Comet 2 – Salisbury (Harare) Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), 1959
Photo: Brian Robbins
Royal Air Force – Comets Operated
The structure of RAF Commands can seem confusing, the following is an attempt to clarify the position:
Prior to 1967 Transport Command was responsible for transporting troops and equipment around the world to, and from, RAF bases.
After 1967 it’s title was changed to Air Support Command.
Meanwhile in 1968 Bomber and Fighter Commands were merged and became Strike Command.
In 1969 Signals Command and Coastal Command were merged into Strike Command and were designated as No 90 Group (Signals) and No 18 Group (Maritime) respectively.
But in 1972 No. 90 Group became Maintenance Command.
Then on the 1st September 1972 Air Support Command amalgamated into Strike Command!
Note: 192 Sqd. was the predecessor of 51 Sqd. and both were involved in Signals operations.
At the time of the loss of ‘Yoke Peter’ in 1954, ten Comet Mk.2s were under construction.
These were later completed in accordance with the Court of Inquiries recommendations.
Dropped were the square windows (although there was no suggestion that square apertures were inherently more prone to fatigue failure than the round type) and heavier gauge aluminium was used for the skins.
BOAC had ordered the Mk.2s for use, inter alia, on their South American routes and it was these aeroplanes that became the property of Transport Command.
By the time a decision was made to modify the Comet structure three Mk.2s had been completed to the original specification … square windows included.
Fortunately Signals No.51 Sqn. needed three high speed aircraft for their operations. F for their purposes pressurization was not necessary, so it was not considered necessary to modify these airframes further, and they were allocated to Signals.
G-AMXA was re-registered XK655 after being converted to ‘2R’ specification (2Rs were specially modified for signals duties by Marshall’s of Cambridge) and joined 192 Sqd. as did G-AMXC and ‘XE which became XK659 and XK663 respectively, also as a 2Rs.
XK663 was mysteriously destroyed in a hanger fire! Sabotage? Was this event in anyway connected with their use for ‘electronic reconnaissance duties’ when operating from Wyton?
The RAF Comets were provided with some very special equipment – unlike civilian Comets they carried an air signaller and a navigator.There was a 10 channel TR 1998 VHF transceiver for military frequencies and a 140 channel STR 12D to cover the whole of the civil frequency range. Also fitted were special radio and radar aids, twin ADFs, ILS, Gee, Loran, Eureka Mk 7 (with BABS) and map based cloud warning radar displays.
The remaining airframes were modified on the production line and the first to be completed was registered XK669 (G-AMXB). It had its first flight as a T.Mk.2 (‘T’ Comets were specially equipped for TRAINING purposes) from Hatfield on 9th December 1955..
XK670 (G-AMXF), also a T.Mk.2, was delivered to 216 Sqd. on 7th June 1956 and XK669 was delivered the following day. Later both aircraft were further upgraded to C.Mk.2s. (The ‘C’ designation was applied Comets further modified after the strengthening of the freight doors). There were seven freight bays, each of which was capable of holding 1600lb.
Mysteriously XK670 was destroyed by fire at RAF Lyneham in 1968.
Comets to C.Mk.2 specification were flexible in that they were able not only to carry passengers but also a considerable amount of heavy freight.
Power was provided by four Avon 117s (or 118s) each rated at 7300lb.st.thrust.
There was a crew of five (commander, second pilot, flight engineer, air signaler and navigator) with capacity for up to 48 passengers/troops – who were looked after by a quartermaster. There were basic toilet facilities and a simple galley provided for snacks and coffee etc. Seating was equivalent to tourist class but with the seats mounted facing backwards.
216 Sqd. serviced the vast and distant outposts of the British Empire – a role to which the Comet was ideally suited. Although the Empire had contracted greatly after the WW2 (and the move to independence was gathered pace) during the 1950s there were still many overseas bases, often in remote areas, sometimes only accessible by air.
Army, Airforce, and occasionally Naval, personnel were transported on a regular basis.
