited payload, in terms of the number of cars that fitted into a single aircraft. Even the "long-nosed" Mark 32 was able to accommodate only three cars (in addition to 20 passengers). This made carrying cars by air a very tricky business. If a booked car failed to turn up, the flight instantly became unprofitable as a result of the one-third cut in payload. This situation was made worse by the increasing average length of British cars during the 1950s. The average UK car in 1959 was 10 inches longer than in 1950. The extreme seasonality of the car ferry business furthermore resulted in poor aircraft utilization outside peak periods. Moreover, repeated takeoffs and landings on short cross-Channel flights, in turbulent air at lower altitudes with tight turnarounds of as little as 20 minutes, made the aircraft prone to structural fatigue problems. These necessitated rigorous and costly modification programmes, thereby further increasing the type's operating costs on what were essentially low-yield routes.
When the major airlines replaced their obsolete piston airliners with new Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 jets on their prestige long-haul routes, the unit price of second-hand DC-4s dropped to as little as £50,000. The conversion of each of these airframes into car-passenger carriers cost about £80,000. This was easily affordable by smaller airlines, such as the car ferry companies. Freddie Laker's cardboard model of a converted DC-4 featuring a door in the nose and a flight deck raised "above" the fuselage had shown that its payload was superior to the Bristol Freighter/Superfreighter. 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. (British Air Ferries (BAF), for example, operated its Carvairs in a flexible configuration, either accommodating five cars and 22 passengers or two-three cars and 55 passengers, permitting it to change over from one configuration to the other in about 40 minutes.) In addition, the DC-4's lack of pressurisation made it ideal for low-altitude cross-Channel flights that did not go high enough to require a pressurised cabin. This made the proposed structural conversion straightforward. The result was a new aircraft christened Carvair (derived from car-via-air).
Initially, it was thought that second-hand, pressurised Douglas DC-6 and Douglas DC-7 airframes could be converted into larger, "second generation" Carvairs within 15 years of the original DC-4-based Carvair's entry into service.
The actual conversion of the original aircraft entailed replacing the forward fuselage with one 8 feet 8 inches (2.64 m) longer, with a raised flightdeck in a bulbous 'hump' (akin to the later Boeing 747) to allow a sideways hinged nose door. It also entailed more powerful wheel brakes and an enlarged tail, often thought to be a Douglas DC-7 unit, but actually a completely new design. The engines, four Pratt & Whitney R-2000s, were unchanged.
The prototype conversion first flew on 21 June 1961. Twenty-one Carvairs were produced in the UK, with production of aircraft 1, 11 and 21 at Southend Airport and the balance at Stansted Airport. The final three aircraft were delivered to Australia's Ansett-ANA, which supplied its own DC-4s to ATL for conversion, unlike the previous 18 aircraft that were purchased by ATL and either sold on or transferred to associate company British United Air Ferries (BUAF). One of the two aircraft still flying in June 2007 was an ex-Ansett airframe. A second Ansett aircraft was abandoned at Phnom-Penh in 1975. The first flight of the last conversion, number 21, for Ansett, was on 12 July 1968.
Basic price for a newly converted Carvair in 1960 was £150,000. This was the aircraft type used by Auric Goldfinger in the James Bond film Goldfinger to transport himself and his car to Geneva.
The Carvair was used by Aer Lingus, BUAF and BAF among others, and was used in Congo-Kinshasa during 1960-1964, under contract to the United Nations. Aircraft for Aer Lingus were quickly convertible between 55 seats and 22 seats with five cars. Some aircraft were pure freighters with only nine seats. One aircraft had 55 high-density seats and room for three cars. BAF was the last operator in Europe of the aircraft, keeping them flying into the 1970s.
British United Carvairs made an appearance in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger as Goldfinger and Oddjob boarded one for Switzerland while Goldfinger's Rolls-Royce car was being loaded through the Carvair nose, and in The Prisoner in the episode "The Chimes of Big Ben", where it is seen loading through the nose, taking off and then landing again.
Of the 21 airframes, eight were destroyed in crashes (one each in Rotterdam, Netherlands 1962; Karachi, Pakistan 1967; Twin Falls, Canada 1968; Le Touquet, France 1971; and four in the USA: Miami, Florida 1969; Venetie, AK 1997; Griffin, Georgia also in 1997; and McGrath, AK in 2007.) Perhaps the best-known Carvair crash was the one at Griffin in April 1997, where on its takeoff run the (fifth production) Carvair suffered catastrophic engine failure, failed to become properly airborne, and crashed into a vacant Piggly Wiggly supermarket past the airport perimeter, killing both pilots.