For each generation there is a machine, often a vehicle, that is prized for much more than its mechanical purpose. The de Havilland Comet was one such; from its very first flight it won a place in the public heart that few other aeroplanes could rival. Even today, long after the last Comet has been grounded, its distinctive shape still stirs pride and passion. The next time you see a road sign pointing to an airport, you will probably be looking at the beautiful silhouette of an aircraft which left both triumph and tragedy in its wake and changed the world forever.
Four years after the end of the Second World War, at a small airfield in Hertfordshire, a brief event marked the greatest advance in civil aviation since the Wright brothers. The prototype of de Havilland’s Comet airliner took off, climbed to 10,000 feet, carried out some simple manoeuvres and safely returned 30 minutes later. The press, who had already left, missed the most important first flight in British history. We had entered the Jet Age; the world had shrunk, and Britain would soon reap massive benefits, followed by tragedy and loss. Seventy years later, the Comet’s legacy still reverberates. The British would continue to produce technically brilliant, but commercially unsuccessful, long-range airliners until 2002, since when, sadly, we have not built any large, complete, civil aircraft at all.
Britain’s failure to profitably exploit her two great technical breakthroughs of the war; Frank Whittle’s jet engine and Alan Turing’s computer, were part of a wider decline in engineering and manufacturing which may never be reversed.
DE HAVILLAND COMET - THE PLANE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, by James Carlton, will be published by Burnt Ash Publishing on 28th March 2020.