BOAC was a Public Corporation created in January 1939 by the merging of Imperial Airways and British Airways. Its objective was to provide air services between Britain and the rest of the non-European world. It was without doubt our most prestigious carrier – the flag carrier.
In July 1949 Sir Miles Thomas succeeded Sir Harold Hartley as Chairman.
Before the prototype Comet made it’s maiden flight BOAC revised it’s jet fleet requirements a number of times.
Originally (1946-47) required eight aircraft and it’s associate airline – British South American Airways (BSAA) – required six. BOAC and BSAA merged and the projected order was revised to fourteen Comets. When the specification of the 106 was finalized – now a 36 seater – firm orders were placed for ten aeroplanes.
Sir Miles Thomas had his first Comet flight in the unpressurized prototype in November 1949. Despite having to wear oxygen masks, and consequently being limited to a 25,000ft, it was to leave the Chairman convinced that ordering the Comet had been a wise move – he found the experience exhilarating – thought it would give the airline a strong commercial advantage.
Prototype G-5-2 was re-registered G-ALZK and delivered to the Comet Unit at Hurn (a unit set up by Capt. M.R.J. Alderson in September 1950) in April 1951 for route proving and crew training.
BOAC set up their own crew training course based at the Comet 1 Development Unit at Heathrow, London. But, initially. training courses were centered on Hatfield from where a series of proving flights were undertaken. Ken Emmott was one of the original members on the training course.
He was a First Officer with BOAC operating Hythe, Plymouth, Sandringham and Solent flying boats based at Hythe on Southampton Water.
Crew selection for the Comet flight was in many cases merely a matter of chance. In Ken’s case BOAC were phasing out flying boats and the opportunity to fly Comets came for him (and two other flying boat captains) at the right time.
Other crews found themselves ‘spare’ after the merger of BSAA and BOAC and ten BSAA pilots undertook the conversion course.
Not all candidates were successful however. Many found the course difficult and, initially at least, there was a 30% failure or rejection rate. It is probable that the high rate of failure was due to the training techniques – all were new to training procedures on jets – indeed they were actually writing the training manuals as they went along!. Later, with modified training techniques, the failure rate was to be much reduced.
Were jet-crews seen as an elite? The answer it seems is no. Ken Emmott explains,
“apart from the routine way in which Comet crews were selected, many ‘hardened’ commercial crews, brought up on piston-engined aircraft, adopted the policy, that they were going to “wait and see” with regard to jet transports. As far as they were concerned they were an unknown quantity”.
Clearly although the Comet flight did not regard themselves as an elite group there was already an established ‘elite’ within the Corporation’s ranks.
Stratocruiser crews that regularly flew the North Atlantic routes – were nicknamed by their colleagues the ‘Atlantic Barons’. ‘Jet-crews’ requested, and succeeded in obtaining, pay increases for operating jets and this was resisted by the ‘Barons’.
But the Comet was a more demanding aircraft to fly particularly with respect to calculations and estimations of fuel reserves – the Ghost engine was not exactly frugal in its consumption!
The ‘Atlantic Barons’ were a legend of their own creation – the myth having been nurtured over many years. The argument was that the north Atlantic route was the most demanding of them all. It required pilots with special skill and experience and, flying over vast expanses of water, there were additional inherent risks.
Ken Emmott outlined the counter argument thus,
“Flying the Atlantic required the normal piloting cares and attention, plus, without doubt, careful analysis of weather situations which were more critical to the operation, but if all failed there really were always alternates to which one could divert”.
So, it was to BOAC that the task of introducing the world’s first pure-jet passenger transport into commercial service fell. Demands placed on the airline were enormous, but, naturally they had the fullest co-operation from de Havilland. Both played a vital role in the development of the Comet.
The airline’s Comet Development Unit provided many solutions to problems identified on proving flights. For example at this point in time there was no ready way of working out the aircraft’s true air speed. That was until the Unit’s ingenious Capt. Majendie developed a method for converting the indicated Mach number, and temperature, into true air speed (TAS).
Capt. Majendie was also responsible for insisting on new methods of navigation for the Comet. As Ken Emmott explains, the aim was to get the aircraft (figures approximate),
“from its departure point to an area 100 miles out from its destination with an accuracy in track of plus or minus 20 miles and a ‘distance to go’ to the destination with an accuracy of 50 miles (i.e. an area of some 2000 sq. miles) from which point there had to be adequate navigation aids …. to guide the aircraft to the airfield.”
The answer to this problem was to be DME (Distance Measuring Equipment) and a reliable MF beacon. So the Development Unit was directly responsible for the introduction by Airport operators of DME facilities at every airfield that the Comet was to operate into.
The first Certificate of Airworthiness for a civil jet transport was granted to G-ALYS on 22nd January 1952.
