Crew of XK 670 before Moscow Trip
Wing/Co. B. D. Sellick, Commanding Officer of the Comet Sqd., Ft/Lt Hickox – Navigator, F.O. Hodkinson as Signaller, Ft.Sgts. Fisher and Downie were Air-Quatermasters and Ft/Lt A. S. Ware was the Fight Engineer.Two de Havilland staff were recalled as Volunteer Reserve members: ex-Squadron Leader Peter Bois and Flying Officer L.E.F. (Ted) Young joined the flight.
Politics – 1950s
Today the political ramifications of the Cold war are being forgotten.
It is hard for new generations to appreciate the tension that existed between East and West up until 1989.
But to fully appreciate the significance of the Moscow Trip it is necessary to imagine the situation in the late 1940s and early 1950s. East did not trust the West and vice versa. Political capital could be gained world wide by demonstrating that a country had advanced technology. The space race illustrates only too well how misinformation can be used to escalate an already tense situation. Soviet achievements spurred the US to go to the moon.
The West believed itself superior in terms of all things technological. Indeed it was. But sophistication resulted in complexity and complexity resulted in unreliability – and unreliability was costly. So to achieve the reliable sophistication in Western technology was costly – but the West, in the form of the US, could afford it.
The Soviet approach was to use whatever covert means was necessary to obtain ‘technology’. They would use what they got – and use it effectively. There was a financial cost – but is was effectively hidden in the ‘collective economy’. Whatever – the Soviets were, on the face of it, successful and more than a few times staggered the West with their achievements. Witness the space program.
In aviation too the Soviets had some surprises for the West. The demonstration of advanced technology – even if not based on reality – generated tremendous support from dissident nations. Air Shows were, and possibly still are, a showcase of a nations technological ability.
Politically – in the 1950s – they were more significant than we can imagine today.
With this in mind I set the scene:
State of jet development
Post WW2 Boeing had been producing a series of designs for large jet-powered aircraft. An early example their thinking was a design study in which the Stratofreighter 377 was modified by replacing its four piston engines with Pratt& Whitney XJ-57 turbo-jets. Sister to the 377 was the 367 Stratocruiser. So, in theory, in the 1940’s Boeing could have produced a passenger jet.
In 1947 Boeing launched the B-47 Stratojet.
This was a six turbo-jet engined bomber. Boeing gained much experience with this 600+ mph aeroplane. In April 1952 the huge, eight jet-engined B-52 Stratofortress made is maiden flight. Neither of these aeroplanes were developed into commercial variants – but they could have been!
Boeing were becoming very experienced at designing and developing large jet aeroplanes. The B-52, for example, began as a design study as early as 1946 and the design was finalized in 1948. This was at exactly the same time that de Havilland were designing and building the type 106 – in comparison altogether much less ambitious.
It was, therefore, just a matter of time before Boeing would turn their attention to civilian jets. This they did in the late 1940’s rethinking the Stratofreighter concept.
Designated 367-80 it was to be a dual role aeroplane: a military transport and a commercial airliner. This four engined, swept wing jet made it’s maiden flight in July 1954.
The dash 80 was to become better known as the 707.
(Fact – by 1980 962 707/720 had been sold).
So for various reasons the US took their time in introducing a commercial jetliner.
In the Soviet Union things were different. The Tupolev company had greatly modified a TU 16 ‘Badger’ medium bomber for civilian use.
This development was something of a surprise for western analysts who, generally, had not thought the Russian aviation industry sufficiently advanced to produce a commercial jet.
When the Russian TU104 made it’s maiden flight outside the Soviet Union the event was regarded as an enormous propaganda coup for the Soviets – and an embarrassment for the West.
But, not unexpectedly, the 104 turned out to be quite a crude aeroplane. Even so the significant point was the 104 was already flying and was due to go into scheduled service in September of 1956. The Soviets could argue that they were effectively two years ahead of Boeing.
An invitation – you cannot refuse
It was against this background that an Official Soviet Delegation happened to visit Britain in the Spring of 1956.
The Soviets had the 104, and they were planning a prestigious Air Show. Therefore it was not a coincidence that during the visit an official invitation was extended by the Soviet leader – Nikita Kruschov – via their head of Aviation (Bulganin), to the British Secretary of State for Air, Nigel Birch, to visit Moscow that June to see the Soviet Air Show at Tushino airfield, Moscow.
The invitation was accepted but, obviously, there were going to be logistically problems for the UK.
