Why You Wouldn’t Want to Fly The First Jet Airliner: De Havilland Comet Story


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people to click the link in the description, get a 2 month free trial. Some consider the period just before the
jet age to be a golden era for air travel. But flying aboard a piston
powered propeller aircraft, well it wasn’t always glamorous. Flights took a
lot longer than they do today and the relentless noise and vibration from the
piston engines; well it was exhausting. And most aircraft couldn’t fly high
enough to avoid bad weather, so you’d be in for a bumpy ride. And you’d better
have your air sickness bag ready. But then, seemingly out of nowhere
in 1949, along came a new kind of aircraft. It was sleek, quiet, and nearly
twice as fast as some conventional airliners. Cruising at 40,000 feet, it
could avoid messy weather. This was the de Havilland comet. It shattered
conventional thinking and proved that jet travel was the future. But the
excitement would be short-lived because within months things started to go
seriously wrong. And the leap into the jet age it wouldn’t go as smoothly as
hoped. In the 1940’s, the British set out to
change civil aviation. In fact they really had no choice. Because after the
Second World War, American manufacturers had the Civil Aviation market cornered. At
one point, ninety percent of the world’s airline passengers were flying aboard
these: American built Douglas DC-3’s. The Americans left the Second World War with
a lot of experience designing and building military transport aircraft.
After the War, with their industry fully intact, manufacturers could switch to
producing civil aircraft based on their military transport designs. But Britain
on the other hand, had to rebuild. Much of its focus during the war had been on
building heavy bombers. So it now needed to develop the infrastructure and the
expertise to compete in the civil aviation market. If the British were
going to become leaders in aerospace, they had better come up with something
extraordinary. But a jet powered airliner, that was dismissed by a lot of people.
The conventional thinking of the day amongst manufacturers and airlines was
that jet engines produce too little power relative to their fuel consumption, and they were just too unreliable for civil aviation. But at the same time
piston engines were approaching their limits. To squeeze out ever more power,
they had grown large and complex with superchargers and dozens of cylinders.
This made piston powered propeller engines increasingly expensive to
maintain. And you can only spin a propeller so fast before its efficiency
starts to diminish. As part of a larger effort to develop Britain’s post-war
aviation industry, the de Havilland Aircraft Company was awarded the task of
building the world’s first jet-powered airliner.
The aircraft, which would later be named the Comet, was developed in secrecy.
In fact, untenable designs were deliberately used to confuse competitors.
So when the comet was revealed just three years later in the summer of 1949,
it stunned the world. Its sleek lines, swept wings, and for
integrated turbojet engines, well they were straight out of the future. Even
today, a lot of this aircraft looks pretty modern. So you can only imagine
the impression it would have left on the flying public in 1952.
The comet sent a powerful signal to the world about Britain’s newfound
superiority in aerospace. Orders poured in, and even in America where airlines
were still skeptical of jets, Pan Am placed orders for a larger lengthened
version. The Comet was revolutionary because it had solved a key barrier
to efficient jet travel. While turbojets consumed enormous amounts of fuel at
lower altitudes, where most planes of the year a flew, the Comet would instead
cruise at an unprecedented 40,000 feet. Where the air is thin and there’s less
drag. Allowing the Comet to consume much less fuel. But to allow its passengers to
breathe at such high altitude, the cabin needed to be pressurized. And while the
Comet wasn’t the first airliner to have a pressurized cabin, no other flew
so high. The Comet went into service in 1952 and immediately began breaking
travel time records. And in doing so, it became a point of national pride for the
British public. But here’s the thing, in some ways, the comet was a little too
ahead of its time. With such a clean sheet design, there were suddenly so many
new variables to work with. There were numerous problems with its electrical
and hydraulic systems. But when two Comets skidded off the runway in 1952
and 53, the pilots were blamed. It was suspected
that they were still flying the Comet as if it were a piston powered airliner.
Over rotating the aircraft on takeoff. It was later determined that a design
change of the leading edge of the comet’s wing was needed. But public
confidence in the comet had not been shaken. and the British remained
enthusiastic about jet-powered air travel. But then, just two months later,
another incident. This time far more catastrophic. A Comet leaving Calcutta
ominously disintegrated while flying through a severe thunderstorm. And only
eight months later, another Comet exploded shortly after taking off from
Rome. After these rapid succession of incidents, BOAC, the airline with the most
Comets in service had no choice but to ground their fleet. The
focus shifted to a suspected turbine explosion in one of the engines. So the
engine housing on the other Comets was reinforced. But public confidence still
remained high and when the Comet re-entered service. Airlines had no
trouble selling seats. Yet just three months later, another comet disintegrated
over the Mediterranean. Now the entire worldwide fleet of comets had to be
grounded as their Certificate of Airworthiness was revoked, An
unprecedentedly large investigation began. And it would reveal that sudden
catastrophic depressurization of the Comet’s cabin was to blame, essentially
causing comets to suddenly explode apart in midair. See, the Comets cycles of
pressurization and depressurization were faster than those of any other aircraft.
After many cycles, the fuselage began to fatigue and cracks started to form.
Especially around the Comets square windows, where hard edged corners
concentrated stress forces. The entire comet fleet was grounded for years while
the investigation lumbered forward. But in the end, none of the grounded
planes would ever fly again. And while de Havilland worked to modify
its design, switching to round windows and increasing fuselage thickness, the
rest of the world was catching up. Aircraft manufacturers from around the
world introduced their own jet-powered offerings. And in 1958, the Boeing 707
entered service and Douglas began producing the DC-8. That same year the, de
Havilland Comet 4 entered service. But it couldn’t compete with the American
offerings, which were now larger, faster and more efficient. Only 76 Comet 4’s
were ever delivered to Airlines. That compares to over 500 DC-8’s and over a
thousand 707’s America’s stranglehold on the civil aviation market would only
grow tighter in the coming decades. According to de Havilland’s chief test
pilot, Boeing and Douglas both privately admitted that they had learned from the
Comets pressurization problems. And if it were not for the Comet, they could have
made the same mistakes. The later, larger and improved
Comets would reliably serve airlines into the 60’s and 70’s. The Comet last flew
commercial passengers in 1980. But there’s no question that the Comet paved
the way. The British had taken a massive risk and brought the world into the Jet
Age. A lot of people ask how I put together
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