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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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The throng of spectators, including famed airplane designer Sir Geoffrsey de Havilland, heard the earsplitting shriek before they saw the sleek, bullet-shaped aircraft burst out of the mist and hurtle down the runway at LondonAirport. The Comet 1 airliner roared into the air— and into history—on 20,000 pounds of thrust from its four De Havilland Ghost jet engines. For the first time ever, a jet-propelled aircraft was carrying passengers over a scheduled commercial route.

It was Saturday, May 2, 1952. On board were 36 passengers, six crew members and 30 bags of mail. At the Comet’s controls, British Overseas Airways Capt. Michael Majendie headed the jet toward Rome, the first of five stops on the 6,724-mile journey to Johannesburg, South Africa. The plane smoothly accelerated to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet and a speed of 460 miles per hour, more than 100 miles per hour faster than the fastest propeller-driven airliner. Suddenly, the world was a smaller place.

Less than 24 hours later, thousands more onlookers ringed Johannesburg’s PalmieterfonteinAirport as the Comet 1—registration G-ALYP, dubbed “Yoke Peter,” from the phonetic alphabet then in use in Britain (George-Able- Love-Yoke-Peter)—streaked into view. Capt. R. C. Alabaster, now 84, who flew the last three legs of the flight from Khartoum, remembers the scene vividly. “Oddly enough, as we circled the airport we could see all these cars and people blocking the roads, and we thought it just must be busy. It wasn’t until after we landed that we learned they had come to see us.”

Comet flight engineer Alan Johnson, now 83, who had flown many test flights, says, “This trip was the hardest because we had to make sure we got into Jo’burg on time and out the next day. By then I was quite used to crowds wherever we flew.”

Though aubrey cookman, an editor at popular Mechanics magazine, found the plane noisier than he had expected, he told reporters that his only regret was that the United States wouldn’t have anything like the Comet for several years. He was right: the British were far ahead of the United States in the development of passenger jets.

The revolutionary planes could be traced to World War II, when a group of visionaries, led by Lord Brabazon of Tara (often called the father of British aviation), convened to study Great Britain’s postwar position in commercial aviation. The committee was haunted by the knowledge that by 1939, the American twin-engine Douglas DC-3 was carrying a staggering 90 percent of the world’s airline passengers. America ruled the skies and looked poised to continue to do so. In the war years, the much bigger and faster Douglas DC-4 and the Lockheed Constellation 649 took to the air, ready to jump into commercial service as soon as the war ended.

Brabazon’s group knew that the noise and vibration of propeller-driven planes were significant fatigue factors for passengers on long-distance flights, as four behemoth 18- cylinder engines responded to thousands of gasoline-fueled explosions per minute. Such engines required complex supercharging— forced compression of air into the cylinders— to cruise efficiently at high altitudes, above bumpy and hazardous weather. Though the big piston engines werecrafted with skill and precision, they simply could not be made to run smoothly, nor could they be easily made more powerful than they already were.

The committee was also aware that jet engines, invented independently before the war by both English and German experimenters, were virtually vibration-free. Furthermore, jets were at home at high speeds and high altitude. If the British could parlay their lead in jet-engine technology into a new airliner, they might be able to break America’s choke hold on commercial airline sales.

By war’s end, only one British manufacturer—De Havilland— had built a jet engine and designed a plane for it. With the blessing of Britain’s Ministry of Supply and working under a cloak of secrecy, Sir Geoffrey accepted the challenge of creating a commercial jet airliner.

A major problem for the designers was fuel consumption, which was at least three times greater for jets than for piston engines, especially at low altitudes. Kerosene was the fuel, and 1945-vintage turbojet engines consumed it three to four times as fast at 10,000 feet as at 30,000. Sir Geoffrey reasoned that a plane could fly more efficiently at 35,000 feet, where the air was thinner and less power would be required for propulsion.

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