Freddie Laker

Freddie Laker

Founder and Managing Director of Aviation Traders Ltd (ATL & ATEL) from 1947 to 1959

Managing Director of Air Charter Ltd from 1951 to 1959

Co-Founder and Co-Director of Air ADS Ltd from 1952 to 1956

Certainly one of SEN’s and undoubtably one of the UK’s most bombastic business personalities came in the form of Freddie Laker who spent much of his life involved with aviation in one form or another. As a lad, he grew up in Canterbury, Kent and was summarily dismissed from school, after which he went to work for aircraft manufacturer Short Brothers at their Rochester factory. With the onset of WWII, Laker was still too young to take part in the fighting however, at the age of 19 he joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a move that no doubt resulted in giving him much of the inspiration for his post-war ventures. After the cessation of hostilities, he went on to spend a short period of time with BEA and London Aero Motor Services, although at the time, he was trying to figure out a way to get his hands on some of the war surplus aircraft that were being sold off at bargain basement prices.

Enter Bobby Sanderson, Laker’s friend and confidant with whom he would go on to share his idea with. Being as the only obstacle to Laker’s plan was money, Sanderson was more than happy to stump up the cash, which could be repaid once Laker had brought his idea to fruition and thus, Aviation Traders was born at Bovingdon in 1947. Aviation Traders Ltd was initially comprised of just one company known also as ATL (Aviation Traders Leasing) which dealt with aircraft sales and hire. However, things didn’t really get going until almost two years later in 1949, when Laker finally decided to move his company to Southend where he opened a second branch of the company known as ATEL, which would tend to the engineering and aircraft conversion side of the business. Needless to say, he would also invest in other aeronautical businesses and while Aviation Traders was his main concern, he also became the founder and director of Skegness (Airport) Ltd which ran charters and later taxi services at this location from 1948 onwards.

However, it was at Southend that Freddie Laker would go on to make his fortune, firstly by purchasing a large number of ex-RAF Halifaxes and Haltons (along with hundreds of tons of spares) and converting a number of them for use in the Berlin Airlift. Later he would buy an even larger number of Percival Prentices and while things didn’t go exactly to plan, the scrap value of these aircraft, plus the parts that could be salvaged from them made Laker a very rich man indeed. His engineering business also went from strength to strength, offering unique solutions with the fitting of large cargo doors, freighter conversions and full, aircraft renovations being just some of the work that ATEL involved itself with. However at the time, Laker was still lacking an airline wing for his company and in 1951, he was given the opportunity to purchase the failing Air Charter Ltd. He subsequently bought this company and within a couple of years had turned its fortunes around going on to make around a million pounds per year, per aircraft from government contracts. However, Laker would by no means rest on his laurels and as such, he had quietly been casting a somewhat curious eye over Silver City’s success with its cross-Channel, car ferry services.

It was at the end of 1954, that he finally decided to go into competition with Silver City and as such, began proving flights to Calais with the venerable Bristol Freighter. These flights proved to be immensely successful and in 1955, to the usual kind of fanfare that Laker had become renowned for, he flew the Mayor of Southend, his ceremonial vehicle and a number of other dignitaries to France where they would meet the Mayor of Calais to celebrate the inaugural flight of what would come to be the first of the ‘Air Bridge’ routes. These routes were later expanded to include Ostend and Rotterdam and by the end of the ’50s, Bristol 170s could be seen coming and going at Southend all day long, especially during the peak, summer months. However, it was during this period that Laker eventually decided to part with his many acquisitions and as such sold both Aviation Traders and Air Charter (along with its ‘Air Bridge’ arm) to Airwork, which then merged with Hunting Clan to become the British United Airways behemoth.

However, this would not be the last that Southend would hear of Freddie Laker by any means. In 1960, a year after selling his businesses, he was appointed Managing Director of BUA, although he still retained a soft spot for the car ferry services that were now officially operating as ‘Channel Air Bridge’ from Southend. Having previously failed to replace the ubiquitous C-47/DC-3 with the ATL Accountant, he was convinced that his idea for a Bristol 170 replacement would work. Operating sometimes at a loss due to their limited payloads, the Bristol Freighters had effectively come to the end of their useful service lives on the car ferry routes and as such, Laker devised a plan whereby ATEL would purchase large and cheap, piston engined airliners and convert them for car ferry use. As a consequence, the ATL Carvair was born and being able to carry almost twice the number of cars and passengers compared to the venerable Bristol, vehicle ferry services would once again become profitable, at least for a time.

Laker finally left BUA in 1965 to begin his own private venture, namely Laker Airlines and it was at this point that his relationship with Southend would finally come to an end… and the rest as they say, ‘is history’. Indeed, even today, Freddie Laker is still considered to be one of the prime progenitors of the no-frills, budget airline and will be remembered for his many contributions to the aviation industry as a whole, receiving a knighthood in recognition of this in 1977. Sir Freddie’s final business venture finally closed its doors in 2005 and he sadly passed away less than a year later on the 6th February 2006 at the age of 83. In recognition of the important roll that he played in the history of British aviation, during the ’90s, Virgin Airlines named one of their 747s in memory of him, while the bar on the upper floor of the new, London Southend Airport terminal has also been somewhat appropriately named ‘Laker’s Bar’.

 

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