Scottish fact of the day: British Caledonian Airways

British Caledonian Airways or BCal as it was affectionately known grew from modest beginnings at its Prestwick base to become a major world player in the aviation industry and the UK’s second biggest carrier.

Picture: Wiki Commons
Picture: Wiki Commons
Picture: Wiki Commons

Founder Adam Thomson, the son of a railway shunter, and fellow entrepreneur John de la Haye announced in April 1961 their intention to launch an international airline.

The pair initially struggled to raise capital with Thomson taking out a second mortgage and relying on investments from friends and family to raise enough money to charter a DC-7C on a pay-as-you-fly basis from Belgian airline Sabena . The plane was named the Star o’Rabbie Burns.

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The first flight, a charter carrying immigrants from Barbados, took place on November 29, 1961. Other flights quickly followed with the first transatlantic flight to New York leaving Prestwick in November 1961.

The airline was hit by disaster in 1962 when its only aircraft crashed in 1962 due to mechanical failure.

Caledonian carried on however despite losing the support of a key investor and much confidence in the retail travel sector.

A second aircraft was again leased from Sabena, called Flagship Bonnie Scotland.

The company found its niche by operating low-fare charters and package holiday flights from Prestwick and Gatwick which allowed it to grow in the face of then state-owned British Airways.

Caledonian bought over British United Airways to become British Caledonian Airways in 1970 with the takeover allowing the Scottish airline new routes into South America, West Africa, Europe and the USA.

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Despite now having a greater reach it struggled to compete with British Airways and was hit badly by the oil crisis on the mid-seventies.

British Caledonian battled on however and by the 1980s it was the second biggest airline in Britain and the ninth largest in Europe with a fleet of 27 jets flying to 50 destinations.

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The end of BCal ironically coincided with the privatisation of British Airways.

A transfer of some of the national carrier’s routes to British Caledonian was rejected by the Thatcher government as it was feared that BA’s flotation prospects would be damaged.

BCal also lost its Buenos Aires route due to the Falklands War and its Tripoli route due to tensions with Libya.

The loss of routes and subsequent squeeze on its finances put British Caledonian at risk of takeover with British Airways taking control in a merger deal in 1988.

British Caledonian’s founder Adam Thompson retired after the takeover at the age of 61. He died in 2000.