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BOOK REVIEW: 'Comet' (The Washington Times)

by August 12, 2015 Aviation

August 12, 2015

By Martin Rubin  

By Bruce Hales-Dutton

Danann Books/Trafalgar Square, $65, 148 pages, illustrated

We tend to assume that the great technological inventions of the 20th century were born in the USA. It was, after all, dubbed the American century. But, in fact, three of the most significant of these marvels were British: television, antibiotics and the jet aircraft engine. This lavishly illustrated book – it is also packed with information about everything from engineering to decor – celebrates Comet, the first passenger jet that took to the air. And guess what? It was British, too:

“For commercial aviation the jet age arrived at 1512 hr on Friday 2 May 1952 when Captain A.M. Majendie, flight captain of the British Overseas Airways Corporation’s Comet fleet, lifted G-ALYP [call sign Yoke Peter] off Heathrow’s runway for the flight to Johannesburg. Twenty-first century travelers would probably be highly unimpressed by the time taken by the world’s first commercial jet service to cover the 7,000 miles to South Africa but the Comet’s 23hr 38 minute flying time was viewed as amazing by 1952 standards. It was, though, dictated by the number of en-route replenishment halts required by the thirsty engines: Yoke Peter stopped at Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe, and Livingstone.” Certainly its arrival in Johannesburg in under 24 hours was indeed considered remarkable back then: “When the aircraft arrived at Johannesburg’s Palmietfontein Airport there were reported to be 20,000 spectators waiting to catch this harbinger of the future [that] arrived two minutes ahead of schedule.”

The future certainly did belong to jet air travel and vice versa and in 1958, a later version of the Comet would become the first jet plane to carry passengers across the Atlantic, managing to beat the Boeing 707 by 22 days, although its range was still too short to deny its American rival the distinction of first non-stop Atlantic jet crossing. But before then, much would happen, some of it tragic, to the world’s first passenger jetliner.

In the meantime, between 1952 and early 1954, the Comet was a roaring success, carrying passengers at record speeds not just across Africa, but Asia too, first to India and Ceylon, soon as far as Singapore and Tokyo. Such was its vogue that even the recently widowed Queen Mother Elizabeth and her younger daughter Princess Margaret took a joyride of 1,850 miles to experience the thrill of Comet. A photograph of them shows them still dressed all in black on May 23 1952, only three and a half months after King George VI’s death.

Comet was set to become a valuable export for Britain, as European and U.S. airlines were showing interest, when disaster struck in January 1954. Just after leaving Rome on the final leg of its journey from Singapore to London, that same Yoke Peter Comet, which had so triumphantly inaugurated jet passenger air travel, crashed without any warning near Elba with no survivors. There had been accidents that in retrospect point to a haste in putting Comet aloft. No fewer than three had to be “written off overshooting the runway” and another had broken apart in the air during a tropical storm over Calcutta. But when three months and two days after the Yoke Peter disaster, another identical aircraft, Yoke Yoke, again suddenly plummeted into the Mediterranean near Stromboli shortly after taking off from Rome bound for Johannesburg, “the similarity between the losses of the two Comets could hardly be ignored. BOAC halted Comet services and the aircraft’s Certificate of Airworthiness was withdrawn.”

Exhaustive examination of recovered bodies and airplane parts revealed that there had been no explosion, but that the planes had suffered split-second decompression and catastrophic disintegration. The cause: metal fatigue. Or as the author usefully quotes in explanation: “a structure which had ample reserve of strength when it was new might fail under its normal working load after a certain length of time.” It seems incredible that something so basic about pressurized jet planes flying at high altitude had not been anticipated – after all military jets had been flying for almost a decade – but perhaps the dreadful lesson of the Comet catastrophes ensured that when the next generation was built all over the world, metallurgic improvements rendered all those many, many planes safe.

As for Comet itself, it was down but definitely not knocked out. By the end of the decade, the intercontinental Comet 4C and shorter range 4B were airborne in considerable numbers, 4C not merely connecting London and New York, but myriad flights again traversing Africa and Asia, and crisscrossing Europe and the Middle East, with an enviable safety record. I flew in both and found them comfortable and secure, but I’m very glad that as a toddler in South Africa when Comet was flying between there and London, I had not yet begun my traveling days. A cousin of mine whose business took him often from Johannesburg to London and was one always to embrace the new – when I last saw him, he had flown to the United States on the Concorde – was a frequent Comet flier, and so had a lucky escape. Even if you have fewer degrees of separation from this pioneering airplane than I do, I feel confident that you will enjoy its many evocative illustrations and text.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.