December 6, 2018 | Matt
If you’ve ever seen a Bogart or a Jimmy Stewart movie, you know that air travel used to be a much different affair than it is today. Formal dress was the rule of the day in the “golden era” of flying, typically considered the period of time before the advent of the jet-engine airliner. Women wore their nice dresses and their nicer hats. Men sported full suits. It was a grand time.
Except that sometimes it really wasn’t. Despite the glitz and glamor, life in the sky before jetliners was not nearly as comfortable. Airliners flew by means of piston-powered propeller engines that posed quite a few difficulties we no longer have to contend with in the modern day. For one, if you fly on a prop plane, your journey is going to take significantly longer than you’ve become accustomed to. Those aircraft just did not have the power, or the ability to climb to as high of an altitude, as modern planes. The engines were also extremely loud. So, imagine you’re flying across the country, and it takes way longer to get to where you’re going, and you have the thundering sound of pistons in your ears the whole time. Those pistons are also vibrating you in your seat, giving you the full “cheap vibrating motel bed” experience. For hours.
Now consider the fact that because the prop airliners couldn’t get a lot of altitude, you were prone to fly through every bit of bad weather that lay between you and your destination. If you think turbulence is a problem now, it’s nothing compared to the lunch-losing wonder of flying during that cherished golden era.
All of this changed with the introduction of the world’s first jet airliner. It would change the world forever. But not without some of its own very serious bumps along the way. As much as you wouldn’t want to ride on those old planes, you wouldn’t want to ride on the first jet plane, either. Here’s why.
The de Havilland Comet
The stage was set for air travel to be radically changed. The world was not fully prepared for the first jet airliner, which appeared seemingly overnight, much to the shock of aeronautics companies around the world who were set all the way back on their heels and sent scrambling to the drawing board. The first jet airliner was the de Havilland Comet. When it first debuted in 1949, it looked like a vision straight off the cover of a science fiction pulp magazine.
Its sleek, aerodynamic design actually still looks futuristic today. It featured four jet turbines set into the wings (something you never see anymore, and which still looks cool) and a very modern profile. It was also a total powerhouse, able to provide a level of comfort and technological sophistication previously totally unseen in the world of civil aviation.
The Comet upended received wisdom that jet travel was not feasible, due to technological limitations. The critics were proven very wrong. The public was exhilarated by the Comet, though the plane’s honeymoon period would come to a quite literally screeching halt soon after the Comet was put into service. Within months of the debut, the Comet was proving to be not quite the technological marvel that had been hoped.
The Americans Dominate Air Travel
The de Havilland Comet was built by the British, much to the shock of the American civil aviation industry. During World War II, Britain suffered extreme damage from German bombing, both in terms of loss of human life and damage to the nation’s civic and industrial infrastructure. They were, for all intents and purposes, industrially crippled following the Allied victory.
This left space for the American aviation industry to fill the gap. The American economy saw a boom period following the War that is still unprecedented. Its industries continued to grow in scope and power, including the aeronautics industry that had been so bolstered by the War. It was not difficult for American companies to translate their military transport aircraft designs to civil renditions.
The most popular airliner during this period was the Douglas DC-3, pictured above. At the height of American dominance of civil aviation, about 90% of all civilian air passengers flew aboard a DC-3. Lockheed also provided civil aircraft in the form of a civilian model of the Constellation. They could look forward to an uninterrupted march towards total global dominance in the aviation market. Or so they thought. The de Havilland Comet would totally invert those expectations, and force them to adapt to a totally new set of rules.
A Brief History Of The Jet Engine
Jet engine aircraft already existed before the de Havilland Comet, but only for military purposes. Nobody had introduced the jet engine into civil aviation. Indeed, it was thought impossible.
The history of the jet engine is a bit of a strange one. It was invented, independently, in two different locations at about the same time. A Royal Air Force officer named Frank Whittle invented a gas-turbine engine that would be critically important during the War. It was attached to the Gloster E.28/39, pictured above, which flew for the first time on May 15 of 1941.
