The Comet streaks in
With the arrival of the jet-powered de Havilland DH106 Comet in the late 1940s, the jet age had truly arrived.
The acceleration in turbojet engine development during the Second World War was critical to the speed with which the British aircraft manufacturer was able to introduce the Comet, enabling the prototype to take its maiden flight at Hatfield Aerodrome on 27 July 1949.
The four-engined aircraft, with its de Havilland Ghost 50 Mk1 turbojets on its wings, introduced a comfortable airliner with a pressurised cabin that could fly faster and higher than any propeller-powered airliner. Following the flight of the first prototype in 1949, a comprehensive, three-year test programme took place. Shell Aviation supported de Havilland with fuel and lubricants for ground testing as well as test flights. This followed on from the work of Shell’s Isaac Lubbock, who had assisted Sir Frank Whittle by helping to develop an effective combustion system for the first British jet engine.
The DH106 Comet 1 came into service with British Overseas Airways Corporation as the world’s first passenger carrying jet airliner on its London to Johannesburg route in May 1952. With around eight scheduled flights a week, the Comet carried over 30,000 passengers in its first year of commercial service. As the Comet was around 50% faster than the equivalent piston-engine aircraft, scheduled flights from London to Tokyo took just 36 hours, compared to the 86½ hours recorded by aircraft such as BOAC Argonauts, which had previously dominated the route.
Sadly, the story of the DH106 Comet 1 is dominated by two serious accidents. The first production aircraft crashed off the Italian island of Elba in January 1954, while a second disappeared near Naples in April of the same year. The aircraft was withdrawn from service and production halted, while an intensive investigation of the wreckage identified a failure of the airframe due to metal fatigue as the cause.
Despite this major setback, the DH106 Comet is still regarded as a major breakthrough in civil aviation. Following safety developments, the Comet 2 and 3 were introduced in the mid-1950s followed by the Comet 4 in 1958. Capable of trans-atlantic flight, this model was in commercial use until 1981. A modified version of the Comet 4 made it last flight in 1997, nearly 50 years after the inaugural flight.
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 76-77.
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