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Air Atlantique

by Jason Howe

Air Atlantique was started by Mike Collett, from Doncaster in South Yorkshire. Air Atlantique originated as General Aviation Services in 1969, based at Sherburn-in-Elmet in Yorkshire, selling Grumman single engine aircraft. Mike moved to the Channel Islands to begin Air Taxi work in addition to buying & selling aircraft. In 1977 General Aviation Services began trading as Air Atlantique which was registered and based in Jersey. From it′s early start, General Aviation Services bought and sold a number of different aircraft, including one aircraft bought in 1973, Cessna 310L G-BBBX. "BX" served for 34 years until corrosion saw her retired in 2007. The 310L had served the group of companies faithfully in charter, training and as a company "hack", being Mike′s method of commuting between his Jersey home and mainland UK.

As Air Atlantique, Mike commenced freight and passenger charter flights with Douglas DC-3 aircraft. The first aircraft to be purchased was G-ANAF however "AF" required restoration to fly & associated extended maintenance following a period of display at Duxford Aviation Society. G-AMCA was leased and became the first Dakota to enter service. When G-ANAF entered service a few months later a decision was taken to also purchase G-AMCA and so 2 Dakotas flew for the company.

In 1979, two Douglas DC-6 aircraft were purchased from Greenlandair and registered as G-SIXA and G-SIXB. In reality, G-SIXA flew very little whilst G-SIXB did fly commercially. Both aircraft were retired from the fleet in January 1981 due to the steep rise in fuel prices which made the DC-6′s uneconomical to operate at that time. G-SIXA was eventually scrapped at Manston in Kent whilst G-SIXB was sold to another operator.

Following the difficulties in operating the DC-6′s economically, in 1981 the decision to increase the more commercially viable and easier to operate Dakota fleet was made. G-APML was first to join the existing Dak fleet in July 1981 followed by G-AMPO & G-AMRA in October 1981, G-AMYJ in December 1981, G-AMHJ & G-AMPY in February 1982, G-AMSV in March 1982 and G-ANTC in June 1982. G-AMYJ never really entered service and was sold to Aces High one month after purchase, similarly G-ANTC′s tenure in the fleet was short lived and was also sold to Aces High after little more than one month with Air Atlantique.
With the expansion of the Dakota fleet in 1981, Blackpool Airport became the main UK operating base. Much of the Dakota Engineering had been contracted to Westcountry Aircraft Services in Exeter but, with the addition of Blackpool, the opportunity was taken to establish an Engineering facility in a former British United hangar. Several Dakota′s were also based around the UK including Glasgow and Newcastle as a result of the company having several Royal Mail postal contracts. Coventry also saw extensive use but was never an established base until 1986.

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In 1984 the company moved it′s UK operation from Blackpool to Stansted in Essex which also saw an association made with Instone Airline, the operator of 2 Bristol B170 freighters. Following the sale of B170 G-AMLK in 1984, the remaining B170 G-BISU was transferred to the Air Atlantique AOC and operated on behalf of Instone until being withdrawn from service in 1987. In 1985 Air Atlantique also sold 3 Dakota′s, along with 3 Royal Mail contracts to Air Luton. This saw G-ANAF, G-AMPO and G-AMHJ leaving the fleet. The airline′s residence at Stansted was relatively short lived and, in 1986, Air Atlantique relocated one final time to Coventry.

In 1987 the company ventured into DC-6 operations again with the purchase of G-SIXC from Trans Continental at Willow Run, Detroit. G-SIXC is actually a warbird, having served with Air America during the Vietnam War. A team of Engineer′s were sent to Detroit to participate in the aircraft′s overhaul and repaint in readiness for UK certification and to gain type knowledge & experience. Air Atlantique crew′s also attended for type training and, in March 1987 with Captain James Foden, F/O Paul Sabin and Flight Engineer Ken Tandy crewing the aircraft, G-SIXC arrived at Coventry.
In 1987 Mike bought a Lockheed Neptune! The aircraft was stored in Davis Monthan military storage facility in the USA. A series of expensive problems resulted in the attempt to fly the aircraft being abandoned.

