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I grew up watching the cross channel car ferry Bristol Freighters and Carvairs flying laboriously overhead during the 1950s and 60s. Our weekend caravan at Swalecliffe on the north Kent coast was directly under the flight path from Southend to Calais, and they were always low and slow. As my interest in all things aviation developed my parents humoured me by taking us on trips to the airfields at Lympne (where the service had started) and at nearby Lydd which was purpose built for the air ferry on the flat land of Romney Marsh.
The Bristol 170 Freighter was the aircraft that opened the market and became the iconic air ferry. A slightly lengthened version, the Mk 32 Superfrieighter was introduced in 1953, but even this was only capable of carrying 3 cars and 20 passengers. The Aviation Traders Carvair was therefore developed, primarily with the car ferry role in mind. This was a Douglas DC-4 modified by moving the flight deck above the fuselage and having a large single-piece nose door, and was capable of holding up to 5 cars and 25 passengers. Both these aircraft performed a lot of freight service in parallel with the air ferry work. Once retired from being air ferries many Carvairs and Bristol Freighters were put into good service moving outsize cargo around the Canadian north.
Times and economics change and the air ferries died out by the end of the 1960s as the regular sea ferries proliferated and became more competitive. Flying our car to France was way beyond our family’s reach back then, so all I could do was dream as they flew over, or as we sat behind the fence at Lydd watching them load and unload. One day when we were there UK Prime Minister Ted Heath loaded his car and trailer with his sailing dinghy to head off for a nice continental break. He could afford the fare.