The De Havilland Comet Was the First Jetliner — And an Awesome Sub-Hunter
But the speedy jet suffered tragic accidents
by MICHAEL BYRNE
On July 27, 1949, the world quite abruptly became a very small place. The new scale, which drew together cities and coastlines that had for millennia existed on basically separate planets, came courtesy of the de Havilland Comet, the first commercial jet aircraft to enter production.
With its pressurized cabin, it could travel as high as 42,000 feet and, courtesy of four turbojet engines offering 22,000 Newtons of thrust each, it cruised at 460 miles per hour.
The Comet was, well, a comet.
The next best thing until the Comet arrived was the propeller-driven DC-3, which could hit 250 miles per hour, at best. Air travel in its 1930s and ’40s infancy was characterized by short but exhausting flights that took a long time — relatively speaking — and were frequently marred by gnarly weather characteristic of lower altitudes.
At the time, jet engines were thought to be too inefficient and fuel hungry and too unreliable to be seriously considered for commercial aviation.
Nonetheless, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, whose company had gotten its start producing biplanes, took it as a challenge. In 1945, de Havilland was awarded a contract from the U.K. government to design and produce a mailplane capable with a pressurized cabin capable of transatlantic flight and cruising speeds of at least 400 miles per hour.
In 1945, before a design team had even been formed at de Havilland, the British Overseas Airways Corporation placed an order for 10 turbojet aircraft.
The Comet began regular service in 1952 and, by 1953, BOAC was flying nine Comets per week from London to distant locales such as Tokyo, Singapore and Johannesburg. More airlines placed orders.
Then it all went wrong, at least for a time. There were two fatal Comet accidents in 1953, one of which involved an aircraft disintegrating in mid-air while passing through a thunderstorm.
In 1954, another Comet crashed after takeoff from Rome following an explosive decompression. The planes were grounded and several inquiries took place, with the major finding being that the aircraft’s hull was too weak to deal with flight stresses that were still poorly understood at the time of the plane’s development.
Many of the Comet 1s were scrapped, to be later replaced by a more robust version, the Comet 2, which in turn evolved into the Comets 3 and 4. According to Comet! The World’s First Jet Airliner, the final Comet 4 left service in 1997. Its operator then was the U.K.’s Royal Aircraft Establishment, which used it to collect aeronautical data.
But it was the Royal Air Force that was, in a sense, really the final Comet operator. In the mid-1960s, the RAF modified the Comet 4 into a maritime patrol plane it called the Nimrod.
The RAF took delivery of 46 Nimrod MR1s and, in the mid-1970s, upgraded 35 of them to the MR2 standard. They proved to be among NATO’s most capable submarine-hunters — and even produced a spy plane variant called the Nimrod R1.
A radar early-warning version never got past the prototype stage, but an overhauled and upgraded MR4 patrol variant showed tremendous promise. The RAF even considered outfitting the MR4 as a long-range bomber.
But the Nimrod couldn’t escape the Comet legacy. The MR4 upgrade proved devilishly difficult to produce, as each airframe had been more or less hand-produced in the 1960s and differed greatly from the next.
The British defense ministry cancelled the Nimrod MR4 in 2010. The older Nimrods finally bowed out in 2011.
This story originally appeared at Vice Motherboard.