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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 air ferry business was a coming together of the increasing prosperity and desire to travel of the British middle class, and the availability of a suitable aircraft. The Bristol 170 Freighter first flew in 1945 and was designed as a military transport, capable to loading a 3 ton ruck through the clam shell doors in the nose. Silver City Airways started car ferry flights in 1948 from Lympne in Kent to Le Touquet on the French coast. Services expanded and Channel Air Bridge became another major player in the market, eventually being merged with Silver City into British United Airways in 1963. Though Lydd and Southend were the major bases in the UK, services developed on other routes as the air ferry principle was able to significantly shorten the journey time by bypassing congested roads as well as the Channel.
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.