The Aircraft That Brought The Future – de Havilland Comet
If you’ve never heard of the de Havilland Comet before, there can be multiple reasons why.
Firstly, the last Comets flew in the air for commercial airlines in 1980 for Dan Air. The airline is also defunct as of 1992. Secondly, airlines did not operate a lot of Comets. The previously mentioned Dan-Air was the biggest Comet operator in the world, with 49 aircraft in their fleet. However, the company had only 12 Comets in the air at one time at most. Thus, the chances of actually seeing a de Havilland Comet in the air were actually very slim.
Lastly and most importantly is that everybody wanted to forget it. While it brought the future, a lot of problems have followed the promises of a new era of jet travel.
Yet without it, we probably would not have seen the beloved Boeing 707 or the DC-8 in the skies so early. A question remains: how did an aircraft, which truly revolutionized the way we travel and influenced the biggest aircraft manufacturers to switch on their jet engines, is barely remembered?
To quote Will Smith, “It’s rewind time!”
Plans, Excitement and Troubles
If we want to fully understand the impact of the Comet at the time, we have to go back to the end of the Second World War. In the spring of 1943, everyone knew the fate of the war is settled. The Allies will come out victorious and it was only a matter of time and sadly, the cost of human lives.
Yet Britain had a problem. Their capitalist nerves were tingling, as they knew that their aviation industry is lagging behind their American counterpart. With Luftwaffe bombing their factories and their focus set to build as many bombers and fighters as they can, British commercial aviation was not in great shape.
So, to solve this, the British government set up the Brabazon Committee. The Committee had the goal to determine the future of their aviation industry. It came up with 5 aircraft types that would be needed after the war. And one of them, called Type IV, was a jet-powered aircraft. The requirements for it were simple: to be faster than piston-powered aircraft, more comfortable and have a bigger flying range. Interestingly, the founder of the de Havilland Company influenced the Committee to consider this type of aircraft. At the time, jet engines were seen as too unreliable with an insane amount of fuel consumed and too complex to maintain at a commercial level.
But Sir Geoffrey de Havilland was determined to change that opinion. And also to use the opportunity to create an aircraft, that would take over the skies. If it were successful, the new jet would completely dominate every single commercial market in the world. The potential rewards were astronomical (no pun intended). On the other hand, if it were to fail – the consequences would be very dire.
HYPE HYPE HYPE HYPE HYPE
When de Havilland presented the initial plans to the public, everyone was ecstatic. It promised redefined luxury and triple the speed of the fastest piston aircraft at the time. It also was much more efficient than piston engines, as flying at higher altitudes required much less fuel to propel itself forward. More comfort for the passengers as jet engines created much less noise and vibration than piston engines. The cabin space was unheard of at the time. Even today you would not find a narrow-body airliner with so much space. But that also created a problem – we‘ll talk about it later.
And the design, oh boy the design looked amazing. Even in 2019, 70 years after the Comet first took flight to test its capabilities, it looks futuristic.
Huge crowds always met Comets at airports
The slick, clean design made piston-powered aircraft look outdated, even if they were just a few years old. The de Havilland Company managed to create something that everyone was excited about, including the airlines. First customers were lining up in 1945, 4 years before the Comet even took its first test flight. In the late 1945s, BOAC ordered Comets to be delivered by de Havilland. Later British South American Airways also ordered the aircraft. The two airlines set the deadline – de Havilland will deliver the new jets in 1952.
Trial and No Error
Development began in 1947. The Comet was going to fly in much higher altitudes than piston aircraft, which meant that the aircraft had to be pressurized so that passengers would be able to breathe in the air. A lot of emphasis was put on stress tests, including pressure tests to the fuselage. At the time, the jet passed all tests with flying colors, as no troubles were indicated. Some components even performed better than expected.
Thus, with research and development under wraps, flight tests began in 1949. As soon as the first, short-lived test flights took place, everyone realized that air travel would change forever. The chief test pilot, John Cunningham noted that the Comet was “Very promising. Very quick.” de Havilland Comet showed no signs of any problems during its test flights.
After further testing the aircraft for over 2 years, de Havilland was ready to deliver their Comets to first customers. First one was obviously BOAC – they were the first ones to believe in Geoffrey’s vision to completely change commercial aviation.
The testing phase was promising for de Havilland Comet. So were the first few years of flights. The fresh new fleet of Comets enjoyed relative success and the jet recorded no accidents.
