While many will remember Freddie Laker and his low-cost McDonnell Douglas DC-10 Skytrain flights between London and the United States, did you know that the entrepreneur’s first airline to fly took part in the second airlift of Berlin?
In 1947, Freddie Laker founded a company called “Aviation Traders”, which specialized in converting wartime bombers into freighters. In 1951, Laker purchased struggling Air Charter and another loss-making airline called “Fairlight” to offset its taxable income. By purchasing Fairlight, Laker secured a government contract to transport goods between West Berlin and cities in West Germany.
Known as Berlin’s second airlift, Laker operated 70 weekly flights between Berlin, Hamburg and Hanover a year later. Following the second Berlin Airlift, Air Charter had become the UK’s leading private airline, flying converted Avro York and Avro Tudor aircraft to and from Berlin.
Air Charter gets more government contracts
In 1953, following the crash of a Skyways Avro York charter carrying troops over the Atlantic Ocean, Laker saw an opportunity to secure more government contracts. At the time of the crash, the British government used Airwork, Eagle, Hunting-Clan and Skyways to transport troops and selected each airline based on which had the lowest bid.
The government’s attitude towards the use of private airlines changed after the fatal accident, with safety standards becoming a major concern. In addition, all the airlines used to transport troops were derived from wartime bombers that constantly broke down. Laker entered the fray, promising unprecedented safety standards and more comfortable rear-facing seats with headrests. On top of that, Air Charter said it would place aircraft spares along the routes it flies. These innovations earned Laker his first troop transport contract which turned out to be a goldmine.
Air Charter begins vehicle ferry flights
A Douglas DC-4 was purchased second-hand from World Airways in 1955 and put into service with Laker’s German domestic flights. In the same year, Air Charter began offering vehicle ferry flights between Southend and Calais. This led to a joint venture with the Belgian Sabena flying between Southend and Ostend and Southend and Rotterdam.
In 1956, the British government issued a tender for troop transport flights to Europe and the Far East, specifying that the successful bidder was to use state-of-the-art Bristol Britannia turboprops on Far East routes. For flights, the War Office said it would allow the successful bidder to buy three Britannia aircraft from the government on a five-year contract or lease them on a three-year contract. Despite bidding on the lucrative contract, Air Charter lost to Hunting-Clan Air Transport.
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Air Charter merges with other airlines to form British United Airways
In 1958 Laker decided it was time to retire its aging Tudors and ordered two new Bristol Britannia turboprops to be used for government charter flights. Faced with problems with its government contract, Hunting-Clan contracted some of its government flights to Air Charter at a loss. Later, Laker got Hunting-Clan to agree to a new deal sharing the government contract, which effectively transferred flight management to Air Charter. Following a consolidation of Air Charter’s operations, Air Charter and Air Work and Hunting-Clan merged in 1960 to form British United Airways, the UK’s largest private airline.
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