Whittle’s design was preceded by that of a German named Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain. Von Ohain, funded by Ernst Heinkel, the powerful industrialist, developed the world’s first jet engine, called the Hes.3B. This engine was used in the Heinkel He 178, which took its maiden flight on August 27, 1939. It was the first flight of a jet-powered aircraft in history.
The War also saw the development of the world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the German V-2 rocket. While the jet engine was a major turning point in military history, the ICBM would completely change the face of geopolitics.
The devastation wrought by German bombing during World War 2 in Great Britain was profound. Huge swaths of infrastructure were destroyed completely, forcing the British to rebuild their society and their economy virtually and literally from the ground up. One industry hit hard by the War was the British aviation industry. The world expected Britain to be a minor player in the world of aeronautics and civil aviation. They were very mistaken, at least for a time.
The Brits knew that the only way for them to make headway in the civil aviation market, which was dominated nearly completely by the United States, was to come up with something borderline miraculous. The jet engine powered airliner was just such a miracle. The idea had been floated before, but scientists had dismissed it as either technologically implausible or simply not worth the money investment it would take to build and operate such an aircraft.
The de Havilland Comet would not only make a huge amount of money for the de Havilland company, it would also re-energize a postwar Britain that was dispirited by its new underdog role in many markets. The plane was, of course, an engineering marvel. It was also a potent symbol of a new era, and Britain’s prominent position in that new era.
Attempting the Impossible
Making a jet-powered civil airliner was a very bold undertaking. It ran counter to all of the common assumptions people had about the idea’s feasibility. People believed that the jet airliner would produce an inadequate amount of thrust in relation to how much fuel would have to be burned, making them underpowered and expensive.
However, de Havilland started working on the Comet around the same time the conventional reciprocating engine was bumping up against its limits, in terms of how much it could be optimized. Propeller engines were starting to reach supersonic tip speeds, which totally undercut their efficiency. They were also so complicated that the amount of horsepower they required to function often created operational and maintenance issues. The jet engine was not only more powerful, it was also much simpler and easier to maintain safely.
Where there was a will, there was a way. The engineers at de Havilland, undaunted by dire warnings to the contrary, got to work on a civil airliner that should not have been possible. They worked in secret, waiting until the debut to show the world what they had done. The aviation world, and the world in general, was completely stunned by their work.
Making It A Reality
The Comet was developed under such tight wraps that de Havilland actually propagated false myths about it in order to throw potential competitors off the scent. They worked on a number of purposefully useless designs. The other aviation companies fell for it completely. The real Comet featured a design that barely resembled the others. Among the discarded, fake designs were a short-range mail plane that had a passenger compartment attached to it, and a “canard,” or no-tail design. The design that would eventually be used for the Comet prototype was finalized in 1947.
The Comet was the result of a push in 1943, by former Parliament member John Moore-Brabazon, to restore the British air-transport industry to its prewar status. This committee led to de Havilland making their first sketches, which would eventually lead to the Comet’s debut on July 27, 1949. The Comet could seat thirty six people and fly up to five hundred miles per hour, over voyages of up to one and a half thousand miles.
The Comet surpassed all of its contemporary jetliners in its technological abilities. It was such a strong proof of concept that it set the stage for prop airliners being virtually phased out of existence. They are still used for smaller, private planes, as well as commuter journeys over short distances. But for any flight longer than half an hour, you’ll probably be flying on one of the Comet’s many descendants.
The Comet Revealed
The de Havilland Comet was revealed to an unsuspecting public in the summer of 1949. Nobody had ever seen an aircraft quite like it. In contrast with the aircraft that preceded it, the Comet featured all sleek lines and streamlined design. The integrated jet engines, sitting flush with the wings, were (and are) especially striking. What looks to our modern eyes as a slightly-weird airplane looked to the people of 1949 like a spaceship.
The impact was dramatic. There was now no doubt that Great Britain was the leading light in global civil air travel. The British aviation industry’s former status as a casualty of the War evaporated in an instant. Seduced by the technological might and aesthetic beauty of the Comet, airlines around the world started overwhelming de Havilland with orders for the new plane.
Even in the United States, where airlines were very hesitant to put jet airliners into use, many orders were placed. Unfortunately, the Comet’s meteoric rise to the forefront of the aviation world would be short-lived. The Comet would run into some unfortunate, unforeseen problems with its design that would undo much of the progress it accomplished for the British civil aviation industry.
