Bristol Freighter

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Type 170 Freighter / Wayfarer
Bristol Freighter at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre.jpg
Bristol Freighter of SAFE at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
Role Cargo aircraft
Manufacturer Bristol Aeroplane Company
First flight 2 December 1945
Introduction 1946
Primary user Silver City Airways
Produced 1945 - 1958
Number built 214
Variants Bristol Superfreighter

The Bristol Type 170 Freighter was a British twin-engine aircraft designed and built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company as both a freighter and airliner, although its best known use is as an air ferry to carry cars and their passengers over relatively short distances.

Design and development[edit]

Bristol Freighter operated by Aer Lingus being loaded through the clamshell nose doors in 1952

The Bristol Type 170 was designed to Air Ministry Specifications 22/44 and C.9/45 originally as a rugged, heavy-duty transport to operate from unimproved airstrips. After the end of the Second World War the design was adapted by the Bristol Chief Designer A. E. Russell and his design team as a rugged, heavy-duty aircraft. It was an all-metal, twin-engine high-wing monoplane, built without the use of expensive alloys with a minimum of machined parts. The square-sectioned fuselage was designed to be clear of internal obstructions. The flight deck was high behind the fuselage nose, accessed via a fixed vertical ladder on the side of the cargo bay.

The Freighter was a somewhat bulbous and cumbersome-looking aircraft. Like the more slender prewar Bristol Bombay, it was a high-wing monoplane with fixed undercarriage, the main gear legs supported by substantial vertical struts beneath the Bristol Hercules radial engines and horizontally from the lower edge of the (slab-sided) fuselage. The cockpit sat atop the forward fuselage, with two large clamshell doors in the nose, making the unpressurised fuselage somewhat breezy; one pilot described the aircraft as "40 thousand rivets flying in close formation."[1]

The prototype, registered G-AGPV, first flew at Filton on 2 December 1945; it was an empty shell without nose doors.

Operational history[edit]

Bristol Freighter, Liverpool 1961

The second prototype and the first 34-seat Wayfarer, registered G-AGVB, first flew on 30 April 1946, and began proving flights in the colours of Channel Islands Airways. It carried over 10,000 passengers in under six months. The third aircraft, registered G-AGVC, was the first Freighter I and had fully operating nose doors. After a number of demonstration flights around the world, the Bristol 170 entered full production. One of the first sales was to the Argentine Air Force, which ordered 15 aircraft.

Silver City Airways Freighter 32 loading a car for Cherbourg at Southampton in September 1954

The managing director of Silver City Airways was Wing Commander Griffith James Powell, who realised that he could adapt the Bristol Freighter to fly passengers with their cars from Britain to Continental Europe and Jersey. This "air ferry" would allow Britons on holiday to avoid lengthy waits for the sea ferries. On the 14 July 1948, the airline made the first flight with a car, from Lympne Airport in Kent to Le Touquet on the northern coast of France.[2]

A Silver City Airways Bristol Freighter, viewed from under the wing of an Avro York at Berlin-Tempelhof, 1954.

In 1953, production of the freighter was moved to Whitney Straight's Western Airways factory at the airport in Weston-super-Mare. A lengthened version, the Freighter 32, was introduced, which featured movable wooden partitions in the cargo compartment. It could be configured to carry either three 14-foot cars and 20 passengers or two large size American cars and 12 passengers, the passenger seats being in the rear section of the fuselage.[3] Silver City Airways dubbed this variant the Superfreighter and subsequently built an airport named "Ferryfield" at Lydd in Kent, beginning air ferry services in 1955. In the same year, Channel Air Bridge started operations from Southend, with four Bristol Freighters flying to Calais.

The last two freighters of the 214 built were delivered in 1958, one to New Zealand in February and the last aircraft to Dan-Air in March 1958. The New Zealand aircraft was delivered to SAFE, which eventually operated one of the largest fleets of Freighters. One of the lengthened aircraft, registered G-AMWA, had 60 seats fitted and was known as a Super Wayfarer.

Other civil uses[edit]

In New Zealand SAFE Air (Straits Air Freight Express) moved rail freight from Wellington (the North Island) to Blenheim (the South Island) and back, using Bristol Freighters, starting in 1951. The airline later reconfigured its aircraft to accept palletised cargo loaded on patented "cargons". This was a first anywhere in the aviation world.