In 1987 the Instone owned B170 G-BISU departed Coventry one last time, flown to Duxford by Captain Bill Mann and F/O Rory Ellis. After a spirited low pass over Coventry′s runway the B170 left the Air Atlantique fleet. The B170 was replaced by another DC-6, this time the former Eagle Airways G-APSA which had been stored in Yemen for many years. An Air Atlantique crew ferried the aircraft from Yemen to Southend via Athens for overhaul by Heavylift Engineering. The ferry flight was eventful to say the least, with the aircraft being unable to uplift a full fuel load due to the rubber bag tanks having dried out and split in the heat of desert storage. The aircraft was also "drinking" engine oil at an alarming rate requiring huge oil uplifts during her "Tech Stops". G-APSA finally entered service, under the same arrangements as the B170, in 1988 with the aircraft being operated on Air Atlantique′s AOC, but owned by Instone, and carrying dual Air Atlantique / Instone markings. The aircraft was used extensively by Instone for carrying Race Horses and by Air Atlantique for freight charters.

1987 also saw another major step change when the company won the contract for Marine Pollution Control from the UK Department of Transport. This contract had been held by Harvestair in Southend who used 2 DC-3’s, G-AMYJ and G-AMPZ, in addition to a number of BN2 Islanders. "Politics" saw Harvestair refusing to sell their aircraft to Air Atlantique so in the Summer of 1987 G-AMCA was removed from freight work and flown to Wyoming for conversion to spray configuration by Hawkins & Powers in Greybull. While G-AMCA was "stateside" Air Atlantique reacquired G-AMHJ and, following purchase from Aces High, she returned to the Air Atlantique fleet in September 1987 for overhaul and "in-house" conversion to join G-AMCA as the second spray Dak. The Pollution Control contract also required the use of a Cessna 402 and five BN2 Islanders which resulted in C402B G-MPCU joining the fleet early in 1988, modified to carry FLIR equipment to detect oil slicks at sea. In September 1987 BN2 Islanders began appearing at Coventry for in-house overhaul & conversion to spray configuration, these included G-AXZK, G-BCEN, G-BELF, G-BNXA and G-BNXB. The first "Call Out" of the Air Atlantique Pollution Control fleet was in July 1988 when, at around 7.30am on the morning of Wednesday 6th July, Engineer′s and Pilots pagers started to bleep signifying an immediate need to report to work. First to report were 2 Engineer′s who immediately filled Dakota’s G-AMCA and G-AMHJ with oil dispersant chemicals, did the pre-flight inspections and removed control locks & gear pins just as crew′s started to appear who jumped into the Daks and flew to Scotland.

The unfortunate Piper Alpha disaster coincided with the Department of Transport having already requested an increase in capacity which would see Dakota′s G-ANAF and G-AMPO being purchased from Aces High and G-AMYJ being purchased from Janes Aviation. The three Dakota′s returned to Air Atlantique for overhaul and conversion to spray configuration along with G-AMPY and G-AMSV which had been in service as passenger & freight Dakotas. With the reduction in freight and passenger carrying capacity within the Dakota fleet, G-AMPZ was purchased and joined the company in 1990 to ease the strain on G-AMRA which had been left as the only non-spray Dakota. G-APML was surveyed for potential overhaul however she had not flown since it′s ferry flight from Stansted to Coventry in 1986 and, unfortunately, required a significant amount of work due to the number of parts which had been "robbed" to service the other Daks in addition to the fact the aircraft had been stored outdoors for a number of years.

In addition to, and in support of the increased commercial activity, Air Atlantique formed Atlantic Flight Training in 1987 which saw in-house Pilot training capability introduced. This required the acquisition of 2 Cessna 310R′s from the USA. G-BODY and G-SOUL were purchased and joined the fleet to be used as twin engine and instrument training aircraft. In 1988 the company fleet swelled in size with the arrival of 7 Cessna 152′s in shipping containers, these being registered as G-HART (Tail Wheel conversion), G-BPBG, G-BPBH, G-BPBI, G-BPBJ, G-BPBK and G-BPBL with BH/I/J/K & L all being sold in 1990.
In 1988 the company ventured into commercial Turboprop operations with the leasing in of Avro 748 G-BEKE from Dan Air. Air Atlantique had operated an American registered Beech C90 King Air privately on behalf of its owner but the 748 was the first Turboprop used on scheduled passenger services. G-BEKE was repainted in a smart new paint scheme and operated between Southampton and the Channel Islands with the "back up" aircraft being Dakota G-AMSV which was called upon regularly. The costs of operating the 748 made the operation unviable as lease costs, in addition to external maintenance costs and poor reliability led to the type being withdrawn within a year or so. One additional notable trip saw the aircraft being chartered to fly in support of the Paris-Dakar Rally. 1988 also saw the purchase of Cessna 404 Titan G-EXEX. This aircraft was used for passenger and freight charters before eventually being absorbed into the Aerial Work /Survey side of the business.

