Avro York – the emergency airliner


The world is shaped by politics – politics and desire, I should say, for the two are often intertwined. Great Britain had, from 1919, adopted the so-called ‘Ten Year Rule’. This assumed that there would be NO major conflict for ten years, and a series of savage cuts to all branches of the military followed. Winston Churchill had been appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1924, and in 1928 managed to persuade his Cabinet colleagues to enshrine the Ten Year Rule in perpetuity! Although the British Government decided to abandon it in 1932 – with war clouds starting to gather in Europe, and Japan already involved in China – the damage, to all three services, had been done.

Consequently, when the Second World War finally broke out in 1939, Great Britain could barely defend itself, let alone the sea lanes which brought the bulk of its food. There are those in Britain who rightly saw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a terrible act of aggression against a nation at peace, but Churchill (now Prime Minister) viewed the U.S. entry into the world conflict as the salvation of Britain; even if US troops did not join the land war in Europe, America’s massive production capacity, now on a war footing, would ensure plenty of first-class weapons of war for Britain – particularly with Lend-Lease now passed by Congress, and signed by Roosevelt in March, 1941.

Britain and the United States decided to co-ordinate war production – at least to a certain extent. When it came to the issue of warplanes, although there was no formal agreement for the U.S. to supply Britain with transport aircraft, it was logical for them to do so as the American designs were so much more advanced and there was a huge domestic market. Consequently, Britain relied on the ubiquitous Douglas C-47 (Dakota, in RAF service), as well as just 11 of the superb Douglas C-54 (Loadmaster, to the RAF). Having concentrated on fighters and bombers, work on British post-war transport designs was boosted by the Brabazon Committee (set up 23rd December, 1942). However, even Lord Brabazon (holder of the Royal Aero Club’s Flying Licence No. 1) could not magically produce the infrastructure, manufacturing facilities or advanced designs to compete on the world stage. For competition was to be the name of the game in a post-war world, and second-hand DC-3s would flood the world airliner market after the war, with new-built Lockheed Constellations and DC-4s (both military designs) ready for the long-haul routes.

The Brabazon Report did some good things, and there were a few worthy designs, but it was decided that the U.K. needed an interim transport whilst waiting for the soon to be built Bristol Brabazon (total disaster), Avro Tudor (likewise) and Handley Page Hermes (late, overweight, 29 built). The choice fell on the Avro York. Developed in 1941 as the Avro Type 685, and ordered as Air Ministry Specification C.1/42, the York was intended as a long-range transport for the RAF, and civilian use, when possible.

In the above photograph – taken in the superb ‘National Cold War Exhibition’ hangar at the RAF Museum, Cosford – if you think you have seen those engines and that wing before, you would be right! The York was inspired by, and used a lot of components of, the magnificent Avro Lancaster bomber. Moving the wing from the ‘shoulder’ position, to a point where the leading edge was parallel to the top of the new, box-like fuselage, ensured that the up to 50 passengers would have plenty of headroom, and also have a cabin access door that was low to the ground. Four prototypes were built, the first of which, LV626, had twin fin and rudders like the Lancaster, but a central fin (as with the early Manchester bomber from Avro) had to be added to maintain controllability, due to the increased surface area forward of the wing compared to its Lancaster ‘brother’. The prototype York made its first flight on 5th July, 1942, in the capable hands of Avro’s Chief Test Pilot, Harry Brown; Harry, a former Royal Naval Air Service pilot in WW1, stated that he was ‘well satisfied’ with the York after the first flight. LV262 was later fitted with Bristol Hercules XVI radials, (which made it the only C.2), but these were found not to confer enough advantage to proceed with. The four Rolls-Royce Merlin 24 engines of 1,280 hp (and later civil Mk 502) gave the York a healthy top speed of just under 300 mph, and a maximum range of around 3,000 miles. At one stage the RAF thought of the York as an ‘assault transport’, and the fourth prototype was flown with a hatch for paratroops installed in the floor.

Due to wartime Lancaster production and Lincoln development work, York production was extremely slow. One of the prototypes, LV633, was turned into a flying conference room and personal transport for Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and was named ‘Ascalon’ – which was the lance that St George used to slay the dragon! ‘Ascalon’ flew Churchill to the pivotal Allied Conference at Casablanca, in January, 1943, where the Allied operations to invade Europe where discussed. British Overseas Airways Corporation ordered the York I to service the long U.K. to India route, and the RAF took no less than 208 York C.I aircraft for use by 16 squadrons, several of them being headquartered at the big Transport Command base of RAF Lyneham, in Wiltshire.

