Thomas ‘Mike’ Keegan was born in Liverpool in 1925 and, on leaving school, became an apprentice at the nearby Vickers aircraft factory. During the early part of the war he worked on Wellington bombers, and later he joined the RAF and became a flight engineer on Lancasters. After the war he saw the growing opportunities in civil aviation and qualified as a pilot, initially working for Starways. In 1950 he started his own airline with three partners,
Crewsair, which both operated and maintained aircraft, employing a small fleet of DC3 and Vickers Viking aircraft on general charter, pilgrimage, and tourist flights throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. By 1952 Keegan, along with two of his partners, James Barnaby and Cyril Stevens, had created a new name from their initials, BKS, which would grow to become one of the most important operators in the story of British independent airlines.
BKS, based at Southend Airport, commenced operations with a single DC3 (G-AIWE) by flying a livestock charter to Florence and Milan. The DC3 and its crew worked hard, often operating to destinations as far away as Entebbe or Hong Kong which required long working days. There were not, at the time, any legal limits on crew hours and the wartime spirit of ‘press on regardless’, was still the rule.
BKS soon had a small fleet of DC3s flying tourists, students, explosives, racing pigeons, ships’ crews and anything else that could be accommodated in the cabin of a DC3, across the globe. During 1952, the fleet covered more than 300,000 revenue miles and carried 3,750 passengers. By 1953, the growing airline was being awarded licenses to fly short haul scheduled routes. They identified northeast England as an area which needed better scheduled services and in 1953, began to link Greatham, in the key industrial centre of Teesside, with London’s Northolt Airport. At the same time their holiday charter business was growing, and they were carrying tourists to Basel, Munich, and the French Pyrenees. By the end of the year they had acquired further scheduled licences to Jersey and the Isle of Man, completing some two million passenger-miles in the process.
By 1955 they had a new hub at Leeds Bradford Airport from where they flew to the Channel Islands, Jersey, Belfast, Düsseldorf, Ostend, and Paris. In 1959 BKS began to operate what would become its flagship trunk route between Newcastle and London-Heathrow. After three years, it had carried over 69,000 passengers, with a 61 per cent overall load factor. By 1961 however, they were in financial straits and a group of creditors was trying to force them into liquidation. They survived by finding new backers, but the early 1960s was a difficult time for independents and many went to the wall.
An interesting side-line which BKS had nurtured was the carriage of racehorses, especially across the Irish Sea. Bristol 170 Freighters were used, along with several Airspeed Ambassador aircraft which were specially adapted for these flights. In 1968, tragically, Ambassador G-AMAD, which was carrying horses from Deauville for the betting tycoon William Hill, suffered an asymmetric flap failure shortly before touchdown at Heathrow. The aircraft veered off the runway, collided with two parked BEA Tridents, caught fire, and struck a terminal building. Six of the eight people on board, and all eight horses, were killed. The two BEA Tridents were extensively damaged although one of them, G-ARPI, was successfully repaired and returned to service; a remarkable achievement given that her tail section had been entirely broken away from the rest of the fuselage. The repairs cost £750,000 (£13.1 million today). Tragically, four years later, G-ARPI would herself crash in the Staines air disaster, which left 118 dead (at the time it was the worst air disaster to take place on British soil, surpassed only by the Lockerbie bombing of 1988). The accident report into the Ambassador crash found that metal fatigue in a flap operating rod was the cause, and both the pilot and BKS were cleared of all blame. After the accident, all Ambassadors were fitted with steel reinforcements to the flap operating rods.
By 1964 BKS had acquired Bristol Britannia aircraft which they operated on both scheduled flights and inclusive tour charters. Later that year, BEA took a 30 per cent stake in BKS and the two carriers signed a cooperation agreement. By November 1966, BEA had increased its share of the company to 50 per cent. Four months later, British Air Services (BAS) was established as a holding company, not only for BKS but also for BEA’s interest in another independent: Cardiff-based Cambrian Airways (BAS should not be confused with British Aviation Services, which later became Britavia) . The two BAS companies soon began coordinating operations. Cambrian Viscounts frequently flew BKS schedules, and BKS took over Cambrian’s ground handling at London Heathrow.
Of the three original founders, only Cyril Stevens was still a director, but he resigned in April 1969 to become Managing Director of the newly formed Tradewinds cargo airline. 1970 was to be BKS’s final year of operation under its own name. On November 1, the company changed its name to Northeast Airlines and adopted a dramatic new yellow and black corporate livery. The group’s other major interest, Cambrian Airways, also got a makeover but retained its original name, reflecting its close connection with Wales. The new title for BKS was designed to reinforce its established identity in the northeast of England and to further consolidate BEA’s monopoly position on UK domestic routes. In 1974, Northeast carried over half a million passengers and was the only one of BEA’s regional divisions to make a profit.