The de Havilland Comet: The Plane That Started It All

The de Havilland Comet: The Plane That Started It All

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Commercial air travel, when compared to other methods of transportation, is relatively new; the history dates back to the early 50s, less than 70 years ago. One aircraft started it all: the de Havilland Comet. Even though this was the start, a series of setbacks uprooted the history of commercial air travel.

The date of the first flight for the de Havilland Comet was May 2, 1952.

Aviation’s Early Days

Before the comet, regular flights were only happening across Tampa bay in 1914. Each flight only had one passenger on board. By 1930, Transcontinental and Western Air (now known as TWA) stepped it up with regular flights across the United States from New York to Los Angeles.

Even with the flight across the United States, the plane stopped in Kansas City, Missouri because of the fear of flying at night.

Aviation was not on the same page as it is today because the planes often flew at lower altitudes, which resulted in encountering rougher weather head on. The highest speed used was by the DC-3 in the 1940s, going at a mere 250 miles per hour. (While this may sound fast, think about it like this: The average speed planes fly at is roughly 600 miles per hour today.)

The de Havilland Comet

England’s government decided to recruit Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, an aviation engineer, in 1945. He successfully made an aircraft that could reach 400 miles per hour, fly over the Atlantic Ocean, and was equipped with a pressurized cabin.

  • Ten planes were set to be made.
  • The de Havilland Comet had four engines, could fly up to 42,000 feet, and topped out at around 460 miles per hour. The pressurized cabin allowed for quieter air travel and its windows let passengers observe the world below them.
  • The plane held 36 passengers.
  • The Comet’s first flight was from London, England to Johannesburg, South Africa. The flight took 23 hours with five stops along the way – including Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe, and Livingstone.
  • By 1953 British Overseas Airway Company operated a wide range of flights from London to Johannesburg, Singapore, and Tokyo.

The Fallen Comet: Tragedy Struck

While the Comet’s first flights were initially successful, it ran into problems along the way. Some initial problems included the use of hydraulic fluid; extra fluid had to be taken with along the way. The cockpit also tended to fog up, obstructing the pilot’s view. As if this was not enough, the navigation system frequently overheated.

Exactly one year after the Comet’s first successful flight—on May 2, 1953—a deadly crash occurred. Turbulence resulted in one plane breaking apart. A total of 43 people died in the crash by Delhi, India six minutes after taking off.

Soon after, on January 10, 1954, another Comet crashed soon after takeoff in Rome. The plane crashed 20 minutes after takeoff and crashed into the Mediterranean; all 35 people on board died.

This lead to massive overhauls in the design and build of the Comet—temporarily it was withdrawn from service—and it returned in 1958. The aircraft permanently retired on March 14, 1997.

Today’s Impact

The de Havilland Comet impacted commercial air travel for years to come. The Boeing 707 followed suit in 1958. All of the aircrafts learned from the mistakes of the Comet.

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