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A look back at the de Havilland Comet: The world's first commercial jet airliner

In 1952, the history of flight was changed forever with the launch of the world’s first commercial jet – the de Havilland Comet. In this post, we look back on the glory days of this glamorous jet airliner and the disasters that eventually brought it down.

Commercial flight before the Comet

Commercial flight before the Comet was a very different affair. The first regularly scheduled flight began operating in 1914, when the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line launched twice-daily flights across Tampa Bay. Remarkably, each flight could only accommodate a single passenger.

In 1930, Transcontinental and Western Air – which went on to become TWA – began offering a regular flight between New York and Los Angeles. While this flight was certainly faster than overland travel, it included an overnight stop in Kansas City, Missouri as it was considered too dangerous to fly at night.

At this time, plane journeys were long and far from luxurious. Commercial flights were frequently met with bad weather, as they flew at far lower altitudes than the aircraft we use today. They were slow too – the most advanced airplane by the 1940s was the DC-3 propeller plane, which could only reach about 250 miles per hour.

Sir Geoffrey de Havilland’s ingenious invention

There was definitely room for improvement; and Sir Geoffrey de Havilland decided to do something about it. A British aerospace engineer and aviation pioneer who got his start building biplanes, de Havilland was best known at the time for producing the Mosquito, the most versatile warplane the world had ever seen.

In 1945, the British government contracted de Havilland to design and produce an aircraft with a pressurized cabin, which could reach 400 miles per hour and fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The British Overseas Airways Corporation placed an advance order for 10 planes.

A retired Dan Air Comet 4C displayed at Flugausstellung Hermeskeil in Germany
A retired Dan Air Comet 4C displayed at Flugausstellung Hermeskeil in Germany

The Comet takes flight

At first, the Comet soared high above expectations. The world’s first commercial jet was powered by four turbojet engines, each offering 22,000 Newtons of thrust, and could fly as high as 42,000 feet at 460 miles per hour – nearly double the speed of contemporary aircraft. The jet airliner’s design was sleek and futuristic, with a mirrored aluminium fuselage and elegant wings that hid its four jet engines.

Rectangular windows allowed passengers to look out over the world below. Thanks to its pressurized cabin, the plane was quieter, smoother and far more comfortable than any other aircraft in the sky. It could accommodate 36 passengers, with first class seats centered around tables in the style of a train car; while innovative features included a luggage storage area inside the cabin and separate restrooms for ladies and gentlemen.

The Comet’s first scheduled flight took place on May 2, 1952. The journey from London to Johannesburg took 23 hours, with stops in Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone along the way. Passengers reported that the flight was smooth, the service was impressive and meals were beautifully presented.

By 1953, the British Overseas Airways Company was operating flights from London to a range of locations including Johannesburg, Tokyo and Singapore. Wanting a piece of the action, other airlines including Canadian Pacific, Air France and the Royal Canadian Air Force began placing orders for the world's first jet airliner.

Disasters dull the Comet’s glow

Unfortunately, the glamorous early days of the de Havilland Comet were short-lived, as pilots began to encounter serious issues during flights. The aircraft was the first commercial jet in airplane history to use hydraulic controls, and as there was a defect with the seals in the pipes, pilots needed to bring along extra hydraulic fluid to refill them during service.

But that wasn’t the only problem the Comet faced: the cockpit windows often fogged up and the navigation system was prone to overheating. An even more dangerous defect was the controls, which pilots reported as giving the same feedback no matter how fast they were flying. Because of this, one Comet was unable to take off and ran off the runway in October 1952, after the pilot pulled back too far on the controls and caused too much drag on the wings. Had the controls been designed differently, this could have been avoided.

As the plane clocked up more flight hours, wear and tear made it even more dangerous. The first fatal crash occurred on May 2, 1953 – exactly a year after the aircraft’s maiden scheduled flight. The Comet was badly damaged and broke apart during a bout of turbulence after leaving Delhi, killing 43 people. Shortly thereafter, another plane exploded in mid-air and crashed after leaving Rome.

After these devastating crashes, an inquiry found that the plane’s hull was too weak to withstand vast changes in cabin pressure within short intervals. The problem was exacerbated by its square windows: as the structure of the fuselage was too weak, stresses were forming at the corners. In fact, the pressure surrounding the corners of the windows was two to three times stronger than anywhere else on the cabin.

The Comet was withdrawn from service and extensively redesigned, with improvements including oval windows and structural reinforcements. Following two further prototypes, the Comet 4 series launched in 1958 and remained in use for over 30 years.

A Comet 1A with the original square window design parked at Le Bourge Airport in 1952
A Comet 1A with the original square window design parked at Le Bourge Airport in 1952

The Comet’s impact today

The Comet’s mark on the history of flight will never be forgotten. The first commercial jet airliner paved the way for the Boeing 707, which also debuted in 1958. Learning from the mistakes of the Comet, the Boeing 707 was designed in a new shape that is still reflected in the Boeing 737 and the A340 today. The Comet’s fatal flaw was, in a strange way, its greatest contribution to aviation: today, planes are fitted with round or octagonal windows to avoid the potentially fatal buildup of pressure on the corners of rectangular or square windows. The Comet finally went out of service in 1997, ending an almost half-century career.

The aviation industry has come a long way since the Comet’s early days. To fly in the most glamorous planes in the sky today, contact Air Charter Service to arrange your next private jet charter.



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