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BOAC and civil aviation’s fleet of famous Comets

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, History, Technology, Transport, Travel on Monday, 30 July 2012

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This edited article about civil aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 756 published on 10th July 1976.

BOAC Comet 4, picture, image, illustration

BOAC’s Comet 4 by Roy Cross

On May 2nd, 1952, BOAC made commercial airline history when the de Havilland Comet I, its first jetliner, left London Airport for Johannesburg and inaugurated the world’s first pure jet passenger service. BOAC began to leap triumphantly ahead of its competitors on the South African and then the Far East routes. Comet Is took over the London-Tokyo link slashing 50 hours off the Argonaut’s time.

Flying by Comet was air travel at its best. Inside the cabin there was hardly any noise and no vibration whatsoever. Passengers could stand a pencil upright on the table in front of them. It was almost like magic – it just stayed upright! The cruising speed was over 450 mph when flying at around 40,000 feet, and everyone who flew in the Comet, both crew and passengers, agreed that this was the finest aircraft in the world – and it was British.

BOAC were optimistic. With the introduction of the Comet, which would halve the times of current schedules, the Management stated in the report for 1952/53: “To halve the travel time across the world . . . is the most signal advance in international transport that we and our predecessors in title have been privileged to make in our history. BOAC has fathered the jet age in civil aviation, as in the past we pioneered the Empire routes and as in the future we intend to girdle the earth with all-British air services.

“. . . the first phase of the jet age is now over, with the Comet I established in service and extending its operations along the main arteries of the Commonwealth. The second phase is soon to come with the Comet 2s and the Britannia in partnership providing express jet and tourist services. We plan a third phase in the battle for supremacy of equipment to bridge the Atlantic with long-range jets flying in step with time.”

Within twelve months of this report, in May 1953, a Comet met with disaster near Calcutta. The crew of six and the 37 passengers were killed. In January 1954 another accident occurred off the island of Elba. The crew of six and 35 passengers lost their lives. The Comets were temporarily taken out of service for modifications. In March the same year, after a machine of South African Airways exploded off Naples killing the crew of seven and 14 passengers, all the Comets were grounded. The aircraft’s certificate of airworthiness was withdrawn.

At the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough scientists were working at top pressure and with every resource available to find the cause. The main problem was that very little wreckage of the Comet lost near Elba had been found. In the Mediterranean the special vessels HMS Barhill, HMS Salvor and HMS Wakeful were sent on the search. To help them they had television apparatus, an observation chamber, and other deep sea salvage equipment.

Gradually they discovered pieces of the aircraft. Then they found the most vital section, the part where the wing spars pass through the fuselage. Finally the entire forward end of the Comet cockpit was brought to the surface. The Royal Navy had found 68.5 per cent in weight of the Comet. The jigsaw was being pieced together.

Now it was decided to make stringent tests of a complete Comet aircraft. The scientists simulated the conditions of a series of pressurised flights. Then, after the equivalent of 3,060 flights, the cabin structure gave way. The failure began at the corner of one of the cabin windows. Examination of the wreckage and further tests confirmed the conclusion that the primary failure was the bursting of the pressure cabin.

There were going to be many months of painstaking experiments and exhaustive investigation from which our American competitors would also benefit, and the lessons learned would be put into practice. It would take BOAC nearly ten years to overcome this calamity financially.

However, in 1958 a new breed of Comets was launched, the Comet 4. The aircraft had been redesigned and strengthened. In the meantime, across the Atlantic, the Americans had been busy. The four years taken to discover and rectify the causes of the Comet failures in 1954 had taken away Britain’s lead in jet passenger transport.

In 1958 the Comet 4 beat the American Boeing 707 into service on the North Atlantic route by just three weeks and inaugurated the world’s first transatlantic pure jet commercial service. The westbound flight time was 10 and a half hours, which almost halved the piston-engined Stratocruiser’s time.

On May 27th, 1960, BOAC opened a London-New York service with the Boeing 707. These new large high-speed aircraft – the first of the long-range high capacity jet generation, steadily took over on the North Atlantic and on October 16th the Comet 4 fleet was retired from this route.

Once again Britain had pioneered a new invention only to be overtaken. Our world lead vanished with the crash of the Comets. The American manufacturers had scooped us and with the Boeing 707 provided the biggest improvement in airline design for a generation.

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