Avgeek – How the de Havilland Comet brought in the Jet age

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In the world of the A380 and Dreamliner, few would remember the de Havilland Comet. Yet it was the Comet that flew travellers into the Jet age
Words Aninda Sardar

Trans-atlantic flights, internally pressurised fuselage (cabin) for passenger comfort at altitude, swept back wings, jet engines, fuel tanks integrated into the wings and bogie undercarriage are things we take for granted in 2019. Back in 1952 however, every single one of these aspects would have been space age stuff.

Commercial flying was still dominated by propeller driven, piston engined aircraft that harked back to aircrafts used through the Second World War. Primitive, slow and as efficient as me solving Math problems, these lumbering transports ensured that the world was ready to take that leap of faith that would eventually lead to the kind of luxury flying that every evolved flier on the planet is so aware of. All those First Class suites, flat bed Business or Executive classes and what have you.

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Small surprise then that when the de Havilland Comet emerged from the wings on May 2, 1952, three years after its development in 1949, flying the colours of the British Overseas Airways Corporation or BOAC as it was called worldwide, the world gaped in awe.

With its four de Havilland Ghost turbojet engines producing 20,000 pounds of thrust, streamlined bullet shape, swept back wings that integrated fuel tanks in them and its pressurised cabin, the Comet was nothing like what fliers had seen before. As the BOAC Comet 1 scythed through the mist, shrieked down the runway and took off, its 36 passengers, 30 bags of mail and six-member crew flew straight into the pages of aeronautical history. Under the command of BOAC’s Captain Michael Majendie, Comet 1 would fly the 6,724 miles (10,821km) that separated London from Johannesburg at a cruising speed of 460mph (740km/h), 100mph (160km/h) faster than the fastest piston engine commercial aircraft of the time. For the following 67 years the world has been growing consistently smaller.

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While the heralding of the jet age is the obvious fallout of the flight of the Comet, a less talked about fallout is the kind of refinement and luxury that the Comet was able to introduce in air travel. While its jet engines were far noisier than the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or Engine Alliance GP7000 that powers the A380, the de Havilland Ghosts helped air travel take a quantum leap into the future with their reduced noise, vibrations and harshness (NVH) over what was usual for the 1950s flier in a piston engine aircraft. As a result, a passenger in a BOAC Comet was far less likely to be fatigued than a passenger in a propeller aircraft over the same distance or same flight duration. In any case, because the jet powered Comet was so much faster, the same distance was covered in fewer hours, which meant a shortening of flight durations. Again, the impact was reduced passenger fatigue. The overall experience of flying also became smoother and more sophisticated.

The Comet would soon die an untimely death thanks to a fatal flaw in its structural design. A series of crashes would lead to its grounding, which would eventually see the balance of power in the skies shift to the other side of the Atlantic as Boeing and then Airbus took over from where the British were forced to leave off. All of that story is well documented, so why am I talking about the Comet today then? Well, 2019 marked the 65th anniversary of the final fatal crash of the de Havilland Comet.

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But we don’t celebrate the morbid and the macabre here. So I ask the question again, why are we talking about the Comet? Because it has been 65 years since the Jet Age truly came of age and made the world smaller and travel safer than it has ever been. Flying has never been more luxurious either. Not only do you have the option of taking a shower at 36,000 feet in your First Class suite but also have the option of chartering your own flight if you want that kind of exclusivity and luxury, courtesy services like our sister concern Urbane Jets that facilitates all sorts of aviation related requirements. But we truly owe all of that to the BOAC and the de Havilland Comet.

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