Britain has been handicapped throughout the past three and a half years of war by a shortage of transport aircraft. Even before the war there had not hens enough commercial flying equipment because of the government preoccupation with expansion of the Royal Air Force. Since then the shortage of transport aircraft has become steadily greater due to the fact that production effort in Britain has been concentrated on the construction of military types.
Because, until recently, all regular British air services to and from Britain have been operated by British Overseas Airways Corp. as a civilian organization, the term "commercial" has frequently been applied to British operations. BOAC activities are on a civilian basis because many of the routes are by way of neutral countries.
To overcome the shortage of transport machines and to cope with the ever-extending air services needed with the spread of the war, a number of types are now used as transports. They include Short Stirlings, Consolidated Catalina flying boats, Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Vs; Lockheed Hudsons, and Consolidate Liberator landplane bombers.
All these military types naturally had to be modified before they could be used for carrying freight and passengers. Modifications have been difficult because the work has had to be done quickly, and especially because of shortages of materials and labor. Austerity has been the keynote of all British air services on wartime routes, where every ounce of payload has been important. Bombers can be made to carry a certain amount of freight, but for passenger-carrying comfort they cannot measure up to prewar commercial standards. For urgent services, of course, the comfort factor has been of minor importance.
Modifications made to military types have not been of standard form because of the varying duties the aircraft have been required to perform. Few structural changes have been made, but every scrap of unnecessary equipment has been stripped from all types. On the Hudsons, for instance, removal of the bomb door mechanism meant a saving of some 65 lb. All types, except the Whitleys, carry some passengers and have been fitted with special lightweight chairs. Some of the craft have lightweight adjustable seats of the type formerly used by Imperial Airways on its airliners. Some have had light flooring put in to cover the bomb bays and have then been fitted with passenger seats. Extra radio equipment, such as is carried on all the aircraft of British Overseas Airways, has been fitted. in all the converted bombers used by the corporation, along with the rubber passenger dinghies which are standard on the civil machines.
The Consolidated Liberators, used by the Return Ferry Service which carries ferry pilots from Britain to Canada, are mainly the early versions the Liberator I or LB-30 type. These have had bunks fitted in the bomb bays and benches set up in the rear of the fuselage. The bunks, like those in submarines, are so closely spaced. as to leave little headroom for the passengers, one of whom remarked after a 17-hr fight, "Pity the poor sardine."
Besides employment over the Atlantic, Liberators are also used on services to West Africa, and one was specially fitted up for Prime Minister Churchill's fights to the Middle East, Moscow, and North Africa. Most of the Liberators have had their noses blacked in, with this compartment then adapted. for stowing freight and mails. A few have had their fuselages or cabins made a little more comfortable by a paneling of three-ply. These ships are fitted with eight or nine adjustable chairs, but the whole effect is far from luxurious.
Gun blisters on the Catalinas have not been removed. The planes carry much freight plus six or seven passengers on long routes.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Vs are used for freight work only. Here, noses and tails have been faired in and given smallish, square windows. Extra fuel tanks are carried in the bomb bays and behind the doors, and room has been made in the fuselages for the stowing of freight. Lockers have likewise been built for stowage purposes. Liberators and Hudsons, especially, are provided with oxygen equipment for both crew and passengers.
Apart from some of the Liberators, which were modified in Canada for transport work, all the work of converting the bombers for civil transport work has been done by BOAC in its own workshops, where any new parts needed have also been built.
The only bomber used for transport after being considered obsolete for military service is the Whitley, which is now used mainly for training purposes with the RAF. All the rest the Wellingtons, Hudsons, Liberators, and Catalinas are on active service with the Coastal Command of the RAF. The Wellingtons are also still in service with the Bomber Command for raiding Germany and mine-laying.
Work was started last year on the first new British transport since the war began the Avro York a type being developed from the Avro Lancaster bomber. Plans are also now to be made for the organized conversion of other bomber types for transport use.
This article was originally printed in the August, 1943, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 42, n0 8, pp 227, 319.
The original article includes 4 photos: Lancaster, Wellington, Stirling, Whitley.
Photo credits: Wellington to Flight; Stirling to European; others not credited.