The Greek Tragedy of the Comet

The Greek Tragedy of the Comet

By Stephanie Holland

17 Nov , 2021  

0 comment

The de Havilland Comet was somewhat of a Cadmean victory. 

It was the first commercial jet airliner, a ground-breaking, sleek, futuristic, technological and engineering marvel. And those who boarded it, on those fateful 3 flights, were the would-be-villagers; the ones who paid the ultimate price for the innovation and delight that civilisation would enjoy long after their demise.

As a society, we have a rather unfair tendency to remember and talk about the very worst of something before we remember and talk about the good. The summer that you broke your leg will always be remembered that way; rather than for the fun games that were being played before the incident or the balmy weather. The one particular dish that gave you awful food poisoning will be at the forefront of your mind when you remember your holiday, not the other delicious local delicacies that you tried. The same can be said of legacy; when we talk about the de Havilland Comet jet planes, the fatal crashes which plagued its early development and testing are inevitably mentioned. This is understandable; they were tragedies, played out on a stage in front of horrified crowds around the world who were there to marvel at the glorious dawn of the jet age but who instead bore witness to significant loss of life. All eyes were on de Havilland, for all the wrong reasons.


The de Havilland Comet was somewhat of a Cadmean victory. It was the first commercial jet airliner, a ground-breaking, sleek, futuristic, technological and engineering marvel. And those who boarded it, on those fateful 3 flights, were the would-be-villagers; the ones who paid the ultimate price for the innovation and delight that civilisation would enjoy long after their demise. 


The Comet was far from a failure, in the grand scheme of things. I imagine there’s no way of learning what was learned from those incidents without the incident itself occurring, no way of pre-empting the tragedies, because it all boils down to that old adage; “You don’t know what you don’t know.” If it wasn’t the de Havilland Comet, it would have been another plane, another designer, another pilot who took the blame and went down in history as a sacrificial lamb. The number of positive, world-changing pieces of knowledge, engineering protocols and safety developments which came as a result of the crash far outweigh the lives lost, as tragic as their losses were.


The accident investigation that came about after the Comet crashes, led by Sir Arnold Hall, was unprecedented. It involved the very first use of medical forensics to solve an air accident, the first use of underwater cameras in collection of the wreckage, the first large scale reconstruction as part of an accident investigation, and the first use of a water tank to encase an entire aircraft; all of which formed the foundations on which the high-tech methods we use in air accident investigations today were built. The Comet itself was not only the first airliner to use turbojet engines, it was the first to use hydraulically actuated controls, to have glued skin panels, to have a highly pressurised cabin and to use high pressure refuelling. Again, all of these ‘firsts’ went on to be developed into the airliners we know today; for the most part, incredibly safe, highly-reliable, comfortable vessels which afford us the freedom of the entire planet. And yet, they are remembered - if we are to return to our Greek Mythological analogies - for their Achilles heel. The weaknesses in the fuselage, stress fractures which appeared as a result of cyclical pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabins for passenger comfort, caused the mid-air breakup of three planes; and those weak spots caused the downfall of the Comet as we knew it then. It was something which was quite easily fixed; competitors were able to use what was learned, and the grounding of all Comets, to their advantage and soon the Boeing 707 was the choice of most airlines, welcoming in the dawn of the jet age without further incident. Boeing and Douglas jetliners went on to dominate not just transatlantic but global long-distance travel services; something which they indisputably owe to the Comet.


The deep-sea salvage, reconstruction and investigation techniques developed in the aftermath of the Comet tragedies are still in use today, collated along with fatal air accidents which have occured since then; for example, the 1956 mid-air crash between United Airlines DC-7 and TWA Super Constellation, which was the first commercial crash causing more than a hundred deaths, led to majorly upgraded forms of air traffic control. Since then, with 30,000 flights made each day in American airspace, no airliners have collided over the US. Other fatal accidents have led to smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers in lavatories and cargo-holds, wind-shear detectors, flame retardant materials being used in the cabin, and cabin crew working together as a cross-checking team at all times.  


In April 1988, an Aloha 737 flying to Honolulu suffered a fuselage failure mid-flight. One flight attendant was swept out of the plane, but everyone else survived; despite being held onto their seats, and their living status, by only their seatbelts as the rest of the cabin disintegrated around them. The Boeing in question had undergone a total of 89,000 re-pressurisations - the very process that had caused the Comet to fail at between 900 and 3000 re-pressurisations. Technology and knowledge had advanced an enormous amount in those decades, and yet the same mistakes were still being made; aircraft were still being pushed beyond their structural limits, allowing material fatigue to set in and weaknesses to become fatal flaws. As a result, the National Aging Aircraft Research Program was set up, allowing for predictive testing of structural fatigue and increasing the safety of air passengers around the world.


The swan-like Concorde, that most iconic emblem of luxury air travel, was ultimately grounded due to a loose piece of metal having been dropped on the runway. This small piece of debris cut one of the tyres of a Concorde as it took off from Charles de Gaulle airport, causing a pressure wave which ruptured a fuel tank. Its contents ignited, the plane caught fire and it crashed into a hotel, killing all 100 passengers, nine crew members and four hotel employees. It was the first fatal accident in the Concorde’s illustrious history, but it was the only one needed; and it was retired within the next few years, that beautiful white bird grounded forevermore.


