Sunday, 6 October 2013

Central African Airways and the Bristol Freighter

By Jeremy Boyd (RhAF)

For a short time during 1948/1949, Central African Airways operated two Bristol Type 170 Mk 21E Freighter aircraft. 

The Bristol Type 170 was available from the manufacturer in two basic versions: the all-passenger Wayfarer or the Freighter, which could accommodate both freight and passengers. It’s been suggested in other publications that the two CAA aircraft were Wayfarers but this is not strictly true. They were indeed laid down as Wayfarers but completed as Freighters. 

To give it it’s full description, the Bristol Freighter Mk 21E was a robust, no-frills convertible passenger/freight version of the Bristol Type 170 that incorporated a freight area ahead of a passenger cabin separated by a moveable bulkhead, what we would today call a Combi. The freight area was accessed through two large clamshell doors in the nose enabling the straight-in loading of large items of freight, especially vehicles. 

Although respected publications have it that these were purchased new from the manufacturer by Central African Airways (and even stipulate the purchase price of £49,892 each), other information is that they were actually the property of the British Ministry of Supply and leased to Central African Airways, probably as an experiment to assess the southern/central African airfreight market for oversize loads and general freight work. In this regard there was a particular emphasis on the movement of mining equipment and related heavy machinery between the Copperbelt and South Africa, as well as equipment and machinery related to the agricultural sector of both Northern and Southern Rhodesia. 

But, as has been said, these aircraft were flexible and CAA operated them variously in all-freight configuration, a mixed passenger/freight configuration with 16 or 24 seats and even in an all-passenger 32-seat configuration. In all-passenger configuration the Freighters would in effect have been competing with CAA's own fleet of Viking aircraft which had a similar passenger capacity. There would also have been some maintenance commonality between the Freighters and the Vikings (both types were powered by the Bristol Hercules engine) but all-in-all the Bristol seems an odd choice for CAA and one has to wonder what it’s ‘hot and high’ operating characteristics were like.

On it’s delivery flight to CAA, the first of these (VP-YHW) stopped off to be displayed at Nchanga Airport, Chingola, where, on 31st July and 1st August 1948, the Flying Club of Northern Rhodesia was holding it’s air rally. Following the show, it flew on through to Salisbury, arriving on 2nd August 1948. 

Shortly thereafter, on 15th August 1948, the first (and allegedly, only) car carried by air in Southern Africa up to that time was transported on one of the Freighters from Salisbury to Johannesburg. How valid this claim is one can only speculate because South African charter airline, Suidair, had Bristol Freighters as far back as 1947 and must surely have carried a car.

The second aircraft, before being delivered to CAA, was displayed by Bristol at the SBAC Show of 7-12 September 1948, the first to be held at Farnborough, becoming VP-YHZ in Rhodesia. 

Neither Freighter ever seems to have carried full or proper CAA colours, rather they were operated in a hybrid colour scheme which was essentially the Bristol ‘house’ colours with CAA titling, logo and local registration added. This perhaps supports a perception that they were never going to be with CAA for very long!

On 1st September 1948, CAA used the Freighter to introduce what they claimed was the first scheduled air freight service to operate in South Africa. Again, care must be taken with such a claim and the crux may be the word “scheduled” in this context because, as has been mentioned, Suidair International Airlines, a Johannesburg based ‘charter’ airline, briefly operated two similar Bristol’s as far back as 1947, one of which was a Freighter version. 

In any event, the CAA service linked Salisbury and Lusaka with Ndola, Bulawayo and Johannesburg as well as Blantyre, Fort Jameson, Kasama and Abercorn. This Freighter serving the Copperbelt was known as the Copper Trader and was promoted as a joint passenger/cargo service offering accommodation for 24 passengers. It initially linked Johannesburg and the Copperbelt via Bulawayo, though a Salisbury stop was introduced later.

Typical loads included heavy machinery between the Union of South Africa and the Copperbelt, tractors between Lusaka and Fort Jameson, motor cars and household goods from Salisbury to Nyasaland.

In the first month of operation 31,000 kgs of cargo was moved and this increased to 36,679 kgs in October.

Flight magazine reported in October 1948 that a Bristol Freighter of Central African Airways had transported a Ferguson tractor from Salisbury to Lusaka in Northern Rhodesia for a farm demonstration. 

A Kenya Trader was also introduced and on the inaugural flight from Nairobi to Salisbury, the Bristol arrived at Belvedere with 800 kilos of cargo and 22 passengers.

While they had the Freighters CAA obviously experimented with equipment, routes and schedules for it was reported that the Copper Trader and Kenya Trader services provided additional passenger accommodation on those routes, compensating for a reduction in the Copper Viking and Kenya Viking services.

On 27 November 1948 the Copper Trader carried the fuselages of two small aircraft on the Bulawayo-Johannesburg sector and on the return flight it collected a grand piano in Bulawayo for transportation to Fort Jameson. It was thought that this was the first time a grand piano had flown across Rhodesian skies.