The York’s finest hour came not during WW2 but during the Soviet blockade of Berlin. The Allied Airlift (24th June 1948 – 30th September 1949), proved able to supply – barely – the city’s needs. The York, with it’s 10 ton cargo capacity (the equivalent of a C-54) lifted the majority of the 541,937 tons delivered by the RAF’s ‘Operation Plainfare’, around 1/4 of the total tonnage; units using the York included Nos 24, 40, 51, 59, 99, 206, 242 and 242 Squadrons as well as No 241 Operational Conversion Unit.

After service with the RAF, the York was slowly replaced by Handley Page Hastings (another four-engine transport) from 1949. Many Yorks were bought by British Overseas Airways Corporation, Dan-Air (Dan Air Services Ltd) and other independent airlines. These were used under contract by the British military to provide freight and trooping services well into the 1950s. For example, Air Charter Ltd was charging the U.K. military around £100 per hour in 1955 for trooping work, including flights to the Middle East. Many Yorks were also used on ad hoc charter flights to vacation destinations, as well as freight charters especially those involving airlifting of spare airliner engines, and the last Dan-Air York flight took place in April, 1964.

Just two of the 259 Yorks built survive. One is at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, in the colours of Dan-Air, and the other you can see above. Built for the Royal Air Force at the Avro plant at Yeadon, as part of a November, 1944 order for 60 aircraft for the RAF and BOAC, it was delivered to BOAC with a military serial TS798 at Croydon Airport, London’s original all-grass international airport. This York had a busy life, mostly on the London to Calcutta route, and later had double-freight doors fitted. These came in handy, when it was seen being loaded with elephants in December, 1951 in Karachi! Sold to Skyways Ltd, it was used mainly to transport spare Lockheed Constellation engines around the world for Pan American Airways. In 1964, the York was retired and bought by Peter Thomas (who I knew) the founder of the Skyfame Museum at Staverton Airport, for the scrap value – around £600. When Skyfame closed, the RAF Museum stepped in and acquired TS798, and completely refurbished it. It has been painted all-over aluminium – as it would have been on delivery – and marked as MW100, the first operational, production York, which went to No. 24 Squadron, RAF as a VIP aircraft; indeed, MW100 was one of the Yorks used by Churchill.

The York was a genuine WW2 type, one that found its greatest fame in the immediate post-war years. Other than the length of the average flight, the biggest problem that passengers on a York flight had – particularly those sitting close to the wing – was the VERY high noise level caused by the Merlin engines. It is said that you could hear them ringing in your ears for hours after the flight was over!

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5 comments on “Avro York – the emergency airliner”

  1. A nice photo of an elegant airplane and a lively, informative right up 🙂 I am curious why the York has conventional gear, though derived from the Lancaster, when most of the advantages of conventional gear had all but been negated with so many runways that has been built during WW II. A 3000 mile range with a 10 tin capacity is quite a capability back in the day to be sure. Yes, December 7th in 1941 must have been a bad day for Hitler due to the U.S. being brought directly into the war. What I have just learned is that Norway was the leading shipping merchant marine going into the war with 3000 cargo vessels and it was these which aided in the Battle of the North Atlantic until the U.S. Navy and cargo ship building could get onto a war time footing. If I recall, about 1000 of these ships were lost. I bring this point up since being in the U.S. I had not learned of Operation Plainfare and the RAF contribution to the Berlin Airlift (next time I am at that display in the USAF Museum I’ll look more closely as I may have missed that detail) and not being in Norway I had leaned that Henry Kaiser building Liberty Ships helped turn the tide with regard to keeping up with the shipping losses — but the Norwegians bought the Allies the time needed, yet I think this aspect of WW II is largely unheralded.

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  2. Oops — I had meant “write up” and not “right up” :p

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    • Traditional tailwheel undercarriages were only reluctantly given up by the RAF. The Hastings, which I have already written about and which was the York’s replacement was – of course – a ‘taildragger’! (Although the civil equivalent, the Hermes, was at last a nosewheel airliner).

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  3. One more thing — cannot stop thinking of this aircraft — it does remind me, as well, of the Handley Paige H.P.42!

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    • Yes, the slight ‘banana-shape’ of the fuselage and the overall silver colour (plus the fact that it was used to cover the U.K. to India route) do echo the H.P.42 quite nicely!

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