The Comet is Coming

The Comet is Coming

Dawn of the Jet Age - the tale of the first round the world flight by a jet-powered aircraft is one which involves pioneering spirit, tragic loss of life, a colossal flower lei, and carrots.

On a misty early December morning in 1955, Chief Test Pilot John Cunningham settled into the pilot seat of the prototype de Havilland DH-106 Comet 3, G-ANLO with Per Buggé alongside him in the cockpit. They had been due to depart at 5.30am, but a thick fog had settled like a winter blanket over Hatfield Aerodome, in Hertfordshire, and the two men were forced to wait patiently for a while. This was no time for risk-taking. R.W. Chandler was the navigator/radio operator. Other crew members included Chief Flight Engineer E. Brackstone Brown, and flight engineers R.V. Ablett and J. Hamilton. Several de Havilland executives and engineers were among the passengers. Captain A.P.W. Cane of British Overseas Airways Corporation and Captain I.D.V. Ralfe of Qantas were aboard to observe this, the very first circumnavigation of the globe by a jet-powered aircraft. The passengers, thought their names may not be familiar, formed a discerning clientele, and there was a lot for De Havilland to prove; for just one year prior, there had been three horrendous plane crashes, with total loss of life for the passengers and crew - every one of them, a de Havilland Comet.

The de Havilland Comet was the very first jet-powered airliner; a sleek, futuristic beauty of an aeroplane, and the result of a frenzied period of incredible innovation, development and advancement, the urgency of which was aggressively fuelled by WW2. Developed in secret, to avoid both wartime and corporate espionage, and manufactured at the very same Hatfield Aerodrome where Cunningham sat that December morning, it featured four de Havilland Ghost turbojet engines, a clean aerodynamic design, and large square windows. The jet engines afforded passengers a relatively quiet ride, with internal design focused on customer comfort and providing a decadent experience. After almost two years of test flights, the Comet made its first scheduled BOAC flight on 2 May 1952, flying – via Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone – to Johannesburg. The flight, taking just over 23 hours, was a triumph. Passengers reported a smooth journey, superb service and beautifully presented meals. With no other passenger jets yet in service, the Comet was the envy of the world. Within months, the Comet was flying to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Karachi, Singapore and Tokyo. Meanwhile, de Havilland was notching up new orders for its remarkable aircraft from Canadian Pacific, Air France and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

All of this was brought down to the ground swiftly and with terminal force when, just 36 hours after returning from its triumphant flight to and from Johannesburg, the very same Comet broke up soon after taking off, killing all on board. It was an incident which was to become horrifyingly cookie-cutter for de Havilland; two flights broke up over the Mediterranean as they climbed in January and April from Rome’s Ciampino airport, and a third was caught in a thunder squall on the Calcutta to Delhi leg of a BOAC flight from Singapore to London. It was only after the third fatal unexplained event that Comet flights were suspended, and production of the once-revered British jet was halted.

Jet flight, like any new technology or innovation, had unknowns - and the scale and speed of jet engine innovation and development had been cataclysmic. Competing designers had not only aerodynamics and efficiency at the forefront of their minds, but also a desire to be the fastest and most extravagant commercial jetliner. Rudimentary understanding of how materials and geometries work in environments never before experienced showed quite quickly that, despite being able to physically transport people to these altitudes and distances, the ability to do so safely was another entity entirely. The stresses that these airliners were subjected to when at cruising altitude were unlike anything before seen - pressurised cabins were essential to allow the passengers to survive. Air is non-existent at 30,000ft so oxygen is pumped into the cabin and everyone can eat their slightly salted pretzels in relative peace. However what the engineers and aerospace boffins didn’t appreciate was a consequence of the speed at which cabins both pressurised and unpressurised, compared to what they’d experienced before. This constantly expanding and contracting superstructure introduced material fatigue quicker than anticipated, which in turn caused stress fracturing to vital structural components. As a layman, when it comes to physics and the basis of what constitutes a fatigue based stress fracture, the headline is more digestible - a square shape has more stresses at the corners than a circle, which has no corners. It’s why pipes are stronger than square tubes. It’s why a pole-vaulter can bend their poles to propel them upwards and it’s why aeroplane windows should always be round. The square window - how it had always been done - has been forged into the chequered history of flight for one reason: it was responsible for killing hundreds of people, at a point when killing hundreds of people was very bad for business.

This wasn’t immediately obvious. Blame was pointed first at the pilots, then at the weather, then at the planes; but finger-pointing wouldn’t suffice. So commenced one of the most comprehensive and significant air disaster investigations to date; with no black box to provide any initial clues and no witnesses or survivors, it was necessary to recover as many pieces of wreckage from the ocean and land as possible on each occasion and try to piece them together to begin to understand what went wrong. Led by Sir Arnold Hall, director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, a team of engineers and scientists rebuilt recovered wrecks and, with the ingenious use of an enormous water tank, designed to recreate altitude pressure upon the recovered corpse of one of the wrecked planes, revealed the most significant issue; structural failure resulting from metal fatigue, which was a direct result of dangerous concentration of stress around some of the square windows.

BOAC Comet

As a result, the Comet - and indeed every aeroplane since - was redesigned with oval windows and structural reinforcements. Rival manufacturers were quick to reap the rewards of the extensive investigation, capitalising on the groundbreaking information which was suddenly available to ensure that their designs were safer, better, more appealing options to buyers. The de Havilland Comet was somewhat of a sacrificial lamb; while it was out of action and the disaster was being unpicked, the rest of the jet flight industry was taking the opportunity to leap ahead; the epitome of schadenfreude, as the Germans would call it. There’s something quite sad about that - innovators leading the way, finding the boundaries, only to find that the followers are using your prone body as a bridge over the bottomless chasm of failure. Indeed, the final development of the jet – the air-reconnaissance Nimrod – was in service with the RAF until June 2011, more than 60 years after the maiden flight of the Comet 1 in 1949; a true testament to its excruciatingly-near-perfect design.

