de Havilland Comet, tragic and heroic, the world’s first jet airliner

De Havilland CometThe de Havilland Comet was the world’s first jet airliner and the first to operate a jet-powered transatlantic service. The Comet began carrying passengers on 2 May 1952, when BOAC introduced the aircraft on its London to Johannesburg route.

The de Havilland DH106 Comet first flew on 27 July 1949, when test pilot John Cunningham took off from Hatfield Aerodrome and flew the aircraft for just over half an hour. At that time de Havilland’s design was three years ahead of anything else in the world. The design included an all-metal stressed skin that used a revolutionary metal-to-metal bonding system pioneered by the company, a high level of cabin pressurization, hydraulic flight controls and a high-pressure refuelling system.

BOAC Comet at Entebbe en route Johannesburg in 1952

The fifth Comet to be built was the first to receive a Certificate of Airworthiness, gaining its wings six months earlier than expected on 22 January 1952. The aircraft entered service with BOAC four months later and within its first year of service the de Havilland Comets had carried some 30,000 passengers.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were guests of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and Lady de Havilland on a special Comet flight on 30 June 1953 and became the first members of the Royal Family to fly by jet.

From its first introduction the Comet was eagerly put into operation by airlines around the world, in particular as it could reach speeds in excess of twice that of conventional aircraft and cut flying times on many long haul flights. In August 1953 the Comet cut the flying time on BOAC’s London to Tokyo service from a seat-aching eighty-five hours to just thirty five.

However, within four months of entering service tragedy had struck. On 26 October 1952 a BOAC Comet crashed attempting to take-off from Rome’s Ciampino Airport. Five months later on 3 March 1953 a Canadian Pacific Airlines Comet stalled when attempting to take-off at Karachi, Pakistan, killing all on-board. This was the first fatal crash of a jet-airliner. These accidents were initially blamed on pilot error, but further unexplained accidents soon brought doubt on that conclusion.

Comet Prototype at Hatfield

On 2 May 1953 a Comet crashed near Calcutta, India. One eye-witness reported seeing the aircraft lose its wings and plunge, in flames, into the Indian Ocean. On 10 January 1954 BOAC Flight 781 broke apart in mid-air and crashed into the sea off the Italian coast south of Elba. Following this accident the Comets were grounded and the Abell Committee sought to investigate the cause of the crash, but under pressure from the British government the aircraft were allowed to resume operations on 23 March 1954. Just over two weeks later on 8 April 1954 South African Airways Flight 201, using a Comet chartered from BOAC, came down off the Italian coast north of Stromboli, killing all on-board.

Following these disasters and the subsequent investigations de Havilland redesigned the Comet, making it larger and stronger. The Comet 2 aircraft were refitted to overcome the design flaws identified by the Cohen Committee and a new Comet 4 design received its Certificate of Airworthiness on 24 September 1958, which enabled the aircraft to once-again resume passenger services.

On 4 October 1958 BOAC entered the history books when they used their new Comet 4 aircraft to inaugurate the first regular London to New York jet-airliner passenger service. The flight required a refuelling stop at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, but BOAC were able to beat their rivals to be the first to operate on the route. Pan Am introduced their first transatlantic jet-airliner service using the new Boeing 707 one month later.

The de Havilland DH106 Comet is just one of many British aviation achievements that are chronicled in a new book by Sussex based authors Richard Edwards and Peter Edwards. Heroes and Landmarks of British Aviation tells the dramatic story of Britain’s aviation industry in the last century. The heroes are Britain’s innovative aviation pioneers and their aircraft, those who persevered to be the first into the air, to fly the fastest, the highest and the furthest, from innovative airship designs to the world’s only supersonic jet-airliner.