This arose because the invitation coincided with the suspension of Comet operations following the series of Mk.1 crashes. It will be remembered that the Comet Mk.2s under construction were now destined, after suitable modification, for the RAF. But deliveries had yet to take place and were, in fact, not due for many weeks.
So the question for the Government was – should the British delegation travel to Moscow – particularly to a prestigious Airshow – in a piston engined aircraft?
In Ministry circles it was thought that for the country that gave the world the first pure-jet passenger transport this would have been a gross embarrassment.
The solution was obvious – commission one of the development Comets from de Havilland specifically for the trip. Immediately an intensive training programme was organized in Hatfield with the objective of preparing an air force crew ready for June.
The crew assigned were: Wing/Co. B. D. Sellick, Commanding Officer of the Comet Sqd., Ft/Lt Hickox was chosen to be the Navigator along with F.O. Hodkinson as Signaller, Ft.Sgts. Fisher and Downie were Air-Quatermasters and Ft/Lt A. S. Ware was the Fight Engineer.
Time was short however and it was not until 6th June that W.Co.Sellick had his first ‘dual’ – and the scheduled date of departure was June 23rd!
With so little time available for training, could it be done? An intensive training programme was based both at Hatfield and at Transport Command’s home, RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. A minimum of 25 hours in command had to be achieved before the flight.
It was soon realized that the schedule was too tight. It became obvious that, despite much progress, the crew would not be ready in time.
It was decided, therefore, that the only solution was for de Havilland staff to accompany the flight – only they had the necessary experience.
The RAF retain the right – as do the other Services – to recall those that have previously served. Two de Havilland staff were recalled as Volunteer Reserve members: ex-Squadron Leader Peter Bois and Flying Officer L.E.F. (Ted) Young joined the flight.
Newspaper article 1956
Appointment to a Commission by Air Ministry
Both were given R.A.F.V.R. commissions and duly fitted out with uniforms.
Peter Bois was to be a ‘nominal’ captain during the trip but, in practice, W/Co. Sellick, acting as a ‘nominal’ copilot, was in ‘technical’ command of the flight. Ted Young performed a similar role at the F/E panel overseeing Ft/Lt Ware.
On Saturday, 23rd June 1956, XK 670 (Corvus) of 216 Transport Command became the first British aeroplane to fly from London to Moscow non-stop, and the first British jet to fly to Moscow.
Corvus was nicely described in the ‘D.H. Enterprise’ magazine for August 1956 as, “resplendent in its new RAF livery of white, silver and blue, (the Comet) made the journey of 1,700 statute miles against strong head-winds in four hours and two minutes.”
The RAF delegation was headed by Nigel Birch. Also onboard were the Vice-Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman; the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Thomas Pike; the A.O.C.-in-C. Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst and several other high-ranking officers.
One much-traveled crew member was said to have remarked,
I’ve never seen so much top brass in one plane before.
Take it that the flight was regarded as important.
Every creature-comfort was attended too: the Comet had been specially furnished with fitted carpets, feather cushions, adjustable armchair seats, a cocktail cabinet, and a well stocked bookcase – not the sort of thing RAF crews were treated to!.
A six-course meal, with vodka and caviar, was served – enjoyed by the twenty one passengers who signed the official visitor’s book.
The plan called for the Comet to be demonstrated to the Russians in Moscow and it was also arranged for it to have two ‘guest’ Russian crew (a signaler and a navigator were assigned – interesting choice) to accompany the outward flight. de Havilland provided a concession to the Soviets by labeling the toilet signs in Russian as well English! Avoids confusion – avoids a mess!
After an escorted flight over Germany – accompanied by twelve Hunter jet fighters from the RAF Oldenburg – the Comet eventually entered Russian airspace.
The Soviets had insisted that the outward flight follow the Berlin and Warsaw air corridors – which resulted in a detour of some 400 miles before entering Russian airspace. Without circling, the Comet made a straight-in approach and touched down at 5.27 local time. A large crowd had been ‘assembled’ to ‘greet’ them.
Nigel Birch was greeted by Marshal Ivan Konev (Deputy Defence Minister) and he was accompanied by Marshal of the Air Force – S.F. Zhigarev. Then they were shown over the Comet. Once formalities were over, and VIPs departed, the dangerous part of the exercise followed!