BOAC were now free to fly fare-paying passengers. However before this a series of ‘freight flights’ to Johannesburg were undertaken – with each one operating to the strict operation procedures which had been drawn up.
Meanwhile the remaining aircraft were delivered at regular intervals during the summer of 1952 starting with G-ALYP in April and finishing with G-ALYZ in September.
The inaugural flight took place on the 2nd May 1952. Yoke Peter set off carrying 33 passengers on the 6,724 mile (10,758Km) flight from London, Heathrow to Johannesburg via Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone and completed the flight in just under 24 hours.
Aboard were Captains’ A.M. Majendie, J.T.A. Marsden and R.C. Alabaster. Ken Emmott also was amongst the crew and operated in the left-hand seat alongside Capt. Marsden on the Beirut – Khartoum leg of the flight.
Sir Miles flew to Livingstone on a previous training flight in order to meet Yoke Peter on its arrival on 3rd May. Despite tight scheduling it became apparent that the Comet was likely to arrive too early but, after a little time losing by making gentle sweeping ‘S’ turns, they arrived three minutes ahead of schedule – the point had been made, but without embarrassing the reception party! The event was broadcast ‘live’ to the world.
So the pessimists, who had predicted that jet could not carry enough fuel to make safe operation a reality – particularly if forced to ‘hold off’, were wrong.
During the remainder of 1952 more routes were opened up – the Comet proving a phenomenal success. In August services began to Colombo (21½ hours), in October to Singapore (25 hours) and in April 1953 to Tokyo (33 hours). On average journey times were cut by more than 60%. Load factors rose to 89%!
Significantly in June 1952 a flight was laid on for Members of Parliament and this must have paid handsome dividends later in 1954 when the Comet needed all the friends and supporters it could muster. The support of Parliament was to be vital to de Havilland – and parliamentary support the Company got.
Comet had Royal patronage too. In May 1953, after a request from the Place, Sir Geoffrey and Lady de Havilland demonstrated the Comet to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret during a four hour round Europe flight. Only possible in Comet!
So the Comet made a huge impact upon the aviation scene and the public could readily see that journey times could be drastically reduced – the greater the distance the more the saving. Passengers took to the Comet and Britain had demonstrated a world lead in the application of commercial jet technology. Would that it had lasted!
The first year
During their first year of operation BOAC’s Comets accumulated 9,443 revenue hours while carrying over 28,000 passengers.
Sadly the first year was not without mishap – the loss of G-ALYZ occurred in October when it failed to get airborne from Rome. In this case it was only the aircraft and the Captains reputation that suffered – there were no deaths or injuries.
But in May Yoke Victor (G-ALYV) broke up while climbing after take-off from Calcutta. All were lost.
Finally in 1954 the sudden loss of the inaugural Comet – Yoke Peter and later its sister craft – Yoke Yoke ended Comet services.
At the time production of modified Comet Mk.2s was well underway and deliveries to the Corporation were expected in 18 months.
But it was already clear that the Mk.2s would not help BOAC on their highly competitive North Atlantic routes because the range of the Mk.2, with full payload without refuelling, would not be sufficient.
But the same applied to the proposed civil version of the Valliant bomber – the V1000/VC7 – and also to the much delayed Britannia whose delivery was scheduled for 1955. All these aeroplanes could only operate non-stop on the Atlantic with much reduced payloads – they were handicapped in competitive terms.
The only other possible candidate was the Bristol Britannia development – the BE 25LR (Orion) – which only existed on paper – but expected to be available from sometime in 1959.
Alternatively the Douglas DC7D, powered by RR turbo engines, would be available in late 1958 or 59. BOAC’s experience with mounting delays in the supply of the certified Britannia did not bode well for the Orion.
Any decision about what aircraft to purchase was not that of the carrier alone – BOAC were in any case a state owned entity – and if American aeroplanes were bought there were dollar exchange implications. Following the war, currency movements were strictly controlled by a Government desperately trying to rebuild a shattered economy. When it came to the purchase of American aeroplanes the Government would have the final say because some 55 % of the cost of the Douglas would have to be in sterling.
But a pragmatic Government was coming round to the view that a compromise would be acceptable. The argument thus began to circulate that an aircraft that incorporated the latest American airframe know-how combined with the quality of British craftsmanship and utilizing our advanced engine technology was the most viable economic solution. This illustrates clearly the way a government could, for economic or political reasons, interfere in the day to day running of a commercial organisation.
The Corporation would not be permitted to purchase the type of aeroplane that best suited their needs – they had to accept the best compromise. At a later date, of course, that same government would be likely to criticize the Corporation for not being sufficiently profitable.Comet 4
However despite these problems BOAC laid their plans for the future – a future that included the next generation of Comets – the Mk.4.