In 1952, BOAC would pioneer the single greatest technical advance in airline history, to be followed by tragedy and failure within just two years.
Frank Whittle’s jet engine and Alan Turing’s computer had been Britain’s outstanding technical breakthroughs during the Second World War. Because the Air Ministry had been slow to recognise the potential benefits, viable jet fighters were not delivered to the RAF in time to alter the course of the war. Nonetheless, by the early 1940s the de Havilland company, who had always been among the most imaginative and forward-thinking of aircraft designers, had realised that jets could transform civil aviation.
As with other developments, the Brabazon Committee had not been quick to see the commercial opportunities of jet propulsion. However, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, who was both a Committee member and head of the de Havilland company, enthusiastically
pushed for a pure turbojet-powered design. The Committee took some persuading, but finally accepted his proposal and awarded a development and production contract to the Handley Page company. It soon became clear that Handley Page were struggling with the challenge and in February 1945 the project was passed to the de Havilland company, who took on the formidable task of designing and building both the airframe and engines of a new jet airliner. Initially it was to be a small mail-carrying aircraft with seats for just six passengers, but that soon evolved into a long-range airliner that would carry 24. Showing extraordinary courage and foresight given the challenges involved, BOAC placed an order for 25 (subsequently reduced to ten), and the Jet Age began.
By 1949 the first prototype DH106 Comet airliner was complete. Like earlier de Havilland aircraft, including the Mosquito and the air race winning DH88 (which had also been named Comet), she was ravishingly beautiful with clean, sleek lines, a swept wing and elegant square windows. On 27 July she made her first flight from Hatfield under the command of de Havilland’s Chief Test Pilot, John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, a war hero who had earned his nickname in night fighters. Two months later she made her first public appearance at the Farnborough Air Show, at which point public and press interest became intense. Not only de Havilland, but BOAC and the government of the day had a great deal riding on this revolutionary new plane. The future of both the British aircraft industry and the British airline industry, along with a large dose of much-needed national prestige (post-war austerity was still the order of the day) rested upon her swept, silver wings.
By 1951 BOAC had received their first production aircraft, G-ALYP, and route-proving flights began. On 2 May 1952, Yoke Peter took off from London Airport on the world’s first scheduled jet service with fare-paying passengers. Newsreel cameras were on board to record the flight to Johannesburg with stops at Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone before landing at Jan Smuts Airport nearly 24 hours later.
The gamble taken by de Havilland, BOAC and the government appeared to have paid off in spades. Flying times were literally cut in half and in their first year alone Comets carried 30,000 passengers. BOAC quickly discovered that their new aircraft could be profitable with a load factor as low as 43 per cent, and they were fuel-efficient above 30,000 ft. By the summer of 1953, eight BOAC Comets were leaving London each week: three to Johannesburg, two to Tokyo, two to Singapore and one to Colombo. BOAC was not only making headlines; they were making money too and de Havilland, who had a five-year lead on the rest of the world, were booking orders from foreign airlines.
But, like a Greek tragedy, nemesis would follow and BOAC’s days in Arcadia would quickly come to an end. Just two months after its introduction a BOAC Comet crashed during take-off from Rome’s Ciampino airport, having failed to get airborne. Although there were no fatalities or serious injuries, the airframe was a write off. A few months later a Canadian Pacific Comet failed to get airborne from Karachi, and this time there were ten fatalities. Initially, pilot error was thought to be the cause of both accidents, although de Havilland later discovered a flaw in the Comet’s design which allowed the wing to stall while still on the ground if the pilot raised the nose too high. They subsequently modified the wing.