In the beginning – there was the Comet



The 27th of July 1949 is a memorable date in the history of global aviation, as well as for Great Britain. Many years ago, the first commercial jet airliner took to the skies for the first time. It’s a fact that the world we know today wouldn’t be the same without the advent of the Comet. The early history of the commercial jet era was marked by four air crashes. The reason for this ill-fated start was quite simply the imperfection of an aeroplane design by the de Havilland Company. British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) flights ran from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, with stops for refuelling and refreshments in Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe, and Livingstone.

Enthusiasm at the time was great, as was the comfort on-board. In contrast to the propeller aeroplanes in commercial aviation until then, the Comet was quieter and free of the typical vibrations. In addition to that, it was able to fly at an altitude of 4000 ft (1219 m) at a speed of 450 mph (724 km/h). The on-board experience was also remarkable. All the seats were business class, and all the 36 passengers on-board enjoyed special attention. The BOAC flights were a sensation at the time and a limited number of privileged individuals benefitted from them.

The political effect of this should not be underestimated – as it accelerated the development of the Comet Project by de Havilland. In 2002, scandalous documents were published which outlined how the technical imperfections of the commercial aircraft created at that time were proven. Aerodynamic difficulties in taking off, the dependency on the certain position of the spoilers, inadequate engine power – as well as a poorly-built fuselage not strong good enough to bear the constant load of air pressure – these are but a few of the remarks listed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment in its recommendations for improvements. And still, Great Britain still managed to launch a flight almost 10 years before the United States came along with its Boeing 707 and Douglas DC8. At the end of the 1950s, the golden era of the jets began.

The so-called jet set came into being – a group of citizens with remarkable public abilities, for whom the flight from Paris to Rome and from New York to London is not only a question of prestige. Today, flying is very much an everyday mode of transportation. But in the past, people were truly inspired by their dream to reach the skies. They were so excited, that the first flight of the Comet was not even photographed. When the model was presented, the journalists applauded the movements of the machine on the runway. An hour later, when the pretty bird was roaming high in the skies, there was nobody on the ground. That’s how quickly fame passes.