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De Havilland's Comet: The original jetliner

June 15, 2005, by Bill Cawthon

When I was a young boy and the brand-new Boeing 707 was the hottest news in aviation, I had a Dinky Toy model of another jetliner. Dinky was an English company so you won't be surprised to learn my toy was a replica of the de Havilland Comet. It was painted in British Overseas Airways Corporation colors and the registration number was G-ALYV.

A BOAC Comet in flight. Image courtesy of National Air & Space Museum

Ironically, by the time the Dinky model was released in 1954, the real Comet G-ALYV had crashed in flames near Calcutta, India, killing the thirty-seven passengers and six crew members on board.

For some reason, it took Meccano, Ltd., the manufacturer of Dinky Toys, nearly six years to change the number on their toy plane to G-ALYX, another first-generation Comet, but one that had been safely scrapped in June 1955.

While the December 1953 crash of G-ALYV was not the first incident involving the Comet, it was the first that would be blamed on a fatal error in the aircraft's design. This flaw would lead to the grounding of all first-generation Comets and cost Great Britain its chance at dominance in the jetliner market.

England had an early start with jet technology. British inventor and pilot Frank Whittle had proposed a jet engine as early as 1928 and received a patent for a turbojet in 1930. While credit for the first operational design went to German Hans Pabst von Ohain, Whittle ground-tested his first engine in 1937 and is generally credited with inventing the jet engine.

During World War II, the British government asked Geoffrey de Havilland and Frank Halford, chief engine designer for the de Havilland company, to design a new military jet and improve Whittle's design to produce a new engine. The Vampire fighter with its Goblin engine flew for the first time in 1943.

By the end of World War II, England was one of the world leaders in jet engine technology. With the hostilities ended, England was faced with rebuilding its economy and repairing the damage inflicted by years of German aerial bombardment and missile attacks. There were already a number of military jet aircraft, including heavy bombers, being designed and de Havilland saw an opportunity to combine jets and passenger aircraft to create a new, faster jetliner and gain a vitally needed source of foreign sales.

Sir Geoffrey de Havilland was one of the leaders of the British aircraft industry. Injured in a plane crash himself, de Havilland lost two of his sons, Geoffrey and John, who died testing de Havilland airplanes. Image courtesy of the RAF Museum

In 1946, Ronald Eric Bishop (1903-1989) de Havilland's chief engineer put his team to work on new jetliner. Bishop had been working with de Havilland since 1921, when he was just eighteen, and led the development the famous Mosquito bomber of World War II.

Within three years, de Havilland had built its first DH-106 Comet. The new jet was named for the Comet Racer that beat the DC-2 in a race from London, England to Melbourne, Australia in 1934. The choice was appropriate; with a top speed of more than 450 mph, the new Comet would be easily the fastest commercial airliner in the world.

The Comet 1A flew for the first time on July 27, 1949. The new plane was rather conventional in appearance until you looked at the wings. Tucked in the wing roots next to the fuselage were four Halford-designed Ghost turbojets, each developing 5,000 pounds of thrust.

Despite the success of the first flight, there was still a lot of work to do and it was three years before the Comet went into commercial service with BOAC on January 22, 1952. In May, the first paying passengers flew from Heathrow airport to Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Comet could fly higher and faster than any other airliner of the day and passengers loved it. They especially liked the Comet's big, rectangular windows, which allowed a much better view than those on competing planes. Airlines ordered fifty of the new planes, a major coup for de Havilland.

Though the Calcutta crash and a 1954 crash off the Italian coast are better known, the first fatal crash of a Comet occurred on the morning of March 3, 1953. A new plane, named "The Empress of Hawaii" was being delivered to its new owner, Canadian Pacific Airlines, when it crashed during takeoff from the airport in Karachi, Pakistan. The five crew members and six passengers were killed, earning themselves the dubious distinction of being the first people to die in a jet airliner. The accident was blamed on a botched takeoff caused by pilot error.