The Pressurized Cabin
Previous designs for a jet-powered airliner had encountered a very major obstacle: if they flew at the normal altitude of an airliner, too much fuel would need to be burned to make it anything but a money pit. The Comet solved that problem, once and for all.
The Comet relied upon a pressurized cabin to allow it to fly at a cruising altitude of around 40,000 feet. This was totally unprecedented at the time. Gone would be the days of a plane stubbing its wing on every vesper of cloud on its way to its destination. Passengers could look forward to a comfortable, quiet ride high up in the atmosphere, well above most inclement weather.
At forty thousand feet, the air is significantly less dense, hovering around 18 kPa (Kilopascal, a unit of measurement of pressure). In order to fly in such low-density air without everyone onboard dying, the cabin would have to be pressurized to around 75 kPa. This was accomplished, and was both the Comet’s greatest strength and, it would turn out, its key weakness.
Other airplanes had utilized a pressurized cabin, but the Comet was the first to fly at such a high altitude.
The World Falls In Love With The Comet
The de Havilland Comet was first put into service in 1952. Soon thereafter, it shattered records for travel time between major destinations. The public was astonished by how quickly and comfortably they could travel in the air. The propeller airliners of old looked immediately unsophisticated in comparison.
The Comet was so popular that it became a symbol of national pride for Great Britain. However, it turned out that all the new design elements, used together in a single aircraft for the first time, without any kind of track record, would prove the aircraft’s undoing. The Comet’s demise was a long, slow, painful process.
It was one of the instances in history of science and engineering making leaps so significant, in such a short amount of time, that it would almost have been better that it hadn’t been made at all. Or, at least, on a much slower timelines. That was a timeline the British couldn’t afford though, as a rapacious America breathed down their necks and exerted more and more control over the aviation market. Unfortunately, the Comet’s rush to market came at a great cost. Both in terms of de Havilland’s hard-won inroad into that market, and in human life.
Pretty much right off the bat, the Comets started to exhibit some troubling issues. There were recurrent problems with their electrical and hydraulic systems, though these were overcome with proper maintenance. For a time.
On October 26, 1952, a Comet skidded disastrously off the runway during takeoff at Rome’s Ciampino airport. The Comet, which could not become airborne, sped off the end of the runway. The aircraft was destroyed in the process. Two passengers were injured, but thankfully none were killed. Soon after this, on March 3 of 1953, a brand new Comet delivered to Canadian Pacific Airlines suffered the same fate while trying to get airborne on a Karachi, Pakistan runway. This time, the people onboard were not so lucky. All eleven people aboard the plane were killed in the ensuing wreck.
It was not only a dire sign for the Comet, it was actually the first ever fatal jetliner crash in history. The airlines blamed the pilots, saying that they were not adequately practiced with jet airliners and had been trying to fly them in the style of the old prop planes. They were wrong. Turns out that the Comet featured a faulty wing design. The Comet would have to be overhauled.
More Comet Disasters
Despite these two back-to-back accidents, one of them catastrophic, the public was still not ready to turn its back on the de Havilland Comet. It was just too promising, and made life too easy for travelers who needed to make long flights. Enthusiasm remained especially high in Britain.
Two months after the Comet’s first fatal disaster, an even worse disaster transpired. A Comet that took off from Calcutta, India inexplicably disintegrated in mid-flight, while passing through a thunderstorm. All forty-three people onboard were killed in the accident. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the Comet, sheared of its wings and on fire, hitting the village of Jagalgori. The plane had only been in the air for six minutes.
Yet another fatal accident followed on January 10, 1954. A Comet that took off from Ciampino airport, Rome broke up in mid-flight after twenty minutes, crashing into the Mediterranean Sea and killing all thirty-five people onboard. There were no eyewitnesses, and a cause was not obvious. De Havilland engineers scrambled for a fix, recommending sixty modifications of the aircraft to cover any possible contingency. The cause of these midair explosions was still not known, though an answer would be shortly forthcoming.
