Celestial Body

De Havilland’s D.H. 106 Comet blazed the commercial jet trail but broke its nation’s heart.

WHEN ROBERT HOOD LOOKED AT THE DE HAVILLAND D.H. 106 COMET fuselage sticking halfway out of a hole cut in the huge hangar at the Museum of Flight’s restoration facility in Everett, Washington, he was reminded, oddly, of a vegetable. “[Restoring] this airplane is like peeling an onion,” says Hood, the museum’s former Comet restoration project manager. “After stripping off a layer of corrosion you find another one.” Hood and current manager James Goodall, who took over after Hood’s wife pointed out that Robert was supposed to be retired, for Pete’s sake, led a team of some 10 volunteers, from former Coast Guardsmen to senior Boeing veterans, in a quest to make the airplane, itself retired for more than 30 years, a museum star.

De Havilland’s Comet had a promising future but a disastrous career. In 1952 the D.H.106 Comet 1 became the first commercial jetliner, flying the London-Johannesburg run for British Overseas Airline Corporation. Within a year, two Comets crashed on takeoff in India and Rome. In January 1954, the Comet with the registration GALYP, or Yoke Peter—BOAC’s trailblazer—exploded over the Mediterranean, and in April, another Comet disintegrated off the coast of Sicily. The British government grounded the fleet and launched an intensive investigation. After scraping the sea’s bottom for debris and reconstructing what was left of Yoke Peter, investigators needed only four months to figure out what had happened. The Comet, like other pressurized aircraft, has pressurization and depressurization cycles—the fuselage expands at altitude and contracts during descent. The flexion had caused the aluminum skin to fatigue, or weaken, and a crack developed in the skin abutting a square-cornered navigation window atop the fuselage. In the final cycle, when the fuselage expanded at altitude under pressurization, the crack gave way, causing catastrophic structural failure—the airliner disintegrated. Later versions, like the one being restored by the Museum of Flight, a Mark 4C built in 1959, incorporated the solution: hatches and windows with rounded corners. But in the interim, Boeing came out with the 707 and Douglas with the DC-8. Britain had lost the lead in jet transportation.

The de Havilland design had life in it yet; the company built some 100 D.H.106s. Mexicana Airlines bought the museum’s Mark 4C—serial number 6424—brand-new in 1960 and flew it for 10 years between Mexico City, Chicago, Paris, and points in between, then took it out of service. The old jetliner has since led a rough life. One buyer repainted it in BOAC livery and tried to sell it as a cargoliner. (When the restoration is complete, Mexicana colors will replace the BOAC paint scheme.)

Abandoned at Seattle’s Paine Field in 1979, 6424 was used over the years by the local fire department to practice dousing jetliners. It had small leaks around the door and above the cockpit, and the cockpit instruments had gotten soaked. When the restorers removed the floor, they found four inches of water corroding the aluminum.

“When I first saw it, I thought, uh-oh,” says Goodall, who has restored everything from a Curtiss Robin to an SR-71. Hood, Goodall, and crew stripped the Comet’s interior, the galleys, and the cargo-bay liner, and scraped the exterior down to bare skin (except for the tail and aft fuselage, which were left poking from the restoration hangar; the team left the BOAC paint on to protect the Comet from corrosion). Most of the intensive work was done in the cockpit, especially on the instruments. “We’ve got 4,000 man-hours in the cockpit alone,” says Goodall. Eighty percent of the instruments were taken apart, treated for corrosion, reassembled, and repainted. A former Comet flight engineer said many of them didn’t look that good back when they were in service. “We’ve still got placards to install, wire bundles to do,” Goodall says.

“Our senior materials guy for three years did nothing but inventory parts, and there’s over 100,000 parts,” says Hood. “We probably have the largest collection of Comet parts in the world.” When the crew completes the job, it plans to offer what’s left to crews restoring Comets in England.

The Seattle museum doesn’t currently have the space to exhibit the finished Comet, but rather than park it outside, where the ever-present Northwest moisture might undo all the anti-corrosion labor, the Comet’s caretakers will leave it in the restoration facility until a gallery under construction for large transports, like the Boeings 727, 737, and 747, is finished. Goodall estimates that 6424 will be in a proper exhibit in about four years. Until then, the Museum of Flight allows visitors into the cockpit.

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