On Saturday, May 2, 1952, 36 passengers, six crew members and 30 bags of mail flew the first scheduled flight of the de Havilland DH 106 Comet from London toward Rome, the first of five stops on the 6,724-mile journey to Johannesburg, South Africa. With British Overseas Airways Capt. Michael Majendie at the controls, the Comet cruised at an altitude of 35,000 feet and soared through the skies at a speed of 460 miles per hour, more than 100 miles per hour faster than the fastest propeller-driven airliner. In doing so, the Comet became the world’s first commercial jet airliner.
Developed and manufactured by de Havilland at its Hatfield Aerodrome in Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, the Comet 1 prototype first flew in 1949, just four years after the end of World War II. The world's first pressurized commercial jet airliner, it featured an aerodynamically clean design with four de Havilland Ghost turbojet engines and was the first commercial airliner with hydraulic flying controls. When the pilot moved the control column, a pump was activated which pushed fluid through a circuit of pipes to adjust the control surfaces on the wings.
Up to the introduction of the Comet, passenger aircraft was low flying and uncomfortable to ride. Their cabins were unpressurized and noisy piston engines powered their propellers. And they had to fly through, rather than above, the weather. But the Comet offered quiet, "vibration-free flying" For passengers used to propeller-driven airliners, smooth and quiet jet flight was a whole new, and comfortable, experience.
The envy of the world, The Comet looked like an aircraft from the future. The jet airliner’s design was sleek and futuristic, with a mirrored aluminum fuselage and elegant wings that hid its four jet engines. And, it featured large rectangular picture windows that gave passengers exceptional views of the Earth. The Comet flew higher, faster, and smoother than any other airline of that time. In many ways, it was the Concorde of its day. At approximately 50% faster than equivalent piston engine aircraft, the Comet completed scheduled flights from London to Tokyo in just 36 hours compared to the 86½ hours it took aircraft who had previously dominated the route.
Inside the there were seats for 36 passengers in two cabins. On its first Comets, BOAC installed 36 reclining "slumberseats" with 45-inch centers that provided greater legroom in front and behind. Passengers in First Class were seated around tables and light-filled the cabin due to the aircraft’s rectangular windows. Amenities included a galley that could serve hot and cold food and drinks, a bar, and separate men's and women's toilets. Flights were smooth, the service was impressive and meals were beautifully presented.
In only its first year, the Comet flew 104.6 million miles, carrying 28,000 passengers. No other aircraft at that time could compete with it. But the glamorous early days of the de Havilland Comet didn’t last. Just when it seemed the Comet was the undisputed leader in air passenger travel, two deadly crashes within 16 weeks of each other revealed a design flaw that would eventually ground the original Comets. By the time the flaw was corrected and the new Comet 4C was produced, de Havilland lost its leadership position to the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8. Even though four generations of Comet aircraft were produced, the Comet never recovered the commercial success it had first enjoyed.
The last Comets flew for commercial airlines in 1980 for Dan Air. But the aircraft that ushered in the future was hugely influential. Without it, the Boeing 707 and DC-8 probably would not have been introduced when they were. At the end of the day, the aircraft that revolutionized air travel helped pave the way for the huge success and popularity of air travel today.
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