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Freddie Laker and the VC10

Freddie Laker is a famous name in British aviation history for starting his Skytrain low cost London-New York operation, laying the foundation for the current low cost operators throughout Europe and the USA. His background, a pilot and engineer who built up a large business from nothing, his flamboyance, his daring business deals and many other attributes made him famous. His links to the VC10 deserve some attention as well.



Freddie Laker in the BUA boardroom with models of the ten 1-11s and two VC10s he had ordered. This was a massive order for a small independent airline.
Photo via Recursive Publishing / A. Grzesik

The name of Freddie Laker (later Sir Freddie) is linked to the VC10 in several ways. He was the managing director of BUA between March 1962 and July 1965, but even before 1962 he was instrumental in arranging the BUA order for the first 10 BAC 1-11s, launching the type. As he was a firm believer in flying British built aircraft, he also ordered two VC10s for BUA, even before he had the routes to fly them on. He was on very good terms with BAC’s Sales Director, Geoffrey Knight, who had previously worked at Bristol and had sold Freddie Bristol Freighters and Britannias. Knight arranged a meeting between Freddie Laker and George Edwards during which they discussed the needs for the 1-11, and which left a very positive impression upon Edwards.

It was Laker who came up with the idea of putting a main deck freight door in the VC10. This would let BUA fill the aircraft, if not with a full complement of passengers, then with additional cargo to maximise the profitability of the flight. Part of the deal was that Freddie’s engineering concern, Aviation Traders Engineering or ATEL, would build these doors for BAC. The only thing left to do was to agree on a price for them.

Alistair Pugh spoke at the VC10’s fiftieth anniversary event at Brooklands about BUA, BCal and the VC10, and referred to this occasion as one of the few times that Freddie was outwitted in a deal. For BAC, costing the job was a major headache, as they had no idea how many they would sell, even though the RAF and other customers copied the freight door idea. At Weybridge, Knight had talked to several estimators and they had come up with a sum of £50,000 for installing a freight door. Knight knew that if he went into a meeting with Freddie with this figure, he would be lucky to walk out of it with £20,000. Laker was known for beating each negotiator down to the absolute minimum on every deal, which was how he had grown his business from very small beginnings to a large airline and engineering company.


The first freight door being lifted in place on G-ASIW.
Photo copyright BAE Systems / Brooklands Museum archives.

The ATEL designed and built freight door after installation on BUA's first VC10.
Photo copyright BAE Systems / Brooklands Museum archives.

Freddie Laker (centre) and Geoffrey Knight (right) with Lord Douglas of Kirtleside on the occasion of BUA's inaugural 1-11 flight to Genoa.
Photo via Recursive Publishing / A. Grzesik

To work out the deal, Knight and Laker walked from Laker’s office in Piccadilly down to a Spanish restaurant called Martinez, around the corner in Swallow Street, and settled down with a drink at the bar. Instead of starting at £50,000, Knight opened with a bid of £100,000 and as expected, Freddie started hacking away at this figure straight away. They discussed and haggled, and finally settled at £50,000. Feeling pretty pleased with himself, Knight couldn’t keep a smug look off his face as he relaxed after shaking Freddie’s hand on the deal. When he looked at his friend, Freddie suddenly realised that he had been had and exclaimed ‘You bastard, that’s what you had in mind all the time’.

Next to the freight doors, ATEL would also build and design the engine carrying pods as well as manufacture passenger seats for the VC10 and they advertised this in The Aeroplane magazine, as shown below.


This ad in The Aeroplane showed ATEL's involvement in the VC10 programme.

Once the first BUA VC10 was delivered (G-ASIW in September 1964), it started off on a promotional tour and Laker used the freight door to bring a borrowed Rolls-Royce. He had ATEL design and build a car lift, most likely inspired by earlier models that were built to get cars onto the ATEL converted Carvairs, but which also fit inside the VC10’s cargo hold so that a crew could assemble the lift and unload the Rolls in 30 minutes. This combination was shown at Farnborough and then set off for a 27,600 mile tour during which 119 take offs and landings were performed (at the same time enabling 11 BUA pilots to complete their conversion training on the type) and 1,192 guests were carried, including Zambia’s president. It was a mini British trade delegation that stopped off, unloaded the Rolls, promoted British built airliners and engines, had a good time and did it all again at the next airfield. When Laker had his own airline he did the same with the wide body DC-10, flying to Berlin, amongst other places, so that the local travel agents could see what they were selling.


Unloading the Rolls-Royce from G-ASIW at Entebbe, one of the stops on the African promotion tour.
Photo via Recursive Publishing / A. Grzesik

BUA didn’t have all that many routes but were actively lobbying for more, and this paid off when they took over the unprofitable South America routes from BOAC. This triggered a second promotion tour through the continent, after which Laker quipped that the VC10 was a real winner, you just had to “pour kerosene in one end, and champagne in the other end”. The VC10 enabled BUA to offer a very quick journey time to several major South American cities, and with the combined passenger and freight option they turned the routes that BOAC lost money on into a profitable operation. BUA also used the VC10s on trooping flights to the Middle East and Africa, cutting four hours off the travel time to Aden compared to the Britannias that were previously used on this route. During the years that Freddie Laker was Managing Director for BUA, the company expanded and consistently operated at a profit which was certainly attributable to the profitability of the VC10 and the drive of its MD.

Laker’s forte was buying aircraft on the cheap and finding a profitable job for them afterwards. After G-ARTA suffered its in-flight emergency on 31 December 1963 Freddie Laker was quick to phone Brian Trubshaw to find out if all was well with him, but also to ask 'how much will that one be going for now?’ Vickers didn’t want to let the prototype go yet, but several years later after the testing had finished, Laker did buy G-ARTA after it had been converted to airline spec, including a few updates such as the extended leading edge. By this time he was running Laker Airways, using 1-11s and ex-Qantas 707s, but he immediately leased G-ARTA to MEA as they needed the capacity and were already operating Ghana Airways 9G-ABP. Re-registered as OD-AFA it flew for MEA for a year, and upon returning from the lease, Freddie sold it on to his ex-employer British United Airways.


The prototype VC10, re-registered to OD-AFA for MEA but owned by Laker Airways.
Photo collection J. Hieminga

A strange connection that I found out about is the following: when I wrote an article about G-ASGO’s hijacking that left it heavily damaged at Schiphol Airport on 3rd March 1974, I noticed that the real aviation tragedy on that day was the crash of the Turkish Airlines DC-10 in the woods outside Paris. I learned only recently that this particular DC-10 was one of six that would originally have been delivered to ANA, but after a bribe from Lockheed (which later caused a huge corruption scandal) the order was canceled at the last minute. McDonnell-Douglas was able to sell three of the DC-10s to Turkish Airlines, including the one that crashed on 3rd March 1974, but they needed someone else to take on the other three. This led to a phone call from Sandy McDonnell that reached Freddie Laker at home at 2am (it was the middle of the day in the US of course) and a very good deal for Freddie on three DC-10s that enabled him to grow his Laker Airways and later start the famous Skytrain service to New York. But that’s another story.


Sources: Laker - The Glory Years of Sir Freddie Laker, Grzesik & Dix (2019), Fly Me, I'm Freddie, Eglin & Ritchie (1980), The History of British Caledonian Airways, Thaxter (2011).

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