British Caledonian

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British Caledonian
British caledonian 80s logo.svg
IATA ICAO Callsign
Ceased operations1988 (taken over by British Airways)
HubsLondon Gatwick Airport
Subsidiariesseveral, including Cal Air International (1985–1987, joint with Rank Organisation)
Fleet size26 jet aircraft as of 21 December 1987
Destinations40+ as of 21 December 1987
(British Isles, Continental Europe, West Africa, Southern Africa, Middle East, Far East, North America South Africa)
Company sloganLet's go British Caledonian. (1970s)
We never forget you have a choice. (1980s)
Parent companyCaledonian Airways Ltd
(1970–1981), Caledonian Aviation Group PLC (1982–1985), British Caledonian Group plc (1986–1987)
HeadquartersLondon Gatwick Airport
Caledonian House, Lowfield Heath, Crawley, West Sussex, UK (1981–1987)
Key peopleSir Adam Thomson,
John de la Haye,
Sir Peter Masefield,
Alastair Pugh,
Capt. P.A. MacKenzie,
David Coltman,
Ian Ritchie,
Trevor Boud,
Leonard N. Bebchick,
Frank A. Hope,
Dennis H. Walter

British Caledonian (BCal) was a private, British independent airline, operating out of Gatwick Airport in south-east England during the 1970s and 1980s. It was created as an alternative to the British government-controlled corporation airlines and was described as the "Second Force" in the 1969 Edwards report. It was formed by the UK's second-largest, independent charter airline Caledonian Airways taking over British United Airways (BUA), then the largest British independent airline and the United Kingdom's leading independent scheduled carrier.

The BUA takeover enabled Caledonian to realise its long-held ambition to transform itself into a scheduled airline. The merged entity eventually became the UK's foremost independent, international scheduled airline.

A series of major financial setbacks during the mid-1980s combined with the airline's inability to grow sufficiently to reach a viable size put the airline at serious risk of collapse. BCal began looking for a merger partner to improve its competitive position. In December 1987, British Airways (BA) gained control of the airline. The Caledonian name and livery was then used to rebrand BA's Gatwick-based subsidiary British Airtours as Caledonian Airways.


1970s logo

The Edwards Committee was formed in 1967 to look at the future of British aviation. Its report (British Air Transport in the Seventies) published in May 1969 made a number of recommendations. One of them was that a "second force" airline should be formed from Britain's independent (not government-controlled) operators to expand the UK's airline capacity on short- and long-haul routes. This private airline would get preference to be the second licensed British operator on a given route. In exchange for routes from the state corporations the corporations were expected to gain a presence on the second force's board.[1] Two British independents were specifically mentioned – Caledonian and BUA.[2] At the government's instigation Caledonian – a 10-year-old profitable charter operator – took over the bigger and older but financially troubled British United Airways. The resulting company was initially known as "Caledonian/BUA" before becoming "British Caledonian Airways".[3]

During the 1970s, as the third major airline in the UK, British Caledonian took on the role of counterbalancing the near-monopoly of the corporations, which provided 90% of all UK scheduled air transport capacity at the beginning of the decade.[3][4] This entailed expanding the inherited scheduled network to provide effective competition to established rivals on a number of key routes, as well as augmenting the acquired fleet with the latest generation narrow-, widebody airliners to maintain a competitive edge.[5][6][7]

The rapid expansion of British Caledonian suffered a temporary setback during the 1973-75 recession which followed in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. This undermined the airline's financial stability during its formative years and threatened its survival at that stage.

Following economic revival during that decade's second half, it regained its financial stability, enabling it to expand again and to become profitable.


Livery of British Caledonian on an Airbus A310-200 ca. 1984

There were many ups and downs for British Caledonian during the 1980s. BCal suffered a series of major setbacks as a result of several geopolitical events that occurred during that decade. Transatlantic bookings fell as a result of the American bombing of Libya and the Chernobyl disaster. These routes accounted for 25% of revenue. Devaluation and currency export controls affecting Nigeria cut off revenue from West African routes. Total revenue loss was £80 million.

These events significantly weakened BCal operationally and financially. They were the main factors that contributed to the airline's demise during the second half of that decade.

BCal disposed of assets and made redundancies but the benefit only lasted until mid-1987. BCal looked to a merger as a solution. A merger of BCal and newly privatized BA was announced but other bids for the business and referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was followed by BCal turning its back on BA's merger proposal. Other airline partners were sought and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) entered talks to acquire a substantial minority stake and restructure the company such that "nationality" clauses in the bilateral agreements covering air traffic would not be contravened.