The Comet's real troubles began on May 2, 1953, with the Calcutta crash. Although a court of inquiry determined structural failure had caused the crash, weather was blamed for the stress that caused the airframe to fail.

There were two more crashes in 1953, but there were no fatalities and the causes were easily identified as pilot error. In both cases, the plane ran off the runway.

The structural flaws in the Comet's design caused two fatal accidents in 1954. The first came just after the New Year, on January 10. BOAC Comet G-ALYP left Ciampino airport in Rome on its way to London. Less than a half-hour after takeoff, a routine radio call was cut off in mid-transmission. The Comet had crashed into the Mediterranean Sea about 16 miles from the island of Elba. This time the plane was blamed for the accident. The investigators determined the cabin failed because of metal fatigue.

Just three months later, another Comet crashed, this time it was South African Airways G-ALYY, which was also flying out of Ciampino and also wound up in the Mediterranean, killing all 21 people on board. Authorities were unable to retrieve much wreckage, but cited the circumstances that caused the January incident.

A record of three airframe-related crashes and 99 deaths in less than a year was enough to persuade the British government to ground all Comets for investigation and testing. The testing took months but finally identified the problem. The stresses caused by thousands of takeoffs and landings were causing the plane's aluminum skin would begin to crack around the right-angle edges of those nice, big windows that were so popular with the pasengers. Eventually the metal would completely fail, causing immediate depressurization of the cabin and catastrophic structure failure.

All of the Comets that had been delivered were either modified or scrapped. New Comet variations were designed and a few were built, but it was four years before a new and very much improved Comet 4 was certified for passenger service.

The Comet 4 not only had a stronger airframe and rounded windows, it was longer, carried more passengers and had four new Rolls-Royce Avon engines, which produced twice the thrust of the original de Havilland Ghosts. BOAC had ordered nineteen of the new Comets in 1955, before the redesign was completed. The Comet 4 made its maiden flight on April 27, 1958 and de Havilland began delivering planes to BOAC in September. BOAC started Comet passenger service with London to New York on October 4, 1958, beating Pan Am's inaugural 707 Clipper Service by three weeks.

But it was too late. The Comet, unbeatable in 1954, was an also-ran in 1958. In addition to its early problems, the Comet's dated design and smaller size convinced most carriers to select the newer 707 or Douglas DC-8. Only 76 Comet 4s were built from 1958 to 1964 and it was America, not Great Britain, that owned the commercial jetliner market for the rest of the Twentieth Century.

Comets remained in service with various carriers until 1980. In 1997, a 4C owned by the British government made the last Comet flight on record.

The Nimrod, a much-improved military version of the Comet, is still in service with the Royal Air Force. Nimrods, which are used for maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare, are currently flying in support of coalition operations in Iraq.

The new Herpa Comet is a great improvement over the diecast toy of the mid-1950s. Photo by author.

Herpa announced a 1:500 scale Comet as one of its projects for 2004 but it was not until April of 2005 the gang in Dietenhofen began delivering the model. Instead of being decorated for BOAC, which was the major customer for the Comet, Herpa Wings 514491 wears the livery of Aerolinea Argentinas with registration number LV-AHP. While one might think Herpa would have selected a plane that was retired after a successful career, LV-AHP crashed on August 27, 1959 as it approached Asuncion Airport on a flight from Buenos Aires, killing one crew member and a passenger.

In any event, I couldn't resist and bought one from Promotex. So after almost fifty years, I have another model of a crashed Comet. Wish I still had the original Dinky Toy, which currently is valued at over $300.00 on the collector's market, but I will be satisfied with the Herpa, which is not only a better scale model, but a real bargain in comparison.

I hope in the future Herpa will produce a model of a Comet that didn't crash, like the one in BOAC colors that is stored at the Museum of Flight near Boeing's factory in Seattle, Washington.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 25, 2005