A beautiful near thing

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image2***After World War II, one of the few areas where Great Britain had a technological advantage over the United States was in jet engine development, mainly due to engine designer Frank Whittle.

During the war, jet engines had been used to power small aircraft, but many thought that jet engines were unsuitable for commercial use since they had such high fuel consumption. Nevertheless, Great Britain rushed to develop the world’s first commercial jetliner − the beautiful de Havilland Comet Mark I. The clean, low-drag design had a swept-wing leading edge and was powered by four turbojet engines, buried in the wings close to the fuselage to avoid the drag of engine pods.
The buried engines called for increased structural weight and a higher risk of catastrophic wing failure in case of a fire. But, in fact, the buried engines caused no major problems.

The Comet went through the most exhaustive tests ever given to an airliner, including a water tank to pressure test the entire forward fuselage section for metal fatigue, especially the windows.

The British Overseas Airways Corporation bought 10 aircraft. When the first BOAC Comet took off for a flight from London for Johannesburg, South Africa, on May 2, 1952, it proved to be an immediate success. Cruising at 35,000 feet, the Comet was smooth and fast. It was about 50 percent faster than the mainstay of American airlines. The Douglas DC-6 cut hours off long trips. It seemed as if Britain had an insurmountable lead in commercial airliner development. Then, things began to go wrong.

In October 1952 and March 1953, Comets crashed on takeoff, but no passengers died. Then, on May 2, 1953, a Comet crashed in a severe tropical storm six minutes after taking off from Calcutta, killing 43. That was followed by another Comet crash off the Italian island of Elba eight months later, which killed 35. No cause for the accidents was established, but modifications were made to cover every possibility of a likely cause.

Comet flights resumed in 1954, but less than two weeks later, a Comet on a flight from London to Johannesburg crashed near  Naples, killing 21. The fleet was immediately grounded again.

After exhaustive tests, the weak point on the Comet proved to be the corner of the tiny, square windows − when the windows developed a crack, they would tear out, ripping a large slice in the fuselage wall.

The windows were redesigned, but Comets did not resume commercial airline service until Oct. 4, 1958. By that time, the Boeing  707 was ready to enter service, carrying twice as many passengers as the Comet. A total of 114 Comets were built, but 13 were lost in fatal accidents and the Comet never recovered its reputation.
Britain’s lead in the commercial aviation was lost and was never again regained.