de Havilland Comet: The Dawn of the Jet Age
By James Grahame
Most of us take massive jetliners for granted, but the ability to zorch from one continent to another is only about 50 years old.
The four engine de Havilland Comet (named after their 1930s racing aircraft) first flew on July 27, 1949, ushering in a new age of sleek and speedy transportation. The aircraft entered commercial service in January 1952 and quickly became a favorite of elite travelers, capable of cruising at over 400 mph (twice the speed of propeller driven aircraft).
The original design could seat a maximum of 44 passengers and carried a cockpit crew of four (pilot, co-pilot, navigator and engineer). Alas, the aircraft started to experience inexplicable in-flight failures in May of 1953. It took several more crashes before investigators were able to pin the blame on metal fatigue: the design required an extremely thin metal skin to compensate for the low thrust generated by the four Ghost 50 Mark I turbojet engines. The fuselage surrounding the Comet's large rectangular windows proved susceptible to cracking after many thousands of pressurized flights. The end result was explosive cabin decompression that led to rather nasty structural failure in mid-flight -- definitely not a good way to earn repeat business.
The design problems were eventually resolved and the Comet 4 entered service in 1958 with round windows, a strengthened fuselage, and high output Rolls-Royce Avon engines that dramatically increased cargo capacity and speed. Sadly, the damage to the Comet's reputation was irreparable and the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 went on to dominate the airline industry throughout the 1960s.
Chasing the Sun: The de Havilland Comet [PBS]
Photos are from the British Airways Museum Collection