Updated: Mar 28
From the end of the Second World War the British airline industry produced a series of brilliant entrepreneurs, from Freddie Laker to Richard Branson, who continually innovated the industry. An extract from our forthcoming book follows.
Freddie Laker – arguably the most innovative of all the independent airline bosses - was born in Canterbury, Kent in 1922. His mother named him Frederick Alfred Laker, giving him two first names which are both habitually abbreviated to Fred, or Freddie. For the rest of his life, Freddie, who was an only child, would cheerfully remind people that his mother thought him so good she named him twice. On the day of his birth the industry we now call the airline business had just begun. In 1919, Britain’s first scheduled air passenger service, using a single-engined biplane, had commenced from London to Paris. A handful of small, pioneering airlines would quickly germinate, and equally quickly run into financial difficulties. By 1927 virtually all of Britain’s airlines had been consolidated into a duopoly: Imperial Airways and British Airways, both of which would be merged in 1939 to become the state-owned British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). Entrepreneurship, for the duration of the war, would be on hold.
Freddie Laker’s father left home when he was five, and he was brought up by his mother who took whatever work she could get (including cleaning houses and picking fruit) to support them both. Like many other men who would rise to the top of their professions, he always retained a close bond to his mother. He may have learned the rudiments of entrepreneurship from her too. During the war she had worked in a scrap metal yard, and later became a successful scrap metal dealer herself. It requires considerable acuity to find profit in the things that others have discarded as worthless, and that fundamental talent for adding value, which all good business leaders possess, probably developed in Freddie from a very early age.
By his mid-teens, Freddie had become fascinated by flying. He would later recall: ‘…straight down the military road was Canterbury Cathedral. And of course, it really is a magnificent sight, with all the wall going around the cathedral, and I’m there with these mates of mine and having our fish and chips, two and one, you know, out of the old newspaper. Standing on the corner. And damn me if the Hindenburg was coming from Germany, going to America of course, and a Handley Page 42, a four-engine biplane, was coming from Croydon to go to Paris. I mean, you couldn’t think of two more dissimilar aerial objects than these two, and they crossed right over the top of Canterbury Cathedral. A magnificent sight. And I said to my mates, “That’s for me. I’m going into aeroplanes,” and that’s what I did.’
Freddie had achieved little academically at school, but he was always persuasive, and at the age of sixteen he convinced Short Brothers, Britain’s oldest aircraft manufacturer, that they should take him on as an engineering apprentice. In 1940 the Short Brothers factory had been bombed by the Luftwaffe and largely put out of commission. Freddie was offered a transfer to Swindon but opted, instead, to join the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) at their White Waltham headquarters, near Maidenhead. The ATA was a civilian organisation, whose job was to ferry new or repaired aircraft on behalf of the military. Their pilots, more than a hundred of whom were women, had been drawn from every walk of life. Most of them couldn’t have flown for the RAF or Fleet Air Arm for reasons of nationality, age, medical fitness or gender, but the ATA were prepared to ignore those drawbacks if a pilot could be relied upon to deliver aircraft safely. There were ATA pilots with missing limbs, even missing eyes, and they were soon nicknamed ‘Ancient and Tattered Airmen’. The newspaper tycoon, Lord Beaverbrook, who was then the Minister of Aircraft Production, would later say: ‘Without the ATA the days and nights of the Battle of Britain would have been conducted under conditions quite different from the actual events. They carried out the delivery of aircraft from the factories to the RAF, thus relieving countless numbers of RAF pilots for duty in the battle. Just as the Battle of Britain is the accomplishment and achievement of the RAF, likewise it can be declared that the ATA sustained and supported them in the battle. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront.’
While still a teenager, Freddie found himself working as a flight engineer for an organisation where adaptability and improvisation were the order of the day, but strict adherence to rules was less important than getting the job done. There could have been no better training ground for a nascent aviation entrepreneur; he easily acclimatised to his new environment and made many friends who would be useful to him after the war. The overall boss of the ATA was Gerard d'Erlanger, a director of British Airways Ltd, which had become part of BOAC in 1940. In the decades to come BOAC, which was later merged into British Airways, would play a huge role in both the peaks and troughs of Freddie’s remarkable career.
On being discharged in 1946, he became one of the first eight employees of British European Airways (BEA), which had just been spun off from BOAC. He found the work uninspiring and left after a few months, trying his hand at door-to-door selling. Before long, however, he was back in aviation as a flight engineer with London Aero Motor Services (LAMS), one of several independent airlines operating charter services with ex-RAF Handley Page Halifax and Halton aircraft (the Halton was a ‘civilianised’ freight-carrying version of the Halifax bomber). Within a year, Freddie had left to form his own company, Aviation Traders. Opportunity had just met preparation in a major way.