BOAC Comet Jetliner Poster. Author: Unknown
On May 2nd, 1952 the Comet took off on the first commercial jet flight. The BOAC flight from London to Johannesburg was 7000 miles long and it would take the jet to travel 23 hours. BOAC scheduled five stops along the way – at Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingston before landing in Johannesburg.
Compared to the 27 hours flying by piston-engine aircraft, passengers were excited. The flight captain of the first flight brought every passenger a special flight certificate, signed by him. Another reason why passengers were happy was that BOAC priced the flights evenly on piston aircraft and on the de Havilland Comet. Because of this, passengers would fly in a much comfortable, much smoother environment and you would reach your destination much faster.
Everyone around the world was buzzing to fly on the newest and fastest aircraft. Even Queen Elizabeth loved it! BOAC started expanding the Comets network around the world, especially eastwards. The airline scheduled the Comet to fly from London to Sri Lanka, Karachi, Singapore and Tokyo.
Queen Elizabeth deboarding a de Havilland Comet
But the excitement was short lived. Already a year into service, one Comet crashed when departing from Rome. It failed to gain enough speed and altitude and ran off at the end of the runway. Fortunately, no fatalities followed.
de Havilland Comet crashed off the runway
Unfortunately, a year later the first loss of life occurred on a de Havilland Comet. This time in Karachi, Pakistan, as 11 people lost their lives in the first deadly jet accident. Investigators concluded that the wing design was an issue. de Havilland changed the wing’s leading edges and issued new instructions to pilots on how to perform a take-off.
However, a year later after the first commercial BOAC flight, a Comet blew up mid-air in India. Yet it was attributed to turbulence, as on May 2nd, 1953 there actually was a lot of turbulence in India. After an investigation into the accident, investigators recommended to de Havilland to fit a weather radar, a new control system onto the Comet. Investigators also suggested a speed limit when flying through severe turbulence.
The public confidence was still at an all-time high. Everybody believed in the Comet, as de Havilland changed the design and everything seemed to be fixed. Turbulence was not something that can be fixed, so with the new speed restrictions when in turbulence in place, the public believed that the de Havilland Comet was safe. Airlines reported no further problems and passengers were still lining up to fly on the new jet.
But people and airlines can be very naïve sometimes.
It doesn’t seem so perfect after all
When it looked like that de Havilland had managed to build a perfect aircraft with much less noise, faster travel times and an actually reliable jet engine, everyone loved. A lot of people overlooked any problems that the de Havilland Comet was plagued with.
A de Havilland Comet, registered G-ALYP crashed on the 10th of January, 1954 after shortly taking off from Rome. The BOAC flight was supposed to arrive in London Heathrow Airport, but it crashed near the Italian island of Elba. 35 people died on board the aircraft that day. BOAC immediately stopped all Comet operations to protect its passengers from another disaster. Investigators provided 60 potential changes to the aircraft, as nobody could pin down the reason for the crash. The de Havilland Comet plunged into the sea and the investigators asked the British navy to recover the remains of the aircraft.
After a month, the British navy found the wreckage and delivered it back to the Abell Committee, which was investigating the crash. The Committee concluded that there were no possible weaknesses in the aircraft.
But former pilots have noted that the first production Comets were an on-going test. Peter Duffey, a Comet pilot said: “All my time on the Comet 1, the aircraft was still under development. We had problem after problem. The first four aircraft had faulty seals. We used to carry hydraulic fluid to top up the system.”
The problems did not stop there – many flight crews have reported issues with the electronic and navigational systems. Pilots’ windows would mist up and the aircraft needed to be refueled every 4 hours.
Despite all of the problems, BOAC started flying the Comet again in March of 1954, just two months after the Flight 781 disaster.
Prestige and pressure
The British government risked a lot when playing the de Havilland Comet card. The prestige of the British aerospace industry was at stake and they did not want the Comet to go out on a bad note. The British government also owned BOAC. Thus, if Comets stayed on the ground, BOAC lost money. If BOAC lost money, the government itself lost money as well.
There were a lot of reasons to ground the BOAC’s Comet fleet. On the other hand, there were a lot of reasons to keep it going. That is why it resumed flights. Passengers were not perplexed. The Comet still filled seats and the aircraft lifted off with full cabins.