Every aspect of air safety from which we now benefit is as a result of loss of life; an uncomfortable but true fact which, upon contemplation, is slightly unnerving as we now continue to toy with travelling to space. It is almost inevitable that we will continue to learn from disaster; to adapt when lives are lost, as our aircrafts get more convoluted and we push the limits of physics as we know them. We owe almost all of today’s air travel to the Comet; for it was the origin story of jet plane travel, the solid foundation from which we, the general public, took flight, and the runway which allows us to reach ever greater heights. We have honoured this in the Pacific 52; the simple yet sleek form, the classic fused with the futuristic, the interplay of textured metal and tiny working parts an homage to that heroic de Havilland Comet; that Cadmus of the skies.


Cadmus was the first Greek hero; the greatest slayer of monsters before Heracles, and father of the Greek alphabet. He sought to fulfil the prophecy told to him by an oracle; that he would be founder of the glorious city of Thebes. If you are familiar with Greek mythology, you may or may not know the tale of Cadmus. Cadmus was the first Greek hero; the greatest slayer of monsters before Heracles, and father of the Greek alphabet. He sought to fulfil the prophecy told to him by an oracle; that he would be founder of the glorious city of Thebes. Cadmus dutifully followed his destiny and founded the city, but while he was occupied doing so, he sent his companions to slay a dragon in order to retrieve the water required for the buildings. The dragon was a sacred water-guardian, and as punishment for its demise, all but Cadmus perished in a series of tragic events as Thebes was constructed. Although Cadmus was ultimately victorious, the victory cost the lives of those who were to benefit from the new settlement; they never saw the famed empire that it was to become.

Cadmus was the first Greek hero; the greatest slayer of monsters before Heracles, and father of the Greek alphabet. He sought to fulfil the prophecy told to him by an oracle; that he would be founder of the glorious city of Thebes. If you are familiar with Greek mythology, you may or may not know the tale of Cadmus. Cadmus was the first Greek hero; the greatest slayer of monsters before Heracles, and father of the Greek alphabet. He sought to fulfil the prophecy told to him by an oracle; that he would be founder of the glorious city of Thebes. Cadmus dutifully followed his destiny and founded the city, but while he was occupied doing so, he sent his companions to slay a dragon in order to retrieve the water required for the buildings. The dragon was a sacred water-guardian, and as punishment for its demise, all but Cadmus perished in a series of tragic events as Thebes was constructed. Although Cadmus was ultimately victorious, the victory cost the lives of those who were to benefit from the new settlement; they never saw the famed empire that it was to become.


The deep-sea salvage, reconstruction and investigation techniques developed in the aftermath of the Comet tragedies are still in use today, collated along with fatal air accidents which have occured since then; for example, the 1956 mid-air crash between United Airlines DC-7 and TWA Super Constellation, which was the first commercial crash causing more than a hundred deaths, led to majorly upgraded forms of air traffic control. Since then, with 30,000 flights made each day in American airspace, no airliners have collided over the US. Other fatal accidents have led to smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers in lavatories and cargo-holds, wind-shear detectors, flame retardant materials being used in the cabin, and cabin crew working together as a cross-checking team at all times.  


In April 1988, an Aloha 737 flying to Honolulu suffered a fuselage failure mid-flight. One flight attendant was swept out of the plane, but everyone else survived; despite being held onto their seats, and their living status, by only their seatbelts as the rest of the cabin disintegrated around them. The Boeing in question had undergone a total of 89,000 re-pressurisations - the very process that had caused the Comet to fail at between 900 and 3000 re-pressurisations. Technology and knowledge had advanced an enormous amount in those decades, and yet the same mistakes were still being made; aircraft were still being pushed beyond their structural limits, allowing material fatigue to set in and weaknesses to become fatal flaws. As a result, the National Aging Aircraft Research Program was set up, allowing for predictive testing of structural fatigue and increasing the safety of air passengers around the world.


The swan-like Concorde, that most iconic emblem of luxury air travel, was ultimately grounded due to a loose piece of metal having been dropped on the runway. This small piece of debris cut one of the tyres of a Concorde as it took off from Charles de Gaulle airport, causing a pressure wave which ruptured a fuel tank. Its contents ignited, the plane caught fire and it crashed into a hotel, killing all 100 passengers, nine crew members and four hotel employees. It was the first fatal accident in the Concorde’s illustrious history, but it was the only one needed; and it was retired within the next few years, that beautiful white bird grounded forevermore.


Every aspect of air safety from which we now benefit is as a result of loss of life; an uncomfortable but true fact which, upon contemplation, is slightly unnerving as we now continue to toy with travelling to space. It is almost inevitable that we will continue to learn from disaster; to adapt when lives are lost, as our aircrafts get more convoluted and we push the limits of physics as we know them. We owe almost all of today’s air travel to the Comet; for it was the origin story of jet plane travel, the solid foundation from which we, the general public, took flight, and the runway which allows us to reach ever greater heights. We have honoured this in the Pacific 52; the simple yet sleek form, the classic fused with the futuristic, the interplay of textured metal and tiny working parts an homage to that heroic de Havilland Comet; that Cadmus of the skies.


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