Christoper Foyle's aircraft turn heads. Even blase airport workers, used to the biggest Boeing, the newest airbus, turn to gawp when an air Foyle A-124 comes into land. The biggest commercial aeroplane in the world literally darkens the runway as it approaches. America's Cup yachts, articulated trucks, and even 588 massive pedigree Sussex pigs - the A-124 has swallowed them all during the past two years.
Open the Guinness Book of Records at air transport and you will find that Air Foyle and its Russian-built behemoth holds the airfreight record. It moved three electrical transformers weighing a total of 133 tonnes from Barcelona to New Caledonia. The operator of a vast copper-smelting plant, anticipating months of downtime, smiled as the vital new units were unloaded from the belly of the beast. Until the A-124 came into the airfreight arena those transformers would have been stuck for weeks on a ship. "We're starting from zero, educating the marketplace, because nothing of this size has flown before," explains Foyle, in his office a mere jet whine from Luton airport's main runway. "You have to adjust the freight-planners' mindset to realise that huge items can now go by air."
Certainly Foyle had to radically enlarge his own mindset during the years of negotiating with the Russian authorities to lease and then operate the giant aircraft. "I found it a stimulating but intensely frustrating experience," he muses. It was a slow minuet that began in 1987 when Foyle saw the A-124 make its debut at the Paris Air Show. The giant was designed during the Cold War to carry SS28 missiles and squadrons of tanks into the military cockpit of the German plains. Any Western entrepreneur looking for an angle was viewed with suspicion, even as the Soviet empire began to crumble.
"The first meeting was just for them to find out what we wanted it for," recalls Foyle, an affable, silver-haired man with a taste for understated blazers and loud braces. "Par for the course with the Russians. They ask all the questions and come back with firm "nets". "Patience and persistence paid off, although it took three years and the intervention of Mikhail Gorbachev before Air Foyle was able to operate the first of the A-124s on behalf of the Antonov Design Bureau in Kiev. Perhaps Foyle himself was the ideal negotiator, used to the slow-moving ways of large autocracies.
Grandson of William Foyle who founded the Charing Cross Road bookshop in London in 1904, Foyle worked in the family business for 18 years, developing, by many accounts, a real flair for the work. "I liked the book trade very much, as much as I now like aviation. You'd have to ask Richard Branson or Freddie Laker why one is like an obsession and the other merely a pleasant business."
Operating the giant Antonovs became a very pleasant obsession indeed last year when the Gulf War flared across the Middle East. Turnover on the Antonovs moved from a slow-growing £5 million in the previous year to £25 million, providing 75% of that year's turnover for Air Foyle. The aircraft moved everything from gas masks (Vienna to Dhahran) to mobile field hospitals.
"The only thing we wouldn't fly is arms or ammunition. It puts the crews in danger, it's morally ambiguous and the Russians would be unhappy," says Foyle, who is chairman and owner of 95% of the company. Air Foyle's finest hour came in airlifting 4,000 refugees, in batches of 500, from the Jordanian border to Dacca. No one could forget the television coverage of those fugitives from the Kuwait invasion. The UN chartered the Antonovs to move them out. There were mattresses on the cargo floor in lieu of seats, rows of chemical toilets and the happiest passengers Foyle had ever seen. "Conditions were unspeakable but I've never known people so pleased to get on to an aircraft," he says. The return flights took Rice back to Jordan to feed the waiting multitude. When the fighting was over, A-124s, with the Union jack emblazoned across the hull, flew oil skimmer boats to fight pollution, and gas turbines to resume power generation into Kuwait City.
"The business really took off when we were blessed with that War," says Foyle. His own breakthrough into the world commercial aviation came 28 years earlier. At the time, after leaving Foyles, he was working for City taxation advisers Emson and Dudley and was able to indulge a yen to learn to fly. Some years earlier as a schoolboy at Radley College he had learned to fly gliders on the Dunstable Downs. Armed with his Private Pilot's licence, he bought an old Piper Aztec for around £20,000 and began an air taxi business. He remembers it as slow to take off, but within three years Air Foyle operated four aircraft and had built up "quite a good business".
