Transvalair - The Swiss Cargo Airline
On 1st October 1973 an airline was founded in the canton of Valais, Switzerland, by the initiative of Captain Jean-Claude Rudaz with the aim to fly tourists to Sion and the Valais in an aircraft in the 40 to 50 seats capacity range but it turned out into being an all cargo air carrier and a Canadair CL-44 operator.
To underline its specific attachment to the Valais the company was named Valair. This name was however unacceptable to the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation due to its similarity to the name of Balair. Consequently, the name Transvalair (two-letter code VX) was chosen (incidentally this lead to confusion over the time as the airline was supposed to be from Transvaal, South Africa...)
Indirectly, Transvalair´s cargo activity resulted from the demise of ATA - Air Tourisme Alpine and this inability to get going on the CL-44 it bought from Transmeridian Air Cargo during 1973.
The management of Transvalair was approached by persons involved with ATA´s CL-44 purchase in view of operating this aircraft by Transvalair and this proposal was accepted. Crew training started on 1 January 1974 and CL-44D4-2, Serialno. 25, G-ATZI was delivered to Transvalair on 20 March 1974 after repainting by Dan-Air at Lasham, marking the first ever CL-44 landing at Sion airport. After some modification work at Basel was registered in Switzerland on 26 March 1974 as HB-IEN and operated the first commercial service for Transvalair on 13 April 1974 from Stansted to Lagos
Transvalair secured a three year sub-charter contract with IAS Cargo Airlines, London-Gatwick, covering HB-IEN that enabled the young airline to gradually build-up all its departments.
1975 was the year of general consolidation and 1976 steps into new fields of activity were taken. A trucking service came into being, called Transvalair Routiers and Transvalair Engineering was established to take care of certain maintenance tasks on the CL-44. The services of Transvalair Engineering were expanded in autumn 1976 by running a line maintenance station in Libreville, Gabon, to look after the two SOACO Argosy aeroplanes land form June 1977 until the end 1978 it undertook the dismantling of Air Canada DC-8 CF-TJB at Sion Airport.
In September 1976, Europe's first split cargo charter service to South America was launched in co-operation with Argentine carrier TAR - Transporte Aero Rioplatense, providing two flight per month from Basel to Buenos Aires. The schedule was increased to three flights per month in 1977, flown by TAP CL-44 and Boeing 707-320C. The South American activities were considerably increased from November 1978 when a similar agreement to the one with TAR was reached with ALAS - Altantida Linea Sudamericana of Uruguay where this operator performed CL-44-6 split cargo charter flights from Basel to Montevideo.
Business was flourishing and during 1977 it was decided to acquire a second CL-44. After considering several offers, CL-44D4-1, serialno. 32, G-AWOV of Tradewinds Airways was chosen and bought on 15 December 1977. After modifications and repainting by Aviation Traders at Stansted it was registered HB-IEO on 19 December 1977 and delivered to Sion the same day, entering regular services on 20 December 1977 from Sion to Khartoum via Milan - Malpensa. With this second aircraft the title "Swiss Cargo Airline" was added to the company name, thus underlining a distinct Swiss product.
Main areas of activity were Africa and the Arab Gulf with most flight originating from Sion where Transvalair had an own warehouse to handle incoming and outgoing freight.
The passenger aircraft project was kept in mind about September 1976 and as a matter of fact the registration HB-AAP for an F27 had reserved with the Swiss FOCA on 9 October 1973. Various aircraft types were studied, amongst them THY F27 MK.100, Hughes Airwest F27A, Allegheny CV-580 and at one time an option was even held on Ansett F27 Mk.200 VH-FND. Transvalair´s calculations based on an annual utilisation on minimum of 700 flight hours but market demand for a 50-seater trubo-prop was rather poor in those years in Switzerland and the project thus was never realised.
Transvalair employed an average of 60 persons, 20 of whom were flight crews and, apart from its headquarters at Sion, maintained sales offices in Basel, Paris, Frankfurt, London and Bujumbura.
After a steady expansion from 1974 to 1978, traffic in 1979 declined sharply as a result of world-wide recession, ever rising fuel costs and the introduction of wide-body aeroplanes by most airlines in Transvalair´s main areas of business. Every effort was made to keep the airlines in positive figures and an agreement was reached with STAC - Société de Transports Aériens Centrafricain for wet-lease of CL-44 HB-IEO to STAC, starting 17 May 1979. In October 1979 this aircraft was sold to United African Airlines, Tripoli, Libya, successor of STAC, and cancelled from Swiss register on 25 October 1979 to become 5A-DGE, having accumulated a total of 3532 hours and 910 landings while in service with Transvalair. Meanwhile and unfortunately HB-IEN´s average monthly flight hours would not exceed the 180 figure. Compared to the 1975 through 1978 figures of a monthly average of 220 flight hours and bearing in mind the risen costs this was merely sufficiently productive and on 27 February 1980 the board of directors of Transvalair decided to cease operations by May 1980 and to liquidate the company after considering to transfer activities to the passenger charter businesswith Boeing 727-200 equipment did not forthcome successfully.
HB-IEN operated Transvalair´s last commercial service on 9 to 10 May 1980 by flying from Madras to SION via Sharjah, Bagdad and Pisa. Between her delivery to Transvalair and her last flight for Transvalair, HB-IEN produced 14562 flight hours and 3195 landings. The aircraft remained withdrawn from use at Sion airport for a couple of months before being sold eventually to United African Airlines as 5A-DHJ, leaving Sion for her new owner on 13 February 1981.
Summarising, Transvalair´s two CL-44 freighters were airborne for a total of 18094 hours on 4105 flights, transported about 95000 tons of freight ranging from eggs and beans to earth moving machinery and elephants and flew of roughly 11´000´000 kilometres (275 times around the globe). Technical reliability of the CL-44 was far from outstanding!
Economical facts implemented a barrier to an operator that connected Sion and the Valais directly with many countries on the four continents and these facts sadly made it impossible to Transvalair to archive the ultimate goals it had set itself.
By Markus Seiler, formerly Technical Director of Transvalair and present Managing Director of Helios of Cyprus