And then, after two weeks of crash-free flights, another de Havilland Comet crashed into the Mediterranean Sea after taking off from Rome. This time, the British government said enough is enough and completely grounded the Comets and removed its airworthiness license. Subsequently, de Havilland stopped producing Comets all together. At least the first version of the de Havilland Comet.
Previously, the British government feared that if the Comets were not going to be airborne, the pride of their aviation industry was going to be damaged. By a way of contrast, after the second disaster, the British feared that if another Comet crashes – their reputation would be damaged beyond repair.
Cracks and influence
Sir Arnold Hall led the investigation to find out what was happening with the Comet. One of the most important tests performed were the pressurization tests. Investigators placed a Comet fuselage into a water tank to test the effects of pressurization on the fuselage. The aircraft at hand had done 1221 internal pressurization cycles while performing commercial flights. Furthermore, 1836 cycles were completed in the water tank. While on the 1836th cycle, the fuselage opened up like a can of baked beans. Investigators realized that the fuselage was to blame for fatal accidents.
This is where the influence of the Comet began. Previously to this, there were no such intense investigations into aircraft accidents. Both the investigators and de Havilland realized that the fuselage was too thin to handle the pressure. Also, the windows on the aircraft were causing much of the cracking on the fuselage, as they were square, rather than round.
As a consequence, de Havilland went back to the drawing board. They needed to completely redesign their jet. Firstly, they changed their philosophy. The de Havilland Company built the first Comets using a SAFE-LIFE method, meaning that the fuselage or any other aircraft part is meant to survive the estimated safe operational time. Any sustained damage would shorten the life-span of an aircraft significantly. After the horrific Comet accidents, de Havilland switched to FAIL-SAFE, which allowed the structure to sustain damage, yet still be safe to fly. Engineers or pilots would have an easier time repairing, maintaining and inspecting the aircraft prior to a flight.
The de Havilland Comet not only influenced safety or design philosophies. As the Comets were sitting on the ground, the United States knocked on the door.
A de Havilland Comet sitting on the ground next to a Boeing 707
Boeing and Douglas
de Havilland needed a completely new design. That is not just made overnight. It took 4 years for the company to make a jet that would fly again. At first, de Havilland tested the Comet 2 in 1953 with oval windows. Nevertheless, after the 1954 disasters, all airlines canceled their orders for the Comet 2. The first Comet were either scrapped for metal, spare parts or modified to be airworthy again.
de Havilland needed to act quickly, but they were not quick enough. They developed the Comet 3, which only stayed as a prototype. However, that paved the way for the Comet 4, which had a better range than the 3 and airlines were more keen to get the Comet 4.
But it was too late. The same year as the company delivered de Havilland Comet 4s to airlines, the Boeing 707 came knocking. It had better fuel efficiency, range and were faster. The final nail in the coffin was the DC-8, which also was better than the Comet. Orders for the de Havilland Comet 4 did not reach record numbers. de Havilland made a total of 76 deliveries of the 4. Compared to the 865 and 556 orders of the 707 and DC-8 respectively, that’s a very small portion of the market.
In an already tight market, the previous failures just did not help. Either de Havilland had to act quickly or come up with a fresh design much faster than they did. However, they had one big issue – the people just did not believe in the Comet anymore. Accidents damaged the reputation of the aircraft too much.
BOAC replaced the Comets with the Boeing 707
The Last Comet
de Havilland built the last Comet in 1964. One year later, BOAC retired all of its Comets, as it just had no place in their fleet. Dan-Air used the aircraft until 1980 when it also retired the aircraft.
March 14th, 1997 British ministry of Technology performed the last documented flight of the de Havilland Comet. Airlines and other operators have finally put the Comet to its resting place.
And even though the Comet was a commercial failure, it made humanity strive for more. Everyone who flew on the Comet was blown away. The comfort, speed and prestige to fly on one of de Havilland’s creations were incomparable to other aircraft of the era. Piston-engined aircraft could not keep up. It showcased to every manufacturer out there that jet travel was the future. Sadly, the future which the de Havilland Comet was not part of.
Unfortunately, there was another side of the coin to the Comet. A side that was full of crashes and disasters, a side which nobody wants to remember.
As for the company that built the first jet, the backlash was too much to handle. With the Comet draining a lot of company resources, it struggled financially during the late 1950s. In 1960, Hawker Siddeley bought out de Havilland. In 1963, Hawker Siddeley put the de Havilland brand to rest.