Then came the first "80s recession and the supply of customers keen to fly to board meetings at Gleneagles or lunch at Le touquet dwindled. "Things got very tough," he recalls. "It was the first time I took seriously the joke about making a small fortune in aviation by starting with a large one." Eagerly looking for alternative sources of revenue, Air Foyle tripped over the embryonic package courier business. Aircraft that once flew pinstripes now carried parcels, largely for a company called Skypak, now part of TNT. Foyle operates a fleet of five BAe 146 jets for TNT. By night they operate a Europe-wide scheduled package service for the carrier. By day Air Foyle operates on the cargo spot market, carrying everything from explosives to smoked salmon. It's good bread-and-butter work but something in this man isn't satisfied. He didn't leave a prestigious job-for-life to become an airborne Postman pat. The giant russian planes answered the Orville Wright in Foyle.
In the early 1980s, Foyle had acted as agent for the German company that operated the first commercial Hercules aircraft and could see the potential for heavy-lift in the airfreight business. Once he was aware of the Antonov he was hooked. "The only existing aircraft on remotely this scale is the Lockheed C5 Galaxy but that is operated by the US Air Force and is only available exceptionally on a government-to-government basis," explains Foyle. It is also smaller and manages far less payload than the A-125. Not the least surprising aspect of the Russian giant is its ability to act as a virtual roll-on/roll-off carrier. Its undercarriage drops to allow the bow door to become nearly level with the runway. Articulated trucks can be driven straight up onto the titanium floor of the cavernous belly. An identical door under the tail means they can be driven out at the other end. Twin overhead cranes inside the hold can move individual items up to 28 tonnes.
Initially Air Foyle operated the A-124 as western agents on behalf of the Antonov Design Bureau. Lurking in the background was Aeroflot, which sensed the beginnings of a business it would love to have. Aeroflot had hitherto possessed a monopoly of all soviet commercial aviation. Fuel, other logistics and traffic rights for A-124 movements had to be organised through them. "Aeroflot tried every trick in the book to try to upset the deal," recalls Foyle. "We'd telex for traffic rights and receive a reply in the mail two weeks later. If we told the customer it was going to take three days to move his cargo he'd put it on a ship. Then they demanded to know customer details - like his address, fax number and how much he was paying. Aeroflot would then call him up and suggest he went through them at a better rate."
The war ended when Air Foyle were finally able to wetlease not one but four A-124s. They are flown out of Kiev, since that is where the operational and engineering expertise is gathered. It costs the shipper around $10,000 an hour to charter an A-124, plus prior positioning costs.
Foyle puts a British co-ordinator and manager on each flight, along with the Russian flight crew that can number 18. "It's just to nursemaid them a bit, make sure they don't get ripped off over fuelling, handle the clients and the logistics," he says. "They're bloody good pilots and don't need any technical help." The A-124 is also capable of digging itself out of trouble. Extensive spares, right down to a set of tyres, are carried on each flight. The aircraft even carries its own tow-bar. Apart from needing a long landing-strip, it is virtually self-sufficient once on the ground - a tribute to its military provenance.
One financial problem is beyond Foyle's control. Antonov pays the pilots in roubles. "In addition," says Foyle, "we give them similar daily and hourly allowances for being away from home that a Western crew would get. A captain on a run from Europe to the Far East will pick up around $800. Put that in roubles and it is six times the average Russian worker's annual salary - for three days' work. It's caused a few difficulties."
One wonders whether Foyle might be tempted back into bookselling, particularly since entrepreneurs such as Tim Waterstone have shown that there is a real money to be made? Although Foyle is the second largest shareholder in the company, day-to-day control has rested since 1945 with his formidable Aunt Christina. With Christina now 81 the succession is far from clear. "You'll have to ask my aunt what happens when she goes. She plays her cards very close to her chest," says Foyle, fielding the question with aplomb. One senses that if aviation remains his future, he's going to be looking for new challenges once the A-124 is bedded down.
"Funny you should ask but the Antonov people have got a 225, the biggest aircraft in the world by an enormous margin," he enthuses. "It has a 258-tonne pay load and was designed to carry the Burcan space shuttle piggy-back style. We did some development work on the idea of moving a trawler from the Pacific to the Baltic bolted to the roof of the A-225. That way they could get two seasons' fishing in." Somehow it seems unlikely that Christopher Foyle will be back behind the till at Charing Cross Road.