In emergency situations too, response and reinforcement had to be achieved very rapidly and casualties had to be transported from the scene of conflict to more adequate medical facilities
Transport Command, fulfilled this role admirably. The C.Mk.2 completed its last operational flight (of XK698) from Lyneham on the 1st April 1967.
Occasionally RAF Comets were called on to transport VIPs or make extra-special trips.
An early example was when XK670 it was called upon at short notice to make a special trip to the Tushino air display, Moscow.
216 Sqd. often were called upon to represent Britain abroad by making goodwill visits. For example, in 1957 two Comets of 216 Sqd. visited Accra, Ghana for that country’s independence celebrations. During the visit one of the Comet gave a flight to six local Chieftains. It was a training flight too!
Diplomats, government officials – including the Prime Minister of the day and his departmental Ministers – regularly flew with 216 Sqd. when they had to attend special events overseas or international conferences. Senior Officers of all the services used Transport Command for their routine travel.
Also routinely transported were 216’s essential ground based maintenance crews. 216 Sqd. were self-contained and planned not to have to rely on local servicing facilities. Often these ‘ground based’ crews would accompany a special flight, deal with the aircraft’s routine maintenance during stopovers, and then return with the aircraft.
Transport Command frequently enjoyed Royal patronage. In 1957, for example, The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were flown in specially arranged Comet flight from Leuchars to Heathrow.
Crew training was rigorous and started with at least 25 hours on Meteors’ then moving onto Canberra’s to gain experience in handling jets.
The trainee then moved on to the Comet Training Unit and then, after a series of local familiarization flights, to the more exotic location of El-Adem. Here delays in training due to poor weather conditions were much less likely to be encountered and so, generally, training could be continued without interruption.
During routine operations standard airline practices were generally adopted.
Transport Command Comets were fully certificated (C of A.) and could, if required, carry fare-paying passengers. There were differences though between military and civilian flying.
For example in commercial flight planning, by regulation, an adequate reserve of fuel had to be carried at all times. Transport Command were not tied to this regulation and were free to adopt there own practices which could mean, on occasions (perhaps in an emergency situation), that they might allow for lower reserves than the commercial carrier was permitted to do.
But in practice 216’s Comets were usually operated with great margins of safety and they usually reached their destinations with greater reserves in the tanks than they needed. In commercial operation excess fuel = excess weight = reduced payload.
Transport Command’s reserves were estimated thus – they allowed for 5% en route allowance, for a diversion and for 30 minutes holding allowances and, in addition, included a standard landing reserve. Much of the credit for calculating these reserves went to the Navigator who’s job it was to lay out the flight plan, using the latest data, some three quarters of an hour before departure.
To assist him the RAF produced a number of standardized tables, which were updated and published each month, setting out the minimum required fuel loads for the regular Transport Command routes. With the help of these tables ground crews would fuel the aircraft with a particular destination in mind well in advance of departure – perhaps the previous day. It only then remained for the navigator to make such adjustments to the fuel reserves as more immediate weather conditions on the day of the flight warranted.
Transport Command XK 670
For reasons of efficiency the RAF operated the cruise-climb technique.
After an initial climb to a predetermined altitude (calculated depending on gross weight and ambient air temperature) the technique was used; by selecting from tables the optimum I.A.S. for those conditions, the power was set to give a steady cruising speed. But, because as the fuel was consumed the aircraft became lighter, and if the same angle of attack was constantly maintained, the aircraft would naturally climb. Typically on a five hour leg the gain in altitude could be of the order of 7000ft.
On descent too the RAF crews employed some interesting techniques. A steady descent of, say, 1500 ft/min. to about 20,000 ft would be undertaken. At that point it was out with the air-brakes and a vary rapid descent to the deck!
Although the average number of hours operated by RAF aeroplanes was considerably less than their civil counterparts all their crews were very experienced in terms of operational hours. Three to four thousand hours was typical for a pilot, and many went on to accumulate even more hours with commercial airlines after leaving the service.
