Article: Football Teams, Cars and Beef Were All in a Day’s Work

  • Image of Bristol Freighter nose open for loading/unloading

    With a hold equal to two-thirds of a railway car, Bristol Freighter earned a reputation for reliability

    Altitude, Summer, 2013

    A “work horse” and “a freighter car with wings” were phrases used to extol the high-freight volume and low- cost virtues of the Bristol Freighter in the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s advertising in Canadian Aviation.

    In one of the first advertisements for the Bristol Freighter, published October, 1945, just two months before its prototype flight, Canadian operators were promised that by mid-1946 this new aircraft “will give you many times the cargo space and carrying capacity… at appreciably lower cost per ton-mile.”

    Seven years later, Bristol’s advertising said the Freighter, having been “tested and proved in areas of extreme Canadian temperatures,” was flying in every continent around the world, having been purchased by six air forces, including the RCAF, and by approximately 20 commercial operators.

    Bristol was so enamoured with the Freighter’s potential that in early 1947 it sponsored a 41,000 mile demonstration tour that over five months visited 75 cities in 25 countries. The itinerary included Iceland, Canada (with stops at Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Victoria, and Vancouver) and then to the U.S. and South America. The flight crew was headed by Tim Sims, a former bush and ferry command pilot from Montreal.

    In its appeal to Canadian operators, Bristol said the Freighter was “ideally adapted to bush flying, air freight or passenger services. It provides – power for power – more cargo space and carrying capacity than any other cargo aircraft.” It claimed that cargo space was equal to two-thirds of a railway freight car, and that “unobstructed access afforded by wide, nose-opening doors” made it possible to carry a wide variety of cargo shapes and weights.

    So what kind of cargo was loaded “through the nose” of this “freight car with wings”?

    There were a couple of “show-off” examples during the 1947 demonstration tour: On the Edmonton to Yellowknife flight, the Freighter carried 7,400 pounds that was billed as the heaviest single load ever flown there. In British Columbia, a 28-man football team was flown to Victoria.

    After the 1947 world tour, Sims and the demo aircraft were chartered to Canadian Pacific Airlines to carry 200 tons to a new mining town on the Labrador/Quebec border. This contract got off to a bad start when the Freighter broke through the surface of the snow runway fracturing a landing strut; it took four days for replacement parts to arrive from England and another two days to make repairs, demonstrating Bristol’s claim that the Freighter was easy to service.

    Sims and the aircraft were then sent to Venezuela to carry 450 tons of fresh meat from the Llanos prairies to alleviate a meat shortage in Caracas, 320 miles away. The Freighter logged 185 daylight flying hours over five weeks in weather that varied between torrential rain and tropical sunshine. Runways were either a morass of mud or a cloud of churning dust.

    In Australia, another meat airlift by the Bristol Freighter was a huge success. In the 1951 demonstration project, two million pounds of beef were flown from cattle ranches around Kimberley to the shipping centre of Wyndam, North Australia. Prior to “air beef” cattle were herded 300 overland miles to market with a consequent loss in quality. Earlier attempts to airlift beef were hampered by the lack of suitable aircraft – the Bristol Freighter cancelled this lack. Nose-loading made it easy to handle the sides of fresh beef and the Freighter could operate from existing air fields carrying up to six tons of beef. At the time, it was envisaged that this “air beef” project would ultimately enable Northern Australia to rival the Argentine as a meat-producing region.

    The Bristol Freighter was used in the first ever air-to-ground television transmission in 1950, treating British TV viewers to aerial views of London and to a simulated “attack” by a formation of jet fighters. For this experiment, the rear doors of the Freighter were removed for the television camera mounts. The results were described as “patchy” but encouraging.

    Bristol Freighters were also used to ferry cars. The best-known example was the aerial service between France and England that was so promising that “some observers predict that it will relegate the channel tunnel project very much to the background.” An airline called Silver City used Bristol Freighters in its first season of scheduled service in 1949. Ten years later, the firm had completed 125,000 ferry flights carrying 215,000 vehicles and 750,000 passengers; at its peak Silver City operated 222 daily ferry flights across the English Channel. Increasing competition from roll-on/roll-off ferries and the lack of suitable replacements for the ageing Bristol Freighters ultimately grounded the service. Meanwhile, the dream to tunnel under the English Channel (which was first proposed as early as 1802), became reality in 1994 after six years
    of construction.

    In Canada, there was a proposal to operate a Bristol Freighter automobile ferry service between Vancouver and Victoria in 1951.

    Image of ad for Bristol Freighter air service

    One of the hurdles that shipping companies in New Zealand face is crossing Cook Strait, which runs between the North and South islands. Straits Air Freight Express (SAFE) was established in 1950 to bridge this gap by providing an efficient freight link from one island to the other. It flew Bristol Freighters over the 75-mile gap. Eleven Freighters were still in operation with SAFE in 1977.

    It was this service that developed what could be a precursor to today’s containerized shipping. Cargo was packed onto pallets, called “cargons,” that exactly fit the Freighter’s cargo bay. These pallets moved on and off the Freighter with the aid of a trolley system that consisted of two parallel tracks with two traversing dollies oriented at right angles to the track. The Bristol Freighter taxied to the track, opened its nose doors and one of the traversing dollies lined up to roll off the inbound “cargons.” The dolly then moved aside so outbound “cargons” from the second dolly rolled on. Turnaround time was typically
    10 minutes.

    One example of the passenger version of the Bristol 170 was West African Airlines’ 1952 scheduled service between Accra, Ghana, and Lagos, Nigeria. The air trip was three hours long, much faster than two days at sea or three days by bus. Dress on these passenger flights, which cost $12, varied from European lounge suits to regional ethnic costume.

    This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2013 edition of Altitude.

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