When the first of Freddie Laker's Skytrains lifts off for New York from London next week, the nail-biting impresario himself will be aboard—tense as "an electric wire," he says, "waiting to see if there are any customers." Small wonder. For on that first daily transatlantic commuter run for the rock-bottom fare of $236 round trip, Laker's fortune and future will also be riding. When the return flight touches down in Britain some 17 hours later, says Laker, "I'll either be tired, broke and miserable as bloody sin—or I'll be tired and delighted."

Either way, the revolutionary Sky-train project seems an appropriate cap to Laker's career. As owner of the second largest transatlantic charter airline (with a fleet of 11), it took him six years to win British and U.S. government approval for his no-frills, no-reservation service. Now, having weathered furious lobbying by the regular international carriers, Laker must deal with the cut-rate packages they are proposing to compete with him. He still expects a profit in Skytrain's first year, but warily hedges his predictions. "It did not occur to me," he says, "that Pan American would be so foolish as to divert thousands of full-fare passengers from themselves to defeat me. But people have been trying to gobble me up for years and found me very indigestible. I expect I'll remain so."

Driven by memories of his cruel childhood in Canterbury—a sadistic father who abandoned his family when Freddie was 5, a home without an indoor toilet—Laker early on resolved to "get out of poverty and stay out." An indifferent scholar, he still chuckles over his instructors' reaction when he designated "millionaire" as his preferred occupation. (His worth today is estimated at upwards of $100 million.) Inspired at 14 by a glimpse of the Hindenburg and a British biplane crossing the sky over Canterbury, he left school two years later to become a tea-boy and sweeper for a company making flying boats. During World War II he was a test engineer, a ferry pilot and a writer of aviation manuals.

After the war Laker began building his empire—parlaying humble start-up businesses (trading spare parts, buying and selling a cherry orchard) into the purchase of a dozen converted Halifax bombers just in time to get a piece of the Berlin airlift action in 1948. A decade later, Laker was tapped as the first chief executive of British United Airways, an independent airline which, for the seven years he ran it, turned a profit—while the subsidized BOAC floundered in red ink.

Quitting in 1965 to form Laker Airways, he planned to go into partnership with his son, Robin. But the boy was killed in an automobile accident at 17. (Laker's daughter, Elaine, 33, is a housewife. Both children were by his first wife, Joan, whom he divorced in 1968 after 26 years of marriage. A second marriage ended in divorce in 1974.)

Laker credits his success in business to a lifelong tightfistedness. His bleak HQ—a six-floor walkup in a "dead corner" of a hangar at Gatwick Airport—makes the point vividly. Laker himself climbs up four flights to his office. Says one aide, "If he's prepared to walk up all those steps, there's no reason for us to complain." Claims the boss: "I am one of the workers, just the No. 1 drone."

Outside the office, however, Laker's life-style is sybaritic. His favorite getaway is Majorca, where he berths his $350,000 70-foot yacht Tutinella. There in 1974 he met Patricia Bowden Gates, now 38, a Tulsa-born widow with two children. The next year she married him and set up housekeeping on his 120-acre estate in Sussex (one of three farms he owns). Laker, who once said he commiserated with his wives because he was married to his business, rises at 7 to attend to the animals—30 racing thoroughbreds, 150 Hereford cattle and 350 breeding ewes—before being chauffeured to Gatwick in a white Rolls-Royce. Patricia, however, does not feel neglected. "He loves his business, and I knew that when I married him," she says, "but he is very protective, like an old mother hen." This is perhaps especially true since the death of their newborn son, christened Freddie, only hours after his birth last November.

At 55, Laker has his sights set far beyond Skytrain—on tourism in Australia ("virgin territory and a fortune to be made") and on his dream of seeing a British Derby winner wearing his silks. "I've been trying for 20 years," he says with a laugh. "There's too much competition." Laker turns steely, however, when discussing his determination to make Skytrain a winner. "I have been on my ass before," he says, "and could be on it again. The only thing that's going to get me out of the North Atlantic, though, is a hole six feet under."