Payload decreases range. Transport Command usually operated with much less than maximum permitted payload and thus could usefully extend their operational range. For example, the civilian Comet 2 could have useful range of 2100 miles whereas 216 Sqd. Comets were happy to operate over ranges closer to their limit at 2344 miles… of course range it also depended upon factors such as ambient air temperatures and the prevailing weather conditions en route.
Transport Command circled the world and, from June 1957, operated a regular return service to Australia. This route went from Lyneham via El-Adem and an overnight stop at Karachi. Then on to Negombo the following day with an another overnight stop at Singapore. Finally to Darwin the following day and from there on to Adelaide.
The ‘De Havilland Gazette’ No. 103 for February 1958 summarized the vast operational experience 216 Sqd. accumulated to date:
The ten Comet 2s, up to the 6th January, had flown 8500 hours or four million miles (equivalent to 160 times around the world) and all this was achieved in a mere 18 months!
Although the Comet 2 was not considered to have North Atlantic capability, the RAF and RCAF provided continual services between Britain and Canada and, between them, made forty eight Atlantic and twenty six Pacific crossings. A weekly return service to Christmas Island had begun operation and the round trip of 19,000 miles was made in just 45 flying hours – but this total was spread over 3 days and 18 hours.
Some 50 million passenger-miles had been logged. Thousands of troops had been transported to their units and back, “with revolutionary standards of speed and comfort”. To date 677 sick men, woman and children had been urgently transported. That figure included six polio cases for which the Comet’s electrical system had to be modified to power the patients life-support systems.
The article noted too that the RCAF had operated their 1As (Ghost engined) making over a dozen flights across the North and South Atlantic during the preceding 16 weeks. It observed that the RAF and the RCAF were the only fully operational military “jet airlines” in the world.
Transport Command had many ‘firsts’ to their credit. In September 1957 Comets of 216 Sqd. made the first non-stop North Atlantic crossing east-west by an aircraft of that type. Captained by F/L. Gordon Kaye Snr. and carrying 28 members of the RAF ground crew servicing party of Strategic Bomber Command, the flight was made in order to get the service crews to Pinecastle Air Force Base in Florida where the V. bombers were engaged in a bombing competition. Two Mk.2s took off from Aldergrove Airfield – the first at 02.45 GMT. it landed at Gander at 08.11 GMT the second aircraft left at 03.45 GMT. and arrived at Gander at 09.09 GMT..
XS 235 – cabin layout and galley
With the phasing out of the C.Mk.2’s operational roll the remaining airframes were distributed thus:
XK699 ‘Sagittarius’. During the first week in August 1958 this aircraft received a damaged starboard wing after it hit a tree on approach to Turnhouse airfield, Edinburgh. It was repaired and put back into service on 27th September 1958. It was flown on 19th June 1967 to RAF Henlow and re-registered as 7971M. It is now preserved as a gate guard at RAF Lyneham;
XK669 ‘Taurus’ was transferred to Brize Norton where it operated for a while before being broken up in April 1967. XK696 went to RAF Watton before being broken up in November 1969. XK698 went to RAF Shawbury before being broken up at St.Athan in April 1973.
XK715 went to RAF Cosford before being broken up at West Bromwich and XK716 (a 2X and ex-G-ALYT) was transferred by John Cunningham on the 28th May 1959 to the No.1 School of Technical Training at RAF Halton near Aylesbury – the landing of this 108,000 lb. Comet being on a 3800 ft grass airfield. The engines were removed in 1966 and it was broken up in 1973.
XK655 (G-AMXA) was sold to the private Strathallan Collection, Perth . The price paid was said to be £4000 including delivery in good order. Unfortunately on 21st August 1974 on approach, just short of the runway, at approx. 20ft, a sudden severe down draught caught the aeroplane and it hit the ground hard. In doing so it broke off the starboard undercarriage and skidded some 2000ft along the runway and, veering off the runway, it came to a halt just short of the hanger where it was to be housed! The collection was later broken up and the nose relocated to Gatwick as a display item.