In the end, BA made a take-it-or-leave-it deal worth more than SAS's offer which BCal's principal shareholder, and then the board accepted. The British and European monopolies commissions still had to agree the deal. As a result, following the merger landing slots at Gatwick and routes were given up to other operators.

Reasons for the failure of British Caledonian[edit]

Aircraft operated[edit]

Fleet details[edit]

BCal and its subsidiaries operated the following fixed wing aircraft types:

British Caledonian BAC One-Eleven 200 at London Gatwick Airport in 1973.
British Caledonian Boeing 707-320C at Prestwick Airport ca. 1972.
A British Caledonian Boeing 747-200M at Gatwick in 1986.
British Caledonian McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 at Manchester on schedule to New York JFK in 1987.
A British Caledonian Boeing 747-200 in 1988.
Fleet in 1972

In May 1972 BCal's fleet comprised 32 jet aircraft.[8]

BCal fleet in May 1972[8]
Aircraft Number
Boeing 707-320C 8
Vickers VC10 4
BAC One-Eleven 500 13
BAC One-Eleven 200 7
Total 32

5,300 people were employed.[8]

Fleet in 1975

In March 1975 BCal's fleet comprised 24 jet aircraft.[9]

BCal fleet in March 1975[9]
Aircraft Number
Boeing 707-320C 11
BAC One-Eleven 500 6
BAC One-Eleven 200 7
Total 24

4,846 people were employed.[9]

Fleet in 1978

In April 1978 BCal's fleet comprised 29 aircraft with two DC-10-30 on order.[10]

BCal fleet in April 1978[10]
Aircraft Number
McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 2
Boeing 707-320C 9
BAC One-Eleven 500 9
BAC One-Eleven 200 7
Piper PA-31 Navajo Chieftain 2
Total 29

5,500 people were employed.[10]

Fleet in 1981

In May 1981 BCal's fleet comprised 29 jet aircraft.[11]

BCal fleet in May 1981
Aircraft Number
McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 8
Boeing 707-320C 5
BAC One-Eleven 500 9
BAC One-Eleven 200 7
Total 29

6,600 people were employed.[11]

Fleet in 1984

In March 1984 BCal's mainline fleet comprised 25 jet aircraft.[12]

BCal fleet in March 1984
Aircraft Number
Boeing 747-200B[13] 1
McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 8
Airbus A310-200 2
Boeing 707-320C 2
BAC One-Eleven 500 12
Total 25

6,300 people were employed.[12]

Fleet in 1986

In March 1986 BCal's mainline fleet comprised 27 jet aircraft with seven Airbus A320 on order. BCal employed 6,750 staff.[14]

BCal fleet in March 1986[14]
Aircraft Number
Boeing 747-200B 1
Boeing 747-200B Combi 1
McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 10
Airbus A310-200 3
BAC One-Eleven 500 13
Total 28

Incidents and accidents[edit]

BCal had an enviable safety record during its 17-year existence. Its aircraft were never involved in fatal accidents. There were a few noteworthy non-fatal incidents involving the airline's aircraft.

On 24 September 1971, a Vickers VC10 1103 (registration: G-ASIX) was hit by clear air turbulence (CAT) en route from Santiago de Chile to Buenos Aires while operating the first sector of BCal's weekly Santiago–Gatwick schedule. While the aircraft was cruising above the Andes, it encountered CAT above the mountain peaks. This resulted in the aircraft being thrown up on to its side at a greater-than-90-degree angle, and then tossed, headlong, nose down, towards the up to 27,000 ft (8,200 m) high peaks just a few thousand feet (several hundred metres) below. The severity of this incident injured an air hostess who was working in the rear galley and knocked out the powered control units (PCUs) of almost every flight control surface, leaving the aircraft to plummet downwards at a speed approaching Mach 1. The crew managed a successful recovery and reset the aircraft's PCUs. Following the aircraft's safe landing at Buenos Aires, a thorough ground check was performed before the aircraft was allowed to resume its flight to Gatwick. A detailed inspection of the aircraft at Gatwick revealed a fracture in one of the tail fin support spars, necessitating a lengthy repair. On an airliner with wing-mounted engines under the same circumstances, the engine mounting pins would probably have snapped.[15][16]

On 28 January 1972, a Vickers VC10-1109 (registration: G-ARTA) sustained severe structural damage to the fuselage as a result of an exceptionally hard landing at Gatwick at the end of a short ferry flight from Heathrow. The airline decided that repairs were not cost-effective and the aircraft was written off and scrapped at Gatwick in 1975.[7][17]).[7][18][19][20]

