Aviation Traders

1971 - 2140

 

Based at Southend from Apr 1949 to Jun 1976

Born as the brainchild of Freddie Laker, ATEL began life at Southend during 1949. Laker had previously moved his aircraft spares and leasingatel-ad company ATL from Bovingdon, where he had initially started business in 1947. With WWII having ended just two years earlier, there were still plenty of surplus RAF aircraft up for grabs. Indeed, with Britain severely lacking modern, home built airliners or freighters, Laker’s first major transaction would be the purchase of more than 40 ex-RAF Halifax bombers and hundreds of tons of spares, the aircraft of which he would ultimately convert into cargo planes. In fact, a good number of these aircraft had already started arriving at SEN as early as July 1948, no doubt in anticipation of Laker’s proposed move to the airport, while several more would turn up during 1949 and 1950.

Needless to say, several of these former bombers were quickly converted and put into service on the Berlin atel-workshopAirlift with Laker leasing them out while at the same time, providing engineering services for an equal cut of the profits. Some of them were also converted and sold abroad although in the end, about half of these aircraft would eventually end up with new owners, while those that had seen better days were summarily reduced to scrap by the end of 1950. In 1951, ATEL would go on to win a contract from Bristol, building as many as 50 centre wing sections for their 170 Freighters, which were turned out under the project designation of ATL.8.X. However, at this time and with Laker never resting on his laurels, his determination to get involved with operations would finally see him adding the floundering ‘Air Charter Ltd’ to his ever growing list of acquisitions. Quite naturally, ATEL would go on to provide all of the engineering needs for this airline too.

During the ’50s and ’60s, most of ATEL’s activities revolved around purchasing used aircraft that were then renovated and sold on, the conversion ofsuper-trader-g-ahno airframes for other airlines and the acquisition and subsequent breaking of tired airframes for spares which were then sold on. Where the former was concerned, by the end of 1950, ATEL had already overhauled several Vickers Vikings, while parts from non-airworthy Lancasters, a single Lincolnian and a small number of Yorks had been transformed into three serviceable aircraft that were later sold on for a decent profit. One of ATEL’s first major conversion projects involved the transformation of Avro Tudor airliners into what were later termed as ‘Super Traders’ – this involving the fitting of uprated engines, a large, side loading door and a number of other minor modifications. To accomplish this, the fuselage of Hermes G-ALEV was purchased to perform cargo door fitting trials on.

ATEL were not averse to tackling military types either and in August 1955, the company took on part of a huge contract to service and renovate 302 Prentice 2former USAF CL-13 Sabres that had been on loan to the RAF. While these would for the most end up at ATEL Stansted, the Southend branch provided services and engineers whenever they could. These aircraft would later be passed on to the Italian and Yugoslavian air forces. Then in 1956, Laker was given the opportunity to buy 252 ex-RAF Percival Prentice trainers which if everything went to plan, would be converted on demand into general aviation runabouts for private pilots. While less than 10% of these aircraft were eventually renovated and sold on as intended, Laker would not find himself out of pocket as the remainder which now stood in huge, broken piles would eventually be relieved of their valuable engines while the rest were melted down into ingots and sold for scrap.

It was the mid-50s that also saw ATEL’s one and only attempt to move into aircraft production with the design, development and construction of the ATL.90 Accountant, a medium sized turboprop airliner that the company hoped to offer as ag-atel-as replacement for  piston engined aircraft such as the DC-3 and the Viking. However, work went slowly and by the time the aircraft was ready, several other types from well established manufacturers such as Handley-Page, Fokker and Avro were vying to fill the same gap in the market and as a result, no orders were forthcoming and the aircraft never got beyond the prototype stage. It was in 1958 that Laker eventually decided to part with his aviation assets and sold them to Airwork which would later become the BUA behemoth. However, Laker was asked to stay on as a director which was just as well, because it was yet another of his unconventional ideas that would go on to firmly place the ATL name within the annuals of aviation history.

