A Flying Car Ferry!

Last month we had a flying boat, so this month I thought it would be interesting to take that concept a little further and look at a flying car ferry! namely, the Bristol Freighter.

Jamie Chalkley  |  02nd February 2023
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    Jamie Chalkley
    Jamie Chalkley

    Jamie Chalkley literally grew up around Warbirds... and crop spraying! Quite the contrast! Not content...

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    Flying Car Ferry

    My attention was drawn to this quiet amazing plane a couple of months back whilst I was chatting to a local friend and great ambassador to British aviation: Mr. Bob Pooley. We enjoyed a wonderfully relaxed and long overdue catch-up and whilst walking around his office looking at his amazing collection of models and historic memorabilia I paused and took a moment to look over a model of a very unusual-looking aircraft: a Bristol Freighter. My obvious interest caught Bob's eye and he recollected several wonderful stories of when he used to use the aircraft himself as a drive-on / drive-off mode of transport between here and France. In fact, he might be the best-travelled passenger on the type; through the mid 1960’s and into the 70’s he flew on average, at least twice a month from Southend to Le Touquet. Arriving in a Rover 2000 or Mini, Bob recalls that it was less than an hour from driving on in the UK to driving off in France. 

    So in case I’m not the only one that finds this idea to be like something out the future, yet somehow only available in the past ... I thought it would be a nice opportunity to take a closer look and learn a little more about the ‘Air Ferry’... 

    As with most types of this generation of aircraft, the design team at British manufacturer ‘Bristol Aeroplane Company’ (formed all the way back in 1910) was initially working in response to the needs of the British Air Ministry who very much liked the idea of being able to load up military vehicles (including a 3-ton truck!) for dispatch and delivery to various destinations, but in particular, the Far East. To maximise loading potential, it was decided that 'through the nose' was the way to go. But one drawback to the design needs was that there was nowhere to park the crew to fly it! but this was resolved via a short ladder from the main cargo deck to a lofty cockpit situated up on top of the nose, not only were the crew safely out the way of the loading freight coming in and out through the nose, but it also presented them with a rather excellent view! Below their feet the trusty nose clamshell doors were fitted and these gave the uncompromising cargo opening that was desired. 

    “Over 200 Bristol Freighters were built. Some remained active into the 90’s!”

    The aircraft design was kept mechanically simple with a low spanner to flying hour ratio being part of the concept from the start. This aircraft was a true workhorse with the idea it could deliver cargo (or maybe that’s ‘car-go!’) to places other aircraft weren’t so ready to dispatch to, I guess it was the 4-wheel drive of freight aircraft! The landing gear was fixed down and strong, so perfect for unprepared landing strips. In response to Air Traffic’s pre-landing reminder to pilots to check their gear is down, pilots often used to reply with “wheels down…… and welded!”. 

    In terms of type production, World War II drew to a close before the aircraft ever got airborne so the design team started concentrating on civilian use instead. The first flight of the test aircraft was on the 02nd December 1945. 

    Civilian design concepts introduced several new initiatives, including an internal hoist to improve loading procedures, and an all-passenger variant called the ‘Wayfarer’ which swapped out the rather drafty clamshell doors for a fixed nose piece instead. On the 30th of April 1946, the Wayfarer variant was airborne, and sporting a livery of the Channel Islands Airways it conducted a series of extensive proving flights. In fact, very extensive: it carried over 10,000 passengers in less than six months! 

    Silver City Airways saw the aircraft and along with it, an opportunity to do something a little different; "let's take passengers.... in their cars!" they said (or something similar). Not only did this save on car parking spaces at the terminal, it gave the opportunity for slower-moving travellers to take a break from the popular Britain to France sea ferries, and added something of a novelty value for the motorist. The first scheduled route, cars and all, was from Lympne Airport (Kent) to Le Touquet in France. 

    Such was its success, a lengthened variant was built, this was first flown on the 16th of January 1953 and they nicknamed it: the ‘Super Freighter’. The engines were the same (2x) Bristol Hercules 734 engines, each being a 14 cylinder air cooled radial piston developing 1,980 hp, but this bigger airframe could carry three cars instead of two whilst still hosting a good size passenger cabin for 20 travellers (an increase from the smaller configuration of around 16). A Super Wayfarer also found its way into the industry with an increased passenger capacity from 30 to 60 people! 

    Some 214 aircraft were built in total (all variants) and the aircraft remained in production until 1958, but commercial uses continued for a long while after that. 

    After several decades of use, operations steadily dried up during the 1970's however one or two remained active into the 90's! The last recorded flight was back in 2004 in Canada, this being a ferry trip (no pun!) to the Reynolds-Alberta Museum. Sadly there are none flying today and only a handful of airframes still in existence, several of which can be found in museums but they do seem somewhat scattered across the globe; from Buenos Aires to New Zealand although one does rest here in the UK at Bristol. 

    A quite amazing aircraft that flew people, cars, freight, and even livestock! The Bristol Freighter was certainly from an era of aviation ingenuity. The idea of a drive-on / drive-off commuter aircraft would be something to stop the traffic today, let alone some 70 years ago! As ever, the design teams, engineers, and test pilots astound me with what they can achieve. 

    Type: Bristol Freighter 

    Wingspan: 32.92 m 

    MGW: 19,955 kg 

    Powerplant: 1,980 hp (x2) 

    VNE: 195 mph 

    Cruise speed: 165 mph 

    Service ceiling: 23,000 ft 

    For more info on historic aircraft please visit: www.TASCVintage.com

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