On 19 July 1972, a BAC One-Eleven 501EX (registration: G-AWYS) sustained substantial damage as a result of aborting takeoff from Corfu Airport too late. The aircraft had passed through a pool of standing water close to its decision speed during the takeoff run. This caused a temporary reduction of engine thrust which the flight's commander interpreted as engine failure requiring an immediate rejection of takeoff. The flight deck crew's decision to abandon their takeoff was delayed and as a result, the aircraft did not stop on the runway but, after crossing some rough ground, finally came to rest in a 1 m (3.3 ft)-deep lagoon. None of the six crew members and 79 passengers was seriously injured in the crash, but an elderly female passenger collapsed after being helped from the aircraft and subsequently died of cardiac arrest on her way to hospital.[21]

See also[edit]

Notes and citations[edit]

  1. ^ "The Edwards Report" (pdf), Flight International, vol. 95 no. 3139, p. 745, 8 May 1969
  2. ^ "The Edwards Report" Flight International 8 May 1969 p 737
  3. ^ a b "BCAL Atlantic growth" Flight International, 20 September 1973, p. 466
  4. ^ Thomson, A., 1990, p. 173
  5. ^ Thomson, A., 1990, p. 201
  6. ^ "Airline Profile: Number Forty-Two in the Series — British Caledonian", Flight International, 3 August 1972, p. 156
  7. ^ a b c "Airline Profile: Number Forty-Two in the Series — British Caledonian", Flight International, 3 August 1972, p. 159
  8. ^ a b c "World Airlines", Flight International, 18 May 1972, Supplement 18
  9. ^ a b c "World Airline Directory", Flight International, 20 March 1975, p. 478
  10. ^ a b c "World Airline Directory", Flight International, 22 April 1978, p. 1147
  11. ^ a b "World Airline Directory", Flight International, 16 May 1981, p. 1417
  12. ^ a b "World Airline Directory", Flight International, 31 March 1984, p. 826]
  13. ^ Boeing 747-230B G-BJXN Mungo Park — The Scottish Explorer (photo)
  14. ^ a b "World Airline Directory", Flight International, 29 March 1986, p. 60
  15. ^ Incidents and Accidents > G-ASIX The Andes incident
  16. ^ Classic Airliner (VC10 – The story of a classic jet airliner: Disposal of British Caledonian VC10s), p. 59, Key Publishing, Stamford, 2015
  17. ^ Individual Histories: G-ARTA A little VC10derness
  18. ^ Classic Airliner (VC10 – The story of a classic jet airliner: Disposal of British Caledonian VC10s), p. 60, Key Publishing, Stamford, 2015
  19. ^ ASN Aircraft incident description Vickers VC-10-1109 G-ARTA — London Gatwick Airport (LGW)
  20. ^ "BUA/Laker Tie-up", Flight International, 21 November 1968, p. 813
  21. ^ ASN Aircraft incident description BAC One-Eleven 501EX G-AWYS — Corfu Airport (CFU)


  • Thomson, Sir Adam (1999). High Risk: The Politics of the Air. London, UK: Sidgwick and Jackson. ISBN 0-283-99599-8.
  • Eglin, Roger; Ritchie, Berry (1980). Fly me, I'm Freddie. London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-77746-7.
  • Simons, Graham M. (1999). It was nice to fly with friends! The story of Air Europe. Peterborough, UK: GMS Enterprises. ISBN 1-870384-69-5.
  • Simons, Graham M. (1993). The Spirit of Dan-Air. Peterborough, UK: GMS Enterprises. ISBN 1-870384-20-2.
  • Calder, Simon (2002). No Frills — The Truth behind the Low-cost Revolution in the Skies. London, UK: Virgin Books. ISBN 1-85227-932-X.
  • "Update 5 British United Airways)". Aviation News. St. Leonards on Sea, UK: HPC Publishing. 66 (3). March 2004.
  • British Airports Authority Annual Report and Accounts 1977/8. London, UK: British Airports Authority.
  • British Airports Authority Annual Report and Accounts 1978/9. London, UK: British Airports Authority.

Further reading[edit]

  • Thaxter, D.J (2009). The History of British Caledonian Airways 1928–1988. ISBN 978-0-95640-432-9.
  • Bristow, A. & Malone, P. (2009). Alan Bristow Helicopter Pioneer: The Autobiography (Chapter 17 — Airline Ego Trip, pp. 253/4). Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books. ISBN 978-1-84884-208-3.
  • "Jets Monthly (Airline History — The BCal STORY: "I wish they all could be Caledonian Girls!")". Cudham, UK: Kelsey Publishing Group. November 2011: 40–45. (Kelsey Publishing Group online)

External links[edit]