In 1988 another company was formed, Atlantic Reconnaissance, to operate Pollution Control & Survey related work using the Cessna twins. This would eventually evolve into Reconnaissance Venture Limited (RVL) which still exists today. Interestingly RVL continue to operate several aircraft originally purchased by Air Atlantique in the 1980′s. 1989 saw another milestone when the company bought Malta International Aviation Company (MIACO) for it′s CAA approved Engine Overhaul capability. In addition to the extensive Pratt & Whitney R1830 & R2800 engine overhaul equipment, parts and capability the purchase of MIACO also resulted in the acquisition of a large amount of Dakota parts as well as a number of derelict Dakota′s parked in Malta. One of these aircraft would later be used as a donor when, in 1989, the RAE Dakota ZA947 (now BBMF) had an incident at Farnborough when the left undercarriage was accidentally retracted with the engines running, resulting in it′s left wing being damaged in addition to the engine and propeller being destroyed. The replacement left wing was sourced from Malta, and overhauled in Coventry before being transported to Farnborough to be fitted to ZA947. MIACO was relocated to Coventry and became CFS Aero Engines.

In 1990 the company started subsidiary Air Corbierre which used, primarily, a Cessna Conquest to fly Channel Islands passenger services. In 1994 a Fairchild Metroliner, G-BUKU, was also acquired to fly for the operator and remained in service until 2006. In 1991, as a direct result of 2 Pollution Control Dakota′s being based in Inverness Scotland, crews started a flying school called Air Alba. This later evolved into Highland Airways which used BAE Jetstream 31, BN2 Islander and ATR aircraft for scheduled passenger and freight operations in Scotland. Latterly a Fisheries Protection government contract was won which included the use of Reims F406 aircraft. Operations ended in 2009 when the CAA revoked the AOC.

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1991 saw 2 Avro Shackleton AEW2 aircraft arrive at Coventry. Ferried from RAF Lossiemouth to Coventry by James Foden, the Managing Director of Air Atlantique, and RAF crews. The aircraft were intended to be flown on the airshow circuit however this did not materialize. One aircraft left Coventry to be operated for a short time in the USA (now retired at the Pima Air & Space Museum) with the other remaining at Coventry where she remains today. Ownership of the "Shacks" changed several times over the years but have always been heavily supported by Mike Collett and Air Atlantique.
In 1993 a charismatic Twin Pioneer joined the fleet. G-APRS was used for pleasure flights and aerial work however it was also leased to the Empire Test Pilots School to train military pilots in slow and unusual flight characteristics.
In 1994 another aircraft type would join the fleet, in the shape of Lockheed L-188 Electra. A number of L-188s would serve Atlantic Airlines, replacing the DC-6′s as the primary cargo carrying aircraft. In the late 1990′s the Department of Transport′s Pollution Control requirements changed, requiring greater capacity. The Pollution Control Dakota fleet was retired with PO, CA, HJ, and YJ all being retired to museum’s. Both DC-6′s and several Electra’s were converted to Pollution Control capable aircraft, with "role change" capability to fly as cargo or spray aircraft which served the needs of the the UK Government.
Between 2001 and 2006 a Convair 440 was operated as a freight aircraft until an in-flight engine fire permanently grounded the aircraft.
Atlantic Airlines, which previously operated all-cargo airline activities within the Air Atlantique Group, was the subject of a management buy-out in July 2004. Other parts of the Group were similarly sold as owners Mike Collett and James Foden approached retirement. Atlantic Flight Training, Atlantic Reconnaissance (now renamed RVL Group) and CFS Aeroproducts have also since become independent businesses. Air Atlantique later operated a number of historic aircraft as the Classic Air Force which has now ceased operations but Engineering capability remains at Coventry under the name of Heritage Air Services who offer expert maintenance of historic aircraft, including DC3′s.
In 2011 Swedish based West Air merged with Atlantic Airlines to become West Atlantic which also saw the BAE ATP introduced into the fleet. Today the airline continues to operate with Boeing 737 cargo aircraft from East Midlands airport.