The ‘Enterprise’ describes the scene thus,
“the crew watched a little nervously as hundreds of people, many of them woman, swarmed all round the aircraft. A long queue of smiling, good-humoured comrades quickly formed up near the gangway. Wing-Commander Sellick, with the help of an airport official, took batches of ten into the interior and the cockpit. This went on for nearly an hour but, to the obvious relief of the crew, ended when the Comet had to be moved to dispersal to make way for the arrival of the French delegation’s aircraft.”
The Comet was placed next to the USAF DC6, in which General Nathaniel Twining, the American Chief of Staff had arrived. Equally significant was the placing, in a prominent place, a few yards away, of a TU 104 in the livery of Aeroflot.
A political point had been made – demonstrating the wisdom of opting for Comet.
For the next four days, while the RAF delegation pursued its official duties, the Comet stayed at Vnukova with an armed guard.
Thursday, June 28th was an unfortunate day for the visitors – sods law.
A large party of Russian aviation experts – including Andrie Tupolev, designer of the TU 104 – were invited to inspect the Comet and take a flight..
The first part went as planned and for over an hour they gave it a thorough inspection, even testing the fuselage skin with their fingers and they photographed the aircraft from every possible angle. Further they cross-examined the crew on technical points and noted those answers which particularly interested them.
Andrie Tupolev, after a thorough inspection of both inside and outside the aircraft, said,
“The Comet is a very beautiful machine. I like it.”
Then embarrassment. 30 invited guests were seated aboard for what was to have been an hours demonstration flight. When Wing-Commander Sellick tried to start the engines there was no response. For half an hour the crew worked frantically to trace the trouble but without success.
The flight had to be postponed. Andrie Tupolev said,
“Don’t worry. We’ve had the same sort of trouble with the 104.”
Ironically an hour later the fault, an internal shorting of one of the aircraft’s batteries, was discovered. This was particularly ironic because, knowing that electrical ground power would not be available in Moscow, additional special batteries had been installed in the baggage compartment. These were brand-new and should not have given any problem. Another spare battery, which was carried uncharged in the aircraft’s freight compartment, was charged-up and fitted but too late. The weather deteriorated.
On Friday 28th the Comet returned to the UK.
As it crossed the Russo-Polish border it radioed a message from the Secretary of State to Marshal Zukhov, the Minister of Defence, which read:
“As we leave your air space accept my appreciation of your hospitality. All members of the RAF delegation join me in sending good wishes to you and all Soviet people.”
The journey was uneventful.
Part of the original delegation had been left in Moscow on business. A second Comet of Transport Command set off to bring them back on Tuesday, July 3rd. While in Moscow the opportunity was taken to carry out the delayed demonstration flight.
This lasted for 70 minutes. The Chief Pilot of Aeroflot’s TU 104 fleet was in the cockpit for the take-off and once airborne took over the right seat. The crew had no idea how much ‘jet’ experience he had accumulated, however he took the controls. To add to the difficulties he spoke no English so the crew could not explain to him that the rather high break-out forces made it advisable to fly the Comet with the elevator trim wheel.
They need not have worried. He flew the Comet with ‘amazing delicacy and accuracy’! In fact all the Russian officials commented favourably on the aircraft and its handling qualities.
Passengers were particularly impressed by the smooth cabin pressure change during both climb and descent – which was apparently a weak point on the TU 104. What amazed them most was the very short landing run when the anti-skid braking system was used to the full. Apparently this was another weak point with the 104 – it being equipped with drum brakes!
Given that the 104 was being presented as an example of the Russian aviation industry being at the for-front of technology the Aeroflot engineers were remarkably open with the visiting crew about the Tupolev’s deficiencies.
It was even more surprising that an article was published in the Soviet Union after the Comet’s visit, by an Aeroflot pilot, in which the aeroplane was highly praised.
After the demonstration flight the Comet returned to Hatfield where it arrived four hours later at 7.30 pm. Air Vice-Marshal A. McKee. C.-in-C. Transport Command, said at London Airport that he was more than satisfied with the successful completion of the Comet’s first big job in the RAF he added,
“This flight has shown that the Comet will be an ideal aircraft for our long-range work in the Command. We are lucky indeed to have it – the only air force in the world which has a jet transport in service. This has just been the first of many historic missions the Comet will undertake for the RAF in many years to come.”
Comet 2 airframe number 106028 was first registered in January 1953.
It’s first flight was in March 1956.
It was converted into a T2 and transferred to 216 Sqd. on 7th June 1956.
In 1957 it was converted into a C2. In November 1966 it was re-serialized as 7926M.
It was mysteriously destroyed by fire at Lyneham in 1968.