France for Freebooters

 

An Independent Traveller's View of 

France and its History

 

by Mike Kingdom-Hockings 





   

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Silver City Airways - and other ways of crossing the channel half a century ago

Poster courtesy of the Automobile Association

by Keith Kellett

Just to remind us what it was like before Ro-Ro car ferries and Le Shuttle....

 

 

It was once an exciting, if sometimes arduous adventure to take a car across the English Channel to France. Just after World War Two, flying was easier than going by ferry. The noisy Bristol 170 Freighter aircraft, which roared over the Channel with their cargoes of cars and their occupants, were designed for freight. Passenger comfort was of secondary importance. One lady’s first travelling memory was of flying to France 'in a noisy plane which carried cars'.

'I was only about three or four years old at the time' she said ‘but I distinctly remember having to move to another seat, because rain was leaking through the window!’

‘The engines ....... were quite close by on the high wing, so when they started up -- with the customary bloke with the fire extinguisher at the ready -- they made quite a noise with plenty of smoke and flame.’ recalled Chris Harden, then a 13 year old schoolboy, travelling to France with his
parents.

Fortunately, the flight time rarely exceeded 30 minutes.

In those days, the Channel Tunnel was an idealistic dream. Even roll-on roll-off ferries were some years into the future. Cars had to be craned aboard the few ferries there were. The whole affair was a tedious and frustrating undertaking, which had to be planned well in advance. You simply didn’t ‘pop across to France’ as you can today.

In 1948, retired RAF officer Air Commodore Griffith J. (‘Taffy’) Powell was attracted to the idea of holidays in France as a relief from austere, post-war Britain. He also loved driving his luxurious Armstrong-Siddeley car. Considering ways to combine both passions without the hassle of the ferry trip, he thought of the Bristol 170 Freighter

This aircraft featured large ‘clam-shell’ doors in the nose which enabled loading of bulky freight. This made it ideal for carrying cars. The manufacturers happily lent a Freighter for the experiment, and on 7th July 1948, it left Lympne Airport, in Kent, for Le Touquet. On board were Powell and his beloved Armstrong-Siddeley.

At Le Touquet, British ‘ex-pat’ Sammy Norman asked if the aircraft could carry a Bentley. Shortly afterwards, the Bentley was loaded on the aircraft, making Norman the service’s first fare-paying passenger. Only a week later, Silver City Airways flew its first scheduled flight from Lympne to Le Touquet.

The Bristol wasn’t the only aircraft to carry cars across the Channel, and Silver City weren’t the only airline to operate them. But, most people associated cross-Channel air ferries with the 20-minute hops in Silver City’s Bristol 170s ........ much to the chagrin of their main competitor,
Channel Air Bridge!

Initially, Silver City operated from Lympne airfield, but, in 1954 moved to nearby Lydd , which offered a hard runway and Decca radar. A purpose-built terminal enabled cars and their passengers to be expeditiously processed.

Then, the cars were loaded. ‘ .......... the Bristol was the ideal aircraft’ recalled former Silver City First Officer Nick Papillon ‘ ...... it only required a couple of ground handlers to push the fixed wheel-ramps to the aircraft, the cars then being driven on and off (by the pilots, in some cases)’

In his book ‘Air Ferry’, Douglas Whybrow told about a ground handler who drove a massive American car on to the Bristol, and found there wasn’t room to open the door. So, he was flown to France in style ....... and possibly greater comfort than the passengers!

Two cars were carried in the forward freight bay. The rear compartment could carry twelve passengers. In those days, Silver City’s licence didn’t allow ‘foot-passengers’, so, in practice, the passenger compartment would never be more than two-thirds full.

Sometimes, however, a would-be foot-passenger might be lent a dilapidated bicycle, so he could truthfully be said to be ‘travelling with a vehicle’!

In the late 1950s, the longer Freighter Mk 32 was introduced. This could carry three cars and .... in theory .... 20 passengers. The extra seating necessitated a Flight Attendant, who provided drinks and sold duty-free supplies.

Silver City entered the record books in 1959. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bleriot’s first cross- Channel flight, the Daily Mail offered a £10,000 prize for the fastest time between London and Paris. This was won by a Royal Navy officer, using a helicopter, a jet fighter and a motor-cycle. However, the best time using a scheduled airline service was set by racing driver Stirling Moss, whose Jaguar was ferried across the Channel by Silver City.

Silver City’s services were rapid and frequent. Because of the short distances, the aircraft only needed refuelling every other trip, so a five-minute turn-around time could easily be achieved.

Even by today’s standards, accidents were remarkably few. There were only three major
accidents on all air ferry services between 1948 and 1970, with three recorded fatalities. All of these were aircraft crew members, so it can be truly stated that neither Silver City nor Channel Air bridge ever lost a passenger.

Minor incidents sometimes happened, however. Both companies reported one instance when the nose-doors opened during the take-off run. Both Captains were able to abandon take-off safely, and naturally modifications were immediately embodied to ensure the doors were secure before flight.

Nick Papillon remembered a less serious incident at Calais. A broken-down car was being recovered to England. The procedure in such cases was to have a jeep push the vehicle around until sufficient speed had been gained to enable it to coast up the ramp. But, nobody told the loader that the brakes didn’t work, either!

‘Fortunately’ said Nick, ‘the passenger compartment was empty at the time’

Nowadays, it’s quiet at Lydd. The last air car ferry took off from there on 3rd October 1970. Silver City and its rival, Channel Air Bridge, had been merged and taken over by British United Air Ferries in 1962. Their operations ceased in 1968.

In 'Air Ferry', Douglas Whybrow said that he believed the air ferries would have remained a viable option had a suitable replacement been found for the Freighter. He also thought that, after the merger, the two companies should have kept their distinctive identities.

There, I think, he has it. ‘British United Air Ferries’ (later, simply ‘British Air Ferries’) was a bland, neutral-sounding title. ‘Channel Air Bridge’ was more evocative. But, even today, if you mention ferrying cars by air, people recall vibration, noise and sometimes turbulence. But, they also remember efficiency and friendly courtesy, and will almost always smile fondly and say ‘Silver
City’!

* * *

I am grateful to Keith Kellett for permission to reprint this article, which has appeared previously in 'Best of British', 'The Log' (house magazine of BALPA) and 'Themestream'. 

Do you have memories of Channel crossings by air or sea in this era? Tell us about them by writing in the Guest Book/Notice Board

 

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