The Aviation Traders ATL-98 Carvair was a large piston four-engined transport aircraft. It was a Douglas DC-4-based air ferry developed by Freddie Laker’s Aviation Traders (Engineering) Limited (ATL), with a capacity of 22 passengers and six cars, loaded at the front.
Freddie Laker’s idea to convert surplus examples of the Douglas DC-4 and its military counterpart the C-54 Skymaster to carry cars, was a relatively inexpensive solution to develop a successor to the rapidly aging and increasingly inadequate Bristol 170 Freighter, the car ferry airlines’ mainstay since the late 1940s.
The name said it all—an aircraft to ferry automobiles across the channel. In accomplishing this deed, the Carvair ATL-98 began with a Douglas C-54/DC-4 and a major facelift on the forward one-third.
The actual conversion of the original aircraft entailed replacing the forward fuselage with one 8 feet 8 inches (2.64 m) longer, with a raised flightdeck in a bulbous ‘hump’ (akin to the later Boeing 747) to allow a sideways hinged nose door. It also entailed more powerful wheel brakes and an enlarged tail, often thought to be a Douglas DC-7 unit, but actually a completely new design. The engines, four Pratt & Whitney R-2000s, were unchanged.
The prototype conversion first flew on 21 June 1961. Twenty-one Carvairs were produced in the UK, with production of aircraft 1, 11 and 21 at Southend Airport and the balance at Stansted Airport. The final three aircraft were delivered to Australia’s Ansett-ANA, which supplied its own DC-4s to ATL for conversion, unlike the previous 18 aircraft that were purchased by ATL and either sold on or transferred to associate company British United Air Ferries (BUAF). One of the two aircraft still flying in June 2007 was an ex-Ansett airframe. A second Ansett aircraft was abandoned at Phnom-Penh in 1975. The first flight of the last conversion, number 21, for Ansett, was on 12 July 1968.
HISTORY OF THE FLIGHT
On April 4, 1997, about 0016 eastern standard time, a Douglas C54A-DC, N83FA, collided with a commercial building during takeoff from the Griffin-Spalding County Airport, in Griffin, Georgia. The airplane was operated by Custom Air Service under the provisions of Title 14 CFR Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed. An instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan was filed for the positioning flight. The airline transport pilot-in-command, and the commercial second pilot, were fatally injured, and the airplane was destroyed by ground fire. The flight was originating at the time of the accident, en-route to Americus, Georgia, to pick up a load of automobile parts for transfer to Rockford, Illinois.
A pilot/mechanic associated with the operation of the airplane observed its start, taxi, run up, and takeoff. He stated that he always looked at the elevator to see if the controls were locked, and noted that the elevator was “down” as the airplane taxied. He reported that the engine run up was accomplished on all four engines with no discernible problem. During the airplane’s takeoff roll on runway 14, the main landing gear strut was observed to partially extend as the airplane “became light on the landing gear.” Then the witness noted that the color of the #1 exhaust flame changed from blue to yellow, accompanied by an audible change in the engine power level. The nose of the airplane yawed left and the left wing dipped.
This occurred when the airplane was about 3/4 down the 3,700 foot runway. When the airplane passed his position adjacent to the runway near the departure end, he heard the tires “blow.” He observed that the tail of the airplane was extremely high throughout the continued takeoff roll. The witness did not recall hearing any further decrease in engine power. An explosion and fire was reported to have occurred when the airplane impacted the building. Another witness reported that he observed fire on the left side of the airplane and at the rudder about the time the airplane was at the parking lot for the building.
The flight manual states that elevator trim should be correctly set prior to takeoff. The chart in the manual titled “Recommended Elevator Trim Setting for Take-Off” indicated that at 14% MAC, flaps 15 degrees, the trim position should be approximately 1.5 Tab Wheel Divisions Nose Up. At 12% MAC, two (2) Tab Wheel Divisions Nose Up was the recommended setting. Additionally, the manual indicated that the flap setting for takeoff should be 15 degrees.