Following the break up of the Air Atlantique group, two DC-3s G-ANAF and G-AMPY remained at Coventry with RVL Aviation. Some 2 decades after they were first converted into Pollution Control aircraft, "AF & PY" were once again refitted with spray equipment and went back into service as Marine Pollution Control aircraft. G-ANAF had previously been operating for several years in a striking red & black colour scheme having been heavily modified to perform radar trials work for RACAL / Thales, whilst G-AMPY was painted as a 1950′s Royal Air Force Transport Command aircraft and was used for pleasure flying until 2008 when the company decided to cease Dakota passenger operations. G-ANAF and G-AMPY continued in their Pollution Control duties until 2015 when Marine Pollution Control was transferred to another company using a heavily modified Boeing 727. Both Daks were placed into storage at Coventry with G-ANAF being restored to flight in 2019, being sold to a historic aircraft operator in the UK. G-AMPY remains at Coventry in storage but has, apparently, now been sold to a private owner based on the Isle of Mann. When G-AMPY eventually leaves Coventry, this will signify the end of the long lasting Air Atlantique Dakota operation at Coventry.

Air Atlantique DC-3s

Over the many years of Dakota operations, numerous aircraft have passed through the hands of what was once, Europe’s largest Dakota operator.

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G-AMCA – 1945 (c/n 16218/32966) del 44-76634 ex RAF (KN487) – in service between July 1977 – October 2003. Status: Sold to the "Aviodrome" Museum Holland & currently used as full size prop in a Dutch musical painted in RAF colors.

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G-AMHJ – 1942 (c/n 13468) del 42-108962 ex RAF (KG651) – in service Feb 1982 – June 1985 & Sept 1987 – Jan 2003. Status: painted in RAF colors and on display at RAF Metheringham airfield UK.

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G-AMPO – 1944 (c/n 16347/33185) del 44-76853 ex RAF (KN566) – in service October 1981 – June 1985 & June 1988 – Oct 2001. Status: On display at RAF Brize Norton UK in RAF/D-Day colors.

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G-AMPY – 1943 (c/n 15124/26569) del 43-43908 ex RAF (KK116) – in service from Feb 1982 – Feb 2018. a/c stored in RAF white/grey livery serial KK116. Status: stored Coventry, sold March 2020.

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G-AMPZ – 1944 (c/n 16124/32872) del 44-76540 ex RAF (KN442) – in service September 1990 – October 2001. Status: crashed 19-June-2010 Berlin as D-CXXX. Fuselage/wings stored many years and in 2019 sold off to private owner at Herdringen-Arnsberg Germany 08-2019.

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G-AMRA – 1944 (c/n 15290/26735) del 43-49474 ex RAF (KK151) – in service October 1981 - 2014. Status: wfu at Berlin, sold off to private owner at Herdringen-Arnsberg Germany 08-2019.

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G-AMSV – 1944 (c/n 16072/32820) del 44-76488 ex RAF (KN397) – in service March 1982 – June 2005. Status: sold to the IAF Vintage Flight, Indian Air Force back in 2018.

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G-AMYJ – 1944 (c/n 15968/32716) del 44-76384 ex RAF (KN353) – in service Dec 1981 –Jan 1982 & Feb 1990 – December 2001. Status: On display at Yorkshire Air Museum UK (painted in green RAF colors) – aircraft live and ground run at times.

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G-ANAF – 1944 (c/n 16688/33436) del 44-77104 ex RAF (KP220) – in service October 1977 – June 1985 and July 1988 to 2016. Status: Sold to Aero Legends (UK) in 2019. Painted in RAF colors KP220 and in airworthy status.

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G-APML – 1943 (c/n 14175/25620) del 43-48359 – RAF (KJ836) - in service July 1981 – March 1986 Status: scrapped at Coventry back in 1996.

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G-BPMP – 1942 (c/n 10073) del 42-24211 USAAF – Never entered service, aircraft acquired in 1993 following the cease of trading of it′s previous owner. Status: Scrapped at Coventry (1995). Cockpit now on display inside aviation stored in Aalsmeer Holland.

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G-DAKK – 1942 (c/n 9798) del 42-23936 USAAF – in service July 1994 – Dec 1994. Status: moved to the WW2 Overloon Museum in Holland and to be painted in USAAF D-Day colors.

G-ANTC – 1943 (c/n 14666/26111) del 43-48850 del RAF (KJ938) – in service June 1982 (2 months) Status: Sold to Colombia as HK-3215X LACOL 1986. Current with ALLAS Colombia.

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Credits: Jason Howe, Chris Mak, Rob Hemelrijk, Dany Grew collection, aircraft-magazine/Tim Badham and author’s private files/photographes.

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