The Comets Are Grounded
Large-scale investigations were launched to determine how and why these fatal accidents had occurred. BOAC, the airline that had purchased the most Comets, volunteered to ground all of them until an answer was found. It looked as if the Comet’s days might be numbered.
The media covered the story sensationally, with most of its reporting focusing around rumors of sabotage. An investigative body called The Abell Committee developed six likely culprits: structural failure resulting from heavy loads, wing fatigue, control flutter, flight control failure, fire and window panel failure that resulted in decompression. Fire was ultimately judged to be the most likely explanation. Design modifications were made to reinforce the wings and engines against damage that could potentially cause fires.
The modified Comet was reintroduced to the public, who were still, despite everything, willing to give the plane the benefit of the doubt. Tragically, this was one time when consumer panic would actually have served those people well. The modifications missed the real cause of the disasters, which had not been adequately addressed in the subsequent fixes made to the planes. When people stepped back onboard the Comets, they were still in just as much danger as before the Committee made its recommendations.
Searching For Answers
Three months after the Comets took to the sky once again, a Comet disintegrated in mid-flight over the Mediterranean Sea. Clearly, the Comet was suffering from a fundamental design problem that had not been noticed or adequately addressed in all the intervening years of trial and error. Many people paid for that oversight, even if it was an innocent one, with their lives.
The Comet’s airworthiness certificate was revoked, and every de Havilland Comet in the world was grounded under penalty of law. What ensued was an investigation so large that it was without precedent in the history of aviation. What the investigation found was very interesting, and explained why nobody had been able to foresee the series of disasters.
It turns out that the explosions occurred when the plane’s pressurized cabin, the Comet’s crown technological jewel, experienced rapid, unexpected depressurization due to what, in retrospect, looked like a glaring design oversight. It was the pressurization itself, over the course of many flights, coupled with the material composition of the aircraft, that resulted in the constant wrecks. Once diagnosed, the problem was made possible to solve. But not in any short timeline. In the meantime, the Comets sat languishing in warehouses all over the world.
The Imploding Cabin
As the Comet’s cabin pressurized, it put micro strains on the metal fuselage. As the cabin depressurized on descent, the fuselage constricted. As this “breathing” action occurred over many flights, the fuselage became progressively weaker and weaker, until it reached a breaking point. This breaking point caused the fuselage to rupture, instantly depressurizing the cabin and producing something like an explosion. The Comets would be splintered into pieces, and survival was not possible.
The Comet was originally designed with square windows. This is now, because of the Comet, understood to be a potentially fatal design flaw. The acute angles of the windows concentrated this expansion and contraction stress in single points, hastening the forming of cracks and eventual structural failure.
Modern airplane design accounts for these stresses, and it is no longer a danger. Next time you look out of an ovular window, try not to shudder when you consider how small of a detail could make such a huge difference. Modern jetliners are largely made of more composite materials, which are more resilient to stresses. While these kinds of catastrophic fuselage implosions are no longer an imminent, or even distant, danger to passengers, they killed dozens of people over the course of the Comet’s early period.
New Kids On the Block
While the very long, very thorough investigation was taking place, the standing fleet of Comets sat totally unused. They would not enjoy a second wind – those original Comets would never fly again.
De Havilland worked on a new Comet design that featured round windows and a thicker, reinforced fuselage. By the time their design was realized, however, the rest of the civil aviation industry had closed the Brits’ lead. The Americans, especially, charged into the jetliner market with their own jet-powered aircraft. It was a setback the British civil aviation industry would never quite recover from.
Other, rival planes started popping up, starting with the SUD Aviation Caravelle France and the Tupolev Tu-104, followed, most significantly, by the Douglas DC-8 and the Boeing 707, pictured above. The upgraded de Havilland Comet 4 was brought to market at about the same time as the DC-8 and the 707, but its design was inferior to its competitors. In the intervening gap, the Americans had improved upon the Comet, and their offerings were now faster, could seat more people and were more fuel efficient. This made them too attractive an option for airlines to pass up. They did, however, pass de Havilland by.
