Comet's Tale

A half century ago, the first jet airliner delighted passengers with swift, smooth flights until a fatal structural flaw doomed its glory

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When the drains were opened and the water flooded out, scientists stared in grim amazement. Repeated pressurization had caused the fuselage to split. One fracture started in the corner of a window atop the aircraft where radio aerials were housed and continued for eight feet, passing directly through a window frame in its path. Closer examination showed discoloration and crystallization, telltale evidence of metal fatigue. At high altitude, after many pressurization cycles, the Comets’ fuselages simply lost their ability to contain high air pressure, and the planes exploded with bomblike force.

After the investigation, the Comet 1’s future was sealed. It never carried another passenger. Neither did its wouldbe successors, Comets 2 and 3. Comet 4 was four years in production, and by the time it went into service it had been overtaken by developments in the United States. Fewer than 70 were ever built for airline service.

On July 15, 1954, test pilot Tex Johnston lifted the creamand- buff Boeing 367-80 (the famous “Dash-80,” now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Air and SpaceMuseum) off the runway at Renton, Washington. It was the first flight of what would become a new jet airliner, the Boeing 707, with more than three times the passenger capacity of the Comet 1. It would enter service in 1958, at the same time as the much smaller Comet 4. In all, eight hundred and fifty-five 707s would roll off Boeing’s assembly lines. The United States had entered the jet age, where it would maintain its dominance into the 21st century.

Still, Boeing had not gotten there first. That honor went to De Havilland and the Comet, which had made a shrinking world even smaller, changing forever the way its people traveled the globe.


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