2nd May 1952. Cracking-Up.
It was Today in 1952 that the maiden flight by the first jet airliner, the 500 mph Comet I from London to J’burg took place, in 18 hrs 40 minutes. Britain seemed destined to steal a march on the Americans.
However success turned to disaster when three Comets broke up after taking off, beginning in October in 1952, when BOAC, de Haviland, Comet I, ‘Yoke Peter’, flying from Rome, failed to get airborne and crashed with luckily no fatalities.(1)
Inquiry showed that the problems were metal fatigue owing to scrimping on metal and the under-powered Ghost engines hadn’t the power for heavier planes.(2)
In January 1954 a Comet disintegrated at 35,000 ft off Elba, in April one broke up south of Naples. There were no survivors, a later Report concluded that all the problems were unforeseen.(3)
The irony is that in 1954 the US were no nearer to getting a commercial jet into service having only the propeller Constellations. so we could have done more testing.
It was back in 1946 that the Ministry of Supply gave de Havilland a fierce deadline to deliver Comets by February 1952 to go into service with BOAC.
The plane would be revolutionary, being capable of cruising at a speed of 550 mph at 40,000ft.
However the fuselage metal was made of too thin a gauge and unpainted to reduce weight as de Havilland insisted on their under-powered Ghost engine: BOAC wanted the Rolls-Royce Avon.
Newsreels of that time were full of the Comet and the American, Pan-Am placed orders. The government paid for eight before being built, but all parties were aware of the weaknesses and letters to de Havilland from BOAC and various Government Departments expressed anxiety, but all were conveniently kept from public view.
It was in 1949 that the Comet made its maiden flight and the centrepiece at the Farnborough Air Show, where pilots discovered that the nose-panel had buckled.(4)
After the crashes it was decided to undertake a full-scale, air-frame, water-tank test at the Royal Aircraft Establishment where metal fatigue owing to thin metal was found which confirmed earlier findings of 1951.
Just prior to his death Ron Bishop, Comet’s chief designer admitted that his biggest mistake was to agree to Harry Povey’s admission that he couldn’t meet the deadline and wanted to rivet around windows which made the fuselage vulnerable to stress.(5)
The arrival of the Boeing 707 in 1958 was to confirm America’s lead in the field. It has been said that a mad race for profit motivated the Directors of de Havilland, but senior members of the design team refuted that in 2002. Also the under-powered Ghost engines were the only ones available and capable of certification for civil use, at the time.
The Rolls-Royce Avon was not even cleared for civil certification when the Comet 1 Fleet was grounded in 1954.
Comet’s successor the Hawker Siddeley, Nimrod gave years of RAF service to 2011.
The chief test pilot for the Comet, Group Captain John ‘cats eyes’ Cunningham died in 2002 having piloted its maiden flight.
(1) On 26th October.
(2) Cracks appeared by windows and doors where riveting couldn’t sustained stretching and fuselage couldn’t withstand different pressures involved in being airborne and landing.
(3) On 8th April 1954.
(4 27th July 1949.
(5) Bishop was designer of the war-time Mosquito.
bbc.co.uk/ Jonathan Glancey. 15.4. 2014/Pics.