The End Of An Era
The Comet 4 made a dismal showing on the market, upon its launch. The first shipment of Comet 4’s only saw 76 planes delivered. Compare to 556 deliveries of the DC-8 and 1,001 deliveries of the Boeing 707. De Havilland’s moment in the sun had apparently come to an end. And so it had – de Havilland would never again regain that level of prestige and market dominance.
America, seemingly foaming at the mouth to reclaim its spot as top dog in the civil aviation world, had achieved its aims, dramatically. The United States’ dominance of that market would continue, unabated and in fact strengthening, for decades. American companies, while they no longer enjoy the virtual monopoly of yesteryear, are still foremost among civil aviation corporations.
Those planes certainly flew on the wings of giants. The chief test pilot for de Havilland claims that both Douglas and Boeing confessed that had it not been for the Comet’s structural failure, they would likely have made the same design error. They took the Comet’s virtues, minimized its vices, and started the process of design refinement that has resulted in our modern jetliners. It is unfortunate, to make an understatement, that we had to pay for that expertise with blood.
The Comet Burns Out
The Comet went through a number of subsequent design iterations, keeping it on the margins of relevance through the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies. The Comet, however, despite its improved workhorse reputation, never got close to Boeing or Douglas in terms of market representation. The former frontrunner was cast first into the metaphorical, and then the literal, scrapheap.
The last passenger flight of a de Havilland Comet happened in 1980. The aircraft that laid the groundwork for all the jetliner conveniences we know and love today never achieved the level of popularity it could have, had its designers had more foresight. They are remembered quite fondly by many aviation enthusiasts. Both for their historical significance and for their enduring aesthetic charm.
The story of jetliners was far from over, though. And far from boring. What followed in the coming decades was a bitterly fought war between airplane manufacturers for control of the global civil aviation market. It was, and is, one of the most contention arenas of brand combat in the world. For better or for worse, de Havilland would not play a major hand in those battles, to be waged between Boeing, Douglas and a handful of upstarts that would challenge them.
Boeing vs Douglas
In the 1960s, air travel changed dramatically. The development of the turbofan engine, a markedly more efficient design than the kind of jet engine used in the Comet, made jetliners even more impressive. In 1969, Boeing introduced the 747, which would impact air travel even more. The 747, the first true mass-market jetliner, proletarianized air travel. Jet travel, which had formerly been the domain only of the rich, became affordable to a huge new swath of people.
Boeing capitalized upon these gains by putting out a wide variety of jetliner types, incorporating new technologies and specialized designs to meet the needs of individual airlines and commonly traveled routes. This diversity of designs placed them well ahead of the pack. Douglas, Boeing’s main competition, was fraught with managerial issues. Despite the success of the DC-9, Boeing left Douglas in the lurch. Douglas was acquired by the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in 1967. The new McDonnell Douglas Corporation launched the DC-10, in time to compete with an emboldened Lockheed and their L-1011 TriStar. Both enjoyed a respectable number of deliveries, but at huge financial loss for both companies. Eventually, Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997.
Boeing looked like it would enjoy an uncontested top rank. A new challenger wasn’t far around the corner.
Boeing vs Airbus
As contentious as the relationship between Douglas and Boeing was, the rivalry between Boeing and a newer European airline conglomerate called Airbus Industrie was, and is, far more vicious. Airbus arrived on the scene in the early seventies. It was a partnership between companies from France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, with subcontractors across the world.
Airbus, with its Airbus A300 jet, was considered a total dark horse. Nobody really believed that the company could compete with Boeing, which had assumed “megalith” status in the airline market. The A300 was a huge success, though. Like Boeing before them, Airbus ran with this success and produced a wide variety of different, specialized offerings. By 2005, Airbus was doing numbers that were almost on par with their American rival, and it looked like they might even overtake them.
Airbus, with its fourteen different jet models, is now Boeing’s only real competition. They are still locked in a bitter struggle for superiority. Boeing has accused Airbus of being unfairly subsidized by its host governments. Airbus, in turn, has reversed the accusation on Boeing, saying that they are functionally subsidized by the United States government, in the form of military contracts. The saga of their sometimes clandestine, sometimes overt conflict is the stuff of movies.
While the Comet is now a footnote in that story, none of it would have been possible had it not been for de Havilland.
Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.