A cable operated mechanical gust lock control was installed in the airplane that allowed the flight controls to be manually locked. A gust lock pin was attached to a lanyard that could be reeled into a stowed position in the cockpit ceiling. When the lock pin was installed in the locked position, the lanyard extended from the stowed ceiling position, across the captain’s field of view, and was inserted in the control lock lever, located in the cockpit floor to the right of the captain’s seat. According to the operator, when the control lock pin was inserted in the control lock lever, the lanyard stretched across the captain’s seat preventing access to it. Company pilots normally pulled the lanyard over the back of the captain’s seat in order to access the captain’s seat. When the flight control mechanical gust lock was engaged, the elevator would be in a neutral position. A witness observed that the elevator was “down” as the airplane taxied.
The gust lock and flight controls, fuel tank selectors, flap position, and trim tab positions are all listed on the Before Take-Off checklist used by Custom Air Service.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The airplane crashed into an abandoned grocery store off the departure end of runway 14.
Skid marks and a debris trail of about 1,360 feet led from the runway to the airplane wreckage, which came to rest inside the abandoned store. The airport perimeter fence, a wooden sign constructed of 4″ X 4″ boards, a wooden privacy fence bordering an apartment complex, a utility pole, a fire hydrant, and a parking lot metal light pole were all found broken, along the debris trail.
Marks were found on the runway, the ground, and the asphalt parking lot that led to the airplane wreckage in the building. Black marks, consistent with skidding tires, were found on the runway beginning about 650 feet prior to the departure end of Runway 14. Looking southeast along the runway, double skid marks on the left side began earlier on the runway, and were blacker. A single skid mark between two double skid tracks was closer to the left side than the right, throughout the skid mark trail. The single skid mark and the left skid marks were heavily imprinted as the runway surface ended, and continued onto the grass overrun, about 15 feet. The ground then dropped abruptly about three feet vertically, and the skid marks were absent for about 75 feet. The left side and center single skid mark became heavy again followed by double skid marks on the right just prior to a municipal road. The single skid trail continued across the road as a mud print only, followed by the left double heavy skid mark at the far side (southeast) of the road. Skid marks continued to the impacted building. Scorched grass began about 120 feet southeast of the road, approximately adjacent to the wooden privacy fence. The scorched ground pattern continued to the building, widening as the debris trail proceeded southeast. A broken and scorched utility pole was observed, adjacent to the privacy fence, positioned nearer the centerline of the debris trail. The skid marks and debris trail were oriented to a magnetic heading of 095 degrees between the end of the runway and the impacted building.
The first piece of the airplane was a nose gear door brace, that was found at a linear curb about 25 feet before reaching the building. The number one engine, cowling, and propeller assembly was found adjacent to the outside of the northeast wall of the building. The empennage and about 30 feet of the fuselage remained outside the building, while the remainder of the airplane was found inside the building. The building’s steel girders, interior ceiling, and asphalt roof were mingled among the airplane debris. The airplane and building were extensively burned.
The cockpit instruments that could be located were generally burned beyond reading. A rod was located that had the appearance of the fuel selector torsion bar. It was noted that the left actuating fixture, corresponding to the number 1 engine fuel selector, was not aligned with the other three fuel selector fixtures.
The vertical stabilizer was scorched and the rudder was burned away. The horizontal stabilizer was sooted, with the left elevator fabric burned away. The fabric skin remained on the right elevator. The elevator cable on the left side of the fuselage, that positioned the trailing edge of the elevator down, was separated at the turnbuckle located at the rear of the fuselage. The separated control cable ends were melted. The elevator cables that positioned the elevator trailing edge up were connected from the elevator to the cockpit area. Both rudder cables were separated with sooting and melting of the cable ends. The rudder cables were connected at the rudder attachment. The empennage trim cables were connected between the flight control surfaces and the cockpit area. A burned and melted Emergency Locator Transmitter was found in the rear fuselage. The rudder trim was found in a neutral position, while the elevator trim, on the right side, was found about two degrees trailing edge down, or nose up trim. The flap actuators were found extended to a position that approximated a 15 degree flap setting. According to a witness statement the flight control lock pin was found inboard and aft of the pilot’s seat, in the wreckage debris.