A Bristol 170 Series 31 of SAFE Air at Auckland International Airport in 1973

Cargons were loaded near the rail yards and their load was calculated and arranged to remain within the aircraft's load and centre of gravity limits. They were then trucked to the airport and placed on the Freighter using a mechanical loading device. The loader accepted cargons from horizontal-tray road vehicles and then raised them to the level of the aircraft's cargo deck on electrically powered screw-jacks. The pallets could then be rolled into the nose of the aircraft. Other adaptations allowed the carrying of horses and other high-value large animals.

Freighters were the major link between the Chatham Islands and mainland New Zealand until Armstrong Whitworth Argosy aircraft replaced them. SAFE Air developed a soundproofed "container" for the half of the aircraft given over to passengers on these flights. Bristol 170s were still in commercial use with SAFE until the late 1970s.

Military uses[edit]

Royal Canadian Air Force Bristol 170 31M of the RCAFs European-based 1st Air Division in 1966

In military service, Bristol Freighters were operated by the air forces of Argentina, Australia, Burma, Canada, Iraq, Pakistan and New Zealand. Bristol Freighters were operated briefly by the Pakistan Air Force. After withdrawal, some of the Pakistan aircraft were bought by SAFE Air and used in New Zealand. The Royal Canadian Air Force used five Freighters to carry spares and supplies between the UK and their bases in France and West Germany.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force ordered 12 Mk 31M Freighters in the late 1940s. RNZAF Freighters ranged as far as supplying the New Zealand Army in Malaya, the British High Commissions (and other support staff) in the Maldives, Ceylon, India and Nepal, performing Far East Air Force tasks in Malaya (often when other aircraft types were unserviceable owing to maintenance problems) and Hong Kong. They ran a highly reliable military shuttle service for allies in Thailand during the Vietnam War and served several other roles, being adapted for—amongst other things—aerial top dressing experiments, although to avoid competition with private enterprise, the New Zealand government did not use them in that role.

Final days[edit]

The New Zealand Freighters were retired from military use when replaced by Hawker Siddeley Andovers in the 1970s. After retirement, a number of smaller local operators briefly flew Freighters. Some were exported to Canada. A SAFE Air Freighter is preserved in taxiable condition at Blenheim and another at the Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum in Christchurch. A third is on display at Founders Historical Park in Nelson, and a fourth is being restored at Ardmore near Auckland. Other Freighter airframes around New Zealand now serve as novelty tea-rooms, backpacker hostels, and motel rooms, such as ex-NZ5906 (c/n 13059) in Otorohanga.[4]

One Freighter was in service in turn with British Ministry of Supply (G-AIMI then WB482), the RAAF (A81-1) and subsequently went into commercial use in Australia until 1978 after which it went on to become a museum exhibit and was given over to the RAAF museum at Point Cook, Victoria, Australia in 1988.

Bristol Freighter 31M in Norcanair markings at the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 2007

Bristol freighter Mk 31M G-BISU (c/n 13218) was operated by Instone Airline at Stansted, Essex, UK, for a number of years. This was an ex-RNZAF aircraft and left Ardmore on 2 March 1981 for its 86-hour ferry flight to the UK. It subsequently flew its first charter flight on 3 August 1981 delivering two racehorses to Deauville. This role of flying livestock was to take up half a year, while other work included carriage of oil drilling machinery, car parts, newspapers and mail. Re-registered as C-FDFC, in 1996 it crashed on takeoff with the crew escaping, but was essentially a write-off. The captain, John Duncan, and co-pilot Malcolm Cutter reported that the aircraft entered a severe yaw after takeoff, which was uncontrollable despite use of full opposite aileron and rudder control.[5]

The last Freighter in service, which flew for Instone Airline then later returned to New Zealand, was bought from surplus by Hawkair in Terrace, British Columbia, Canada. In 2004, this aircraft undertook its final flight to the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta.

An example of the Mark 31M, CF-WAE, ex Royal Canadian Air Force 9699, is displayed at the Western Canada Aviation Museum. It was last flown by Norcanair.

Argentine Air Force Type 170, displayed at the "Museo Nacional de Aeronautica" (National Aeronautics Museum)

One of the Freighters operated by the Argentine Air Force, TC-330, is displayed at the Museo Nacional de Aeronáutica de Argentina, in Morón, Buenos Aires, Argentina.