Aviation Trader’s crowning moment quite literally came about out of necessity and coupled with a desire to make the low profit, cross Channel car-ferry carv-g-apnh-senservices that were currently being serviced by the venerable B170 more efficient and more profitable, a new design emerged in the form of the ATL.98 Carvair. As such, ATEL’s Southend and Stansted bases would eventually go on to remove the front section of each donor aircraft and replace it with a rather bulbous and ungainly looking nose equipped with a large, side opening door. Thus, 19 elderly, C-54s and a couple of DC-4 aircraft were given a new lease of life and were converted into mixed passenger/vehicle freighters that could carry as many as 5 cars and 25 passengers back and forth across the Channel; the first of these being completed in 1960 and subsequently going into service at the beginning of 1962.

That said, with one problem being solved, another would then rear its head, that of getting vehicles into an aircraft whose cargo deck was around 9ft hylo-15from the ground. Several solutions were tried, including long planks or driving vehicles onto a truck and then onto the Carvair, but they were far from satisfactory and in some cases even highly dangerous. If ferry services were going to run efficiently, then vehicles needed to be loaded quickly and safely. However once again, Aviation Traders engineering innovation would come to the fore and resulted in the scissor lift or ‘Hylo’ – its descendents still being seen at airports around the world to this very day. In fact, over the years a good many of these lifts would be sold to air forces and airlines alike. Some examples include B.E.A and the Luftwaffe, both of which made numerous visits to SEN to collect and disperse them. You can read more about the Hylos by clicking here.

As the ’60s rolled on, ATEL undertook engine conversions on old propliners such as the Canadair North Star while some of the larger turboprop airliners would be converted into freighters. More specifically, ATEL would be called upon to fit several Bristol britannia-5x-uvhBritannias and two B.E.A Vickers Vanguards with large cargo doors, the latter examples being renamed as ‘Merchantman’ by B.E.A, who later converted the rest of their fleet at Heathrow using kits supplied by ATEL. Indeed, ATEL was well placed to provide such solutions considering their experience with the former Super Trader Tudors. The world’s Britannia’s would also continue to frequent Southend, no doubt as a result of many of its operators joining a ‘spares pool’ that ATEL had set up after procuring the rest of B.O.A.C’s remaining parts and most operators bar British Eagle sought to share the increasingly dwindling number of spares that were available. You can read more about the Britannia pool by clicking here.

With the ’60s coming to a close, Aviation Traders became technically involved in the conversion of De Havilland Heron feeder airliners for Saunderssaunders-st-27 Aircraft of Canada. This would involve the 4 piston engines being replaced with 2 Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprop engines, a stretching of both the rear cabin and of the nose which would accommodate a radar, plus a number of other modifications such as avionics upgrades. This work finally resulted in the Saunders ST-27. Meanwhile, Aviation Traders was also seriously looking at turning a glut of unwanted first generation jet fighters such as the Vampire into small business jets, although nothing eventually came of this project and while initially destined for Southend’s aircraft museum, the non-airworthy demonstrator XD527 finally ended up on the fire dump at Manston.

At the end of 1969, rival engineering company B.K.S finally closed its door and as such, ATEL took over bag-belt-prodtheir facility which was also conveniently located next to the ATEL hangar. During the 1970s, the company continued to produce parts for aircraft manufacturers, Britten Norman being one example, with ATEL making trim tabs for said company. Overhaul, repair and refinishing solutions would also be provided to many airlines and governments around the globe, especially where the aforementioned turboprops were concerned. Viscounts and Britannias were a common sight, while a good number of older, piston engined aircraft would also continue to frequent the facility. Rotor craft would also occasionally be handled too with Bristow’s helicopters making a good number of visits for various avionics upgrades and there was even a production line for airport ground handling equipment and vehicles too.

As the 70s progressed, more Vanguards and CL-44s began to arrive for conversion or overhaul, a good number of the later belonging to BAF’s owner Trans-Meridian who would later attempt to operate passenger services with them from SEN. However, cl-44-g-azin-overhaulbecause of Southend’s short runway, these operations were later moved to Stansted and as such, this disadvantage also begin to limit the types that ATEL could also work on. Then in 1976, ATEL’s owner British and Commonwealth sold the company to Aer Lingus which took the decision to move all of its operations to its much larger base located at Stansted where the company would receive a well needed cash-injection and relaunch the company brand. However as a result of this move, its 27 year relationship with SEN would come to a somewhat sad end, leaving SEN a much quieter and emptier place as a consequence. As something of a footnote, Royal Aircraft Establishment Viscount 837 XT575 would be the very last aircraft to enter and exit the ATEL hangars before their closure.

 

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