At the Society of British Aircraft Constructors Show of 1960 a Comet 2E, registered XN 453, belonging to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough was displayed.
This Comet was being used to investigate sky-wave stable propagation characteristics of very low frequency transmissions. This was done with the aid of a Marconi ultra-stable quartz crystal oscillator! Range measurements by phase detection were being obtained to an accuracy of some 3 miles at Malta, from Rugby GBR on 16 Kilocycles/sec. and from Griggion GVZ on 15.2 K.c/s. Balboa on 18 K.c/s. was being evaluated.
The objective of this research was to devise a World-wide navigation system. Research showed that such a system could be provided with four transmitters placed along the equator and one at each pole – it was said that there would be certain advantages over navigation satellites.
XN453 at Farnborough early 1960s
© Ian Marr
Also at the 1960 S.B.A.C. Show it was announced that the Ministry were negotiating to purchase 5 Comet 4Cs for Transport Command. The Comet 4, as the variant C.Mk.4, took up the roll of the C.Mk.2s. Chester built C.Mk.4s. XR395, 396, 397, 398 and 399 were all delivered in the first half of 1962. All these Comets were built towards the end of the Comet’s production run and more than maintained the fine tradition of the Mk.2 in service.
On 15th November 1961 the first of C.4s made its maiden flight.
The C.4 differed slightly from other Mk.4 types. It was also powered by four R.R. Avon RA29s but in this case the latest type Mk.350 were fitted – each with 10,500 lb.st thrust their design incorporating a new type of low-noise propelling nozzle designed to improve specific fuel consumption at cruising altitudes. The C.4s were fitted with backward facing seats for up to 94 passengers seated five abreast. Alternatively the aircraft could be converted to carry 12 stretchers in six births plus attendants and to the rear still have room for 47 for sitting cases.
Now 216 Sqd. had a larger aeroplane its VIP roll increased in importance.
Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and Presidents often being carried in specially fitted versions and there were many such occasions. A removable ‘luxury pack’ was produced which included beds, a lounge/dining room, a galley and the necessary back-up catering facilities. This ‘pack’ could be easily fitted as and when the occasion demanded. One day the Comet may be transporting 86 troops, another day, a party of foreign dignitaries.
To maintain the C4 some one hundred ground-crew were responsible for all aspects of the airframe, maintenance, electrics, radios, radar and electronics.
A number of aircraft were, and are, maintained on permanent stand-by. A ground engineer would accompany most overseas flights on which some spares would be carried but if a major fault necessitated spares or a replacement part e.g. a complete engine – it would be sourced, along with any additional specialist engineers, from Lyneham.
Specially trained crews were used on these flights, and especially on longer tours – say a month or more – they were all under the direction of a Crew Chief.
Tours of duty with 216 Sqd. usually lasted six years compared with a normal tour of duty in the RAF of 2½ years. This practice economized on the cost of training. Posting could be, though, to any RAF Sqd. operating Comets. So, for example, a crew member could just as easily sent to 90 Group for radio reconnaissance work as to any other unit.
A special Comet Training Flight was established to train and examine crews. Once basic training was complete regular examinations were held for all crews at six month intervals… this is standard airline practice where route checks and medical examinations alternate – each being six months apart.
End of 216 Sqd.
Defence cuts finally killed off 216 Sqd. on 27th June 1975. The average number of flying hours accumulated per aircraft was just under 11,000 … in other words the airframes still had approximately over half their fatigue-safe life before them.
On 29th August 1975 the five (XK395 with 10,370 hours logged, 396 with 11,016 hrs., 397 with 11,338 hrs., 398 with 11,311 hours and 399 had logged 10,714 hours) C.Mk.4s were sold to Dan-Air London.
They were allocated the registrations G-BDIT, ‘IU, ‘IV, ‘IW and ‘IX respectively. Dan-Air operated the last fare-paying Comet flight 9th November 1980 with G-BDIW (XK398)