Flight International magazine reported that due to the “considerable interest (that) has been aroused by the two New Type 170 aircraft in service with Central African Airways”, a factory fresh Type 170 Bristol Freighter, G-AILZ named African Enterprise, would leave England on Tuesday, 4th January 1949 on a 17,000 mile demonstration tour of Africa. Demonstrations were planned for the three operators East African Airways, South African Airways and West African Airways. 

As interesting as the variety of loads carried by the CAA Freighters might have been, the question remains whether the services were commercially viable. At this time in it‘s history, CAA was, rightly or wrongly, getting a bad press for financial mismanagement and questions were being asked if their fleet was, as we would say today, ‘fit for purpose’. 

Additionally, some reports suggest that CAA experienced serviceability issues with the Freighters and this is backed up somewhat by info that when VP-YHZ was returned off the lease, the aircraft had to have both main tyres and the port engine replaced, the latter because metal particles were found in the oil filter.

In May 1949, CAA submitted a Programme of Operations to the Air Authority for continued use of the Freighters, which included introduction of new routes (Lindi-Dar, for example) and experiments with cheap fare services, but the Authority felt these would compete with the Corporation’s own Viking and Dove operations and should not be undertaken. 

It seems that the apparent desire of CAA to continue with the Freighters, nor the enthusiasm that the Bristol Aeroplane Company had for the sales prospects of the type in Africa as a direct result of the CAA operation, was enough to convince the local authority to keep the aircraft in Rhodesia.

Thus CAA took steps to terminate the hire of the aircraft, returning them as soon as the C of A overhauls had been completed, as was required under the hire agreement. 

The aircraft left the territory in July (VP-YHW) and September 1949 (VP-YHZ) having spent barely a year with the Corporation. The aforementioned African sales tour does however seem to have achieved some positive results for the manufacturer because the aircraft both transferred to West African Airways (WAAC) of Lagos, Nigeria, becoming VR-NAD and VR-NAA “Niger” respectively. 

Over a six year period until the mid-Fifties, six Bristol Freighters passed through the hands of this airline, though two were lost in accidents, including VR-NAD (ex CAA, VP-YHW), which suffered a catastrophic structural failure in flight in February 1955.

According to a 1951 article in Commerce of Rhodesia magazine, attributed to the Chairman of CAA, Col. Sir Ellis Robins, CAA were forced to part with the Bristols as a result of BOAC “expert advice” to the governments of the territory, which was that CAA needed to reduce the number of different types of aircraft it then held. Since BOAC itself was hardly the picture of ideal airline management, this inevitably raised a few eyebrows locally.

The brief service of the two Bristol Freighters of CAA, perhaps understandably, only ever get a small mention in the history of the airline, or indeed in Rhodesian aviation history generally, and photographs of them are rare.

I suppose there can be few, if any, people around today who would have direct experience of these particular aircraft but if anyone reading this has additional information, anecdotes or personal recollections (and especially photographs) please share them as I am interested in recording more about these aircraft.

Flight Global (Flight International)
Air Britain (Historians)
The Rhodesia Herald
Commerce of Rhodesia magazine.


Thanks to Jeremy for sharing his photograph and memories with ORAFs.
Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at orafs11@gmail.comVisit  to view this article on line.  To view the Blog Home Page - Please Click Here (Please visit our previous posts and archives

Further photograph received from Rogan Taylor

Thanks Rogan.

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At 9 October 2013 at 11:31 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Christopher Hudson (RhAF) Writes:-

In August 1948 I flew in a Bristol Freighter from Salisbury to Chileka. Very noisy, I still remember. It must have been one of VP-YHW's first flights for CAA. My parents had just moved from India to Nyasaland and I came out for my summer holidays from my senior schooling in England. The first post-war Olympic Games had just got underway in England. The trip from England to Rhodesia & back was in a Trek Airways Viking - an adventure in itself.

At 20 October 2013 at 06:41 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

John Pettit (BA) Writes:-

I didn't think I’d be writing back so soon, but Jeremy’s article made fascinating reading – and reminded me of an apocryphal story about the Bristol 170:

PanAm pilot on radio, after seeing a, then new, Bristol Freighter for the first time:
“Say, buddy, what do you call that aeroplane?”
Bristol pilot, proud of his new aircraft:
“This is a Bristol Type 170B freighter.”
Pause, whilst PanAm pilot takes this all in, then:
“You mean they had 169 previous attempts, and that’s what they finished up with?”

In truth, as Jeremy’s article tells it, it was a great workhorse for its day. In fact my cousin was an Air Hostess on the UK service from Kent to France, so flying must run in the family.

At 7 October 2014 at 22:35 , Blogger mr Brassyboy said...

Hi I was interested in this article, while I was researching my grandfather s loss of life while testing a170 freighter off of Dorset. My mother was never really told what happened. So trying to find out some information

At 21 June 2018 at 15:54 , Blogger Unknown said...

My Father-in-law, a flight engineer on Vickers Viking VP-YEY, belonging to Central African Airways and which crashed in Tanzania in 1953 was AFT Ivison.
Does anyone have any records whatsoever of this sad incident in which all 13 souls aboard were killed? If you have anything at all, especially pictures, IO would be so grateful to hear from you. My name is Peter and my mail address


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