Although sales never fully recovered, this wasn't the end of the Comet’s glorious tale in the 1950s. The Comet 3, the third iteration of the original Comet design, was 15 feet longer, and the area of the wings and tail surfaces had been increased. It was powered by four Rolls Royce Avon 521 turbojet engines, rated at 10,000 pounds of thrust each and enabling it to carry 58–76 passengers on flights ranging to 2,600 miles. In addition to the increased length, visual differences from the previous Comets were the all-important circular passenger windows, and wing tanks which extended forward from the wings’ leading edges.

And that is why we have come to rejoin Cunningham on December 2nd, 1955. His mission was to pilot the de Havilland DH-106 Comet 3 G-ANLO around the world; a first, for not only him and his passengers, but for the world. It would be fair to say that, as far as names go, John “Cats Eyes” Cunningham CBE, DSO & Two Bars, DFC & Bar, AE has quite an impressive title. While the letters which trail after his name are familiar and tell a tale of heroism, professionalism and servitude, his nickname has a far more intriguing story to tell. Cunningham was a night fighter ace during WW2, renowned and revered for his astounding track record of 20 kills, which earned him his nickname of “Cats Eyes”. Cunningham put his extraordinary visual accuracy, even in incredibly stressful situations and low light or total darkness, down to his high intake of carrots. It’s somewhat of an old wives’ tale now; eat your carrots and you’ll be able to see in the dark. While Vitamin A, found in high quantities in carrots, is indeed good for eye health, there’s no proof that it has any effect on ability to see in the dark. The carrot line was one spun by the RAF to hide the fact that they were using airborne radars; a brand new technology which was affording pilots like Cunningham, who was among the first men to use them, an incredible level of accuracy. Cunningham and his fellow fighter pilots were celebrated and exposed to public attention as a very intentional means of raising morale during the war; while their feats in the air were, of course, deserving of recognition and praise, they were elevated to hero status very quickly. It was full-blown carrot propaganda, and the general public lapped it up, putting Cunningham on a pedestal alongside the humble root vegetable; something which he hated, being a quiet, reserved and humble man.

And so it was with some trepidation that he came to pilot this flight around the world; the first jet-powered flight to circumnavigate the globe, under a glaring spotlight and with all eyes on not just the plane, but on him too. Despite his disdain for media attention, Cunningham was undeniably the man for the job; his exceptional track record, skill, passion for flight and calm-headed outlook were the perfect match for the redesigned Comet and the challenging, ground-breaking flight ahead.

*Photograph used from Wikipedia, taken by user Krelnik and shared under a creative commons licence.

5 hours and 3 minutes after takeoff, the Comet 3 landed at Cairo, Egypt for its first stop. Rather than continuing on as had originally been planned, the crew remained overnight at Cairo, before setting off the following morning and, with refueling stops at Bombay, Singapore, and Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia, the airliner arrived at Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, on 4 December. More than 20,000 people were waiting at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport to see the new jetliner arrive. Group Captain Cunningham made demonstration flights from Sydney to Melbourne, Canberra and Perth, before G-ANLO continued to Auckland, New Zealand, then on to Nadi Airport, Fiji. The next leg of the around the world tour, Fiji to Honolulu, in the Hawaiian Islands, was completed on 13 December. The Comet 3 covered the 2,791 nautical miles in 6 hours, 44 minutes, and was greeted with an enormous, custom-made lei, hula dancers and enormous crowds. G-ANLO remained at Honolulu for the next two days before leaving on 15th December for Vancouver, then onwards to Toronto, and then onwards again to Montreal, arriving there on 20th December; and it was here that the crew spent their Christmas. The final leg of the flight, Montreal to London Heathrow Airport was completed in 6 hours, 9 minutes, on 27 December 1955. The total distance flown by the Comet 3 was 24,324 nautical miles (27,991.6 statute miles/45,048.1 kilometers) with a total flight time of 56 hours and 17 minutes. The expedition was a triumph; the Comet 3 and its crew received a wholly deserved hero's welcome, and the way was paved for the jetliners which now carry hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, every day.

Only two Comet 3s were built and one was used as a static test article. G-ANLO remained a development prototype and was modified several times before being turned over to the Ministry of Supply in 1961. There was no final resting ground granted in a museum, no celebratory send off; the plane was used in instrument landing tests and later converted to a mockup of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod MR1 maritime patrol aircraft. It was taken out of service in 1966 and scrapped; a melancholic end for such an important player in the history of aviation.

Cunningham remained as Chief Test pilot with de Havilland until he finally retired in 1980. He set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world speed and altitude record with the company’s DH.100 Vampire jet fighter, TG278: 799.644 kilometers per hour over a 100 kilometre course at Lympne Airport, 31 August 1947. He went on to fly a DH.104 Dove light transport from London to Cairo at an average speed of 686.56 kilometers per hour, setting another world record for speed over a recognized course, and adding another accolade to his lengthy list of aviating successes. John Cunningham died 21 July 2002 at the age of 84 years and, though he might not particularly like it, remains a revered aviating icon until this day.

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1 comment

  • Well done Stephanie, very interesting, and you managed to encompass much of the Comets history in a small article.

    George Redpath

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