Freighter Mk I
Utility transport Series I or Freighter with a strengthened floor and hydraulically operated nose doors.
Freighter Mk IA
Mixed-traffic variant with 16-passenger seats
Freighter Mk IB
Variant of Mk I for British European Airways
Freighter Mk IC
Variant of Mk IA for British European Airways
Freighter Mk ID
Variant of Mk IA for British South American Airways
Wayfarer Mk II
Airliner (passenger variant) Series II or Wayfarer. Nose doors were omitted and additional windows were added.
Wayfarer Mk IIA
Variant of Mk II with 32 seats
Wayfarer Mk IIB
Variant of Mk IIA for British European Airways
Wayfarer Mk IIC
Variant of Mk II with 20 seats and baggage hold
Freighter Mk XI
Variant of Mk I with 108 ft (32.92 m) wing and extra tankage
Freighter Mk XIA
Mixed-traffic version of Mk IX
Freighter Mk 21
More powerful engined version
Freighter Mk 21E
Convertible version of Mk 21 with 32 removable seats
Freighter Mk 31
Variant of Mk 21 with larger tailfin
Freighter Mk 31E
Convertible version of Mk 31
Freighter Mk 31M
Military version of Mk 31 with provision for supply dropping
Freighter Mk 32
Higher-capacity version with fuselage lengthened by 5 ft (1.52 m)
Type 179 Freighter
Unbuilt project. Twin-boom version. Not built
Type 179A Freighter
Unbuilt project. The aircraft was intended to have an unswept tail and a ramp-loading door.
Type 216 Freighter
Unbuilt project. Car ferry version. It was intended to be powered by two Roll-Royce Dart turboprop engines.


Civil operators[edit]

  • Argentine Civil Aeronautics Board
Bristol 170 31 of Air Express Australia in 1970
  • Shell Company of Ecuador
  • Air Atlas
  • Air Djibouti (operated in French Somaliland)
  • Air Fret
  • Air Outremer
  • Cie Air Transport
  • Cie des Transportes Aériens Intercontinentaux
  • Corse Air
  • Société Aérienne du Littoral
  • Société Indochinoise de Transport Aériens
  • Transportes Aériens Reunis
  • LTU
  • Panavia Ltd
  • Societe Avio Transporti Torino
  • Air Laos
 New Zealand
 Saudi Arabia
 South Africa
  • Suidair operated one Bristol Wayfarer.
  • Trafik-Turist-Transportflyg
 United Kingdom

Military operators[edit]

Accidents and incidents[edit]

Sixty-eight of the 214 Freighters built were destroyed or damaged beyond economical repair in accidents. At least 45 of these were fatal, resulting in the deaths of at least 385 passengers and crew.[7]

Specifications (Freighter Mk 32)[edit]

Data from [8]

General characteristics

  • Crew: two
  • Length: 73 ft 4 in (22.4 m)
  • Wingspan: 108 ft 0 in (32.92 m)
  • Height: 25 ft 0 in (7.62 m)
  • Wing area: 1487 ft2 (138.13 m2)
  • Empty weight: 29,950 lb (13,404 kg)
  • Gross weight: 44,000 lb (19,958 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Bristol Hercules 734 14-cylinder sleeve-valve radial piston engine, 1,980 hp (1,476 kW) each each


  • Maximum speed: 225 mph (362 km/h)
  • Range: 820 miles (1,320 km)
  • Service ceiling: 24,500 ft (7,470 m)

See also[edit]

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era


  1. ^ Donovan, Don. "Life and Times at RAAF Butterworth 1967–1970." RAF Butterworth/Penang Association, Autumn 2006.
  2. ^ Francis, Devon. "World's First Air Ferry For Cars". Popular Science, July 1950, pp. 103–106.
  3. ^ "British Air Ferry Takes Cars Across English Channel." Popular Mechanics, August 1954, p. 94.
  4. ^ "Woodlyn Park, Otorohanga, New Zealand." Retrieved: 13 November 2010.
  5. ^ "AAIB Accident Report: C-FDFC." Retrieved: 13 November 2010.
  6. ^ Eastwood and Roach 1991, p. 40.
  7. ^ "Bristol 170." Aviation Safety Net. Retrieved: 12 January 2013.
  8. ^ The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aircraft 1985, p. 954.


External links[edit]