Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Havilland Comet

The first Havilland Comet is rolled out of the factory in 1949.

The world’s first passenger jet was plagued with problems—problems that ended up dooming not only Havilland but the entire British aircraft industry.

The Comet was placed into service on May 2, 1952, with a flight from London to Johannesburg. Below is a photograph of the aircraft involved in that first flight, parked on the tarmac in Entebbe during a refueling stop while en route to Johannesburg.

The first Comet was lost on October 26, 1952.

The second Comet was lost on March 3, 1953.

The third Comet was lost on May 2, 1953.

The fourth Comet was lost on January 10, 1954. The plane lost that day was the same aircraft that undertook the first commercial Comet flight (pictured above).

After the fourth Comet was lost, Winston Churchill ordered the Comet grounded. Despite the fact that only a handful of Comets had been produced and despite the fact that the plane was in very limited service (the Comet had yet to be placed even into trans-Atlantic service), the aircraft was disintegrating under mysterious circumstances. Clearly something was wrong.

Havilland, under great duress, lobbied aggressively, pulling out all the stops (and playing upon the goodwill Havilland had built up during World War II)—and managed to convince the British government that the Comet was indeed airworthy. After ten weeks of grounding, the Comet was re-certified and placed back into service. Flights resumed.

Two weeks later, on April 8, 1954, a fifth Comet was lost—the fifth in eighteen months. At the time, only 22 Comets had been produced; the loss rate approached 25 per cent—for planes that were virtually brand-new.

The result: the Comet was withdrawn from service, permanently, to be completely redesigned, a process that took four years.

In the meantime, Boeing’s 707 and Douglas’s DC-8 were rolled out. Worldwide, airlines cancelled their Comet orders and placed bids for 707s and DC-8s instead.

The Comet effectively was dead. Even the new Comet, which appeared in 1958, was viewed with suspicion by airlines—and airlines, having learned that neither the 707 nor the DC-8 was plagued by safety issues, shunned the redesigned Comet, preferring to stick with Boeing and Douglas aircraft.

Geoffrey de Havilland was bitter over the Comet’s failure. He was also bitter over Boeing’s and Douglas’s successes, always believing that Boeing’s and Douglas’s triumphs were built upon learning from Havilland’s mistakes.

Havilland, in making such claims, was delusional: both the 707 and the DC-8 had long been designed, and were already in production, at the time Comets began falling out of the skies. American aircraft manufacturers, long before World War II, knew all about metal fatigue, faulty riveting techniques and fatal window design, the three engineering flaws that caused the demise of the Comet.

Long after the fact, Havilland wrote about what had happened to his company’s Comets in mid-air. It is not pleasant reading.

A fatigue had started and weakened the cabin structure so that it burst like a blown-up paper bag and was ripped to pieces in a fraction of a second. The passengers had been blown out and killed instantaneously, and the whole structure of the aircraft had broken up and disintegrated in a fraction of a second.

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