BOAC and the Comet 4


Enter the Mk.4

The Mk.2 was no longer an economical proposition for BOAC – or for any other carrier come to that.

The Mk.3 however held great promise. It was essentially a MK. 2 extended by 3 ft. with more powerful Avon engines, more fuel and a significantly greater range. While the Inquiry sat the development of the Mk.3 continued but eventually de Havilland decided that they would not put the Mk.3 into production. A radical redesign was rapidly completed and the Mk.3 became the Mk.4 – an aeroplane that suited Corporation needs admirably. BOAC immediately placed an order for 19 aircraft. The Comet 4 was underway.

Maiden flight

The Mk.4 made its maiden flight on 27th April 1958. G-APDA joined the proving program in September ‘58.

BOAC announced tentative plans to operate an Australian service from February 1959 although this seemed a little ambitious. Rumours began to circulate that Pan American were planning to introduce their new Boeing 707-120 on the North Atlantic route – the question was when?

The Corporation immediately began feasibility studies to see how best they could counter this commercial threat – it was accepted though that to change plans at this late stage would disrupt the carefully prepared pre-service program.

The aim of the training program was so that by the time scheduled services began BOAC Captains would have accumulated at least 8 to 10 hours of Comet 4 conversion flying with a minimum of 50 hours of Mk.4 transatlantic and New York local route flying and, in addition, 600 to 1000 hours Comet 2E flying. 120 hours of the 2E total could be accumulated in the course of eight transatlantic round trips.

Battle across the pond

The Corporation played its cards very close to its chest when it came to the introduction of transatlantic services. Gradually during the latter half of 1958 stories began to circulate that BOAC were, after all, planning to put Comets on the North Atlantic route – and further more that scheduled services could begin in December 1958. Then rumour had it that the Corporation had revised its plans and that 14th November had now been set for the great event, the change coming about apparently because sources indicated that Pan Am. had provisionally set 16th November for the commencement of services.

Whether leaks of the Corporations revised plans spurred Pan Am. into bring forward their date for inaugural jet service is not known. They did however promptly embark on a massive advertising campaign announcing the scheduling of the first transatlantic services with the Boeing 707 beginning on 24th October 1958.

BOAC hinted they may begin services on the 17th October and that Comets would take over their existing daily ‘Monarch’ services to New York from mid-November.

Inaugural flight

In the event, October 4th 1958 was the first practical date the Corporation could operate services after the Port of New York Authority gave permission for the aircraft to operate from its airport.

G-APDC ‘Delta Charlie’ set off from London to New York via Gander under the Command of Capt. R. E. Millichap and G-APDB, Commanded by Capt. T. B. Stoney, made the east-bound flight.

Because of the prevailing winds the west-bound flight needed to refuel at Gander (something the 707 would not have to do with its superior range). The inaugural flight was completed in 8 hours 53 minutes flying time (including stop-over 10 hrs. 5 min.) at an average ground speed of 404 m.p.h.

So BOAC had succeeded, and the publicity value for the first scheduled services must have been worth millions of pounds to the Corporation. BOAC were to claim in their advertising that they were the “first ‘pure jet’ service ever to cross the Atlantic” whereas Pan Am. were to rightly claim that they operated the fastest transatlantic service.


Comet 4 operations expand

In November BOAC announced the inauguration of jet services to Canada from December with a once weekly flight from London to Montreal. Bookings for the Monarch service had increased by 50% on the New York route. It was also revealed that on the eastbound New York – London route Mk.4 services had been averaging 6hrs 45 min. with a non-stop crossing! However shortly after this the Boeing 707 set a new eastbound record cutting the time to less than six hours.

But the Mk.4 did not have true transatlantic capability in the sense that the bigger 707 and DC8 had.

It was of course primarily intended for the old Empire and Far East routes and it was on these routes that BOAC rapidly expanded its jet services. Services resumed to South Africa towards the end of 1959. Comets operated on the Tokyo route and Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney were added by the end of the year.

de Havilland rapidly gained a reputation for delivering their aircraft ahead of schedule. The first two Chester built Comets – G-APDE and ‘DH were also delivered some two months early.

G-APDE at Chester

BOAC loaned de Havilland a Comet so they could perform demonstration flights, while training, in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago and Detroit.

G-APDA visited Mexico City, Buenos Aires and New York. The problem of Jet noise resurfaced – at Melbourne. This could disrupt BOAC’s plans to serve Australia from December 1959. However the Australian Authorities decided to sent a team to Britain to study Comet 4 noise levels.

Incidentally during the second half of 1958 BOAC Mk.4s were officially approved to have a service life of 2,900 hours between major overhauls – this was a higher figure than that achieved by any other engine of its type.

1959 – a year of expansion

Comet results showed the aeroplane giving a good account of itself with services virtually sold out and load factors bettering 80%. Up to 31st December 1958 3913 passengers had been carried. There was a particularly heavy demand for deluxe class seats. To meet this demand the layout of the Comet was modified to increase their number from 16 to 20.

By May the 10th was handed over and the Corporation was able to release details of their first six months Comet operations –

The report concluded there was an ‘unusual freedom from engine, airframe and systems failures’. It noted that the previous most common cause of aircraft delay (i.e. electrical, hydraulic and fuel system and pressurization failures) had been few. There were only three unscheduled engine changes – and two of these were through the ingestion of foreign bodies (birds) and the other was due to a starter problem.

Arrivals on schedule at the destination had been achieved on 92 out of 309 occasions. 71% of all services had arrived within an hour, and 95% within 6 hrs., 97% arrived within 12 hrs. These figures were, apparently, appreciably better than with other aircraft in the Corporations fleet.

Weather, in particular fog, caused three times as many delays as did engineering troubles. Of great significance was the fact that most consequential delays were due to earlier weather problems.

Engineering hold-ups occurred at the rate of 3.74 hrs. / 100 hrs. scheduled elapsed time. These should be compared with total delays which showed 19.07 hrs. / 100 hrs. Total engineering delays numbered 50 – two of which kept the aircraft on the ground for an additional 12 hrs. 19 delays were for under an hour. Other delays were due to Radio (11 instances) and just over 26 hrs. in total due to miscellaneous ground equipment problems.

So the Corporation was very pleased with the Comet – the results indicated that as many hours were lost from operation and consequential delays as from all the engineering delays put together. This was nothing short of remarkable in a new aeroplane.

More statistics

Managing Director, Basil Smallpiece, said about Comet 4 operations on the eve of the anniversary, they were, “A remarkable performance substantially better than that achieved by any other type of aircraft they had had on these routes.” Comets had accumulated 76000 seat miles, had flown 364,284,000 passenger miles at load factors of 74%.

Revenue flying hours were 15150. BOAC said, “the Comet 4 was largely responsible for the fact that between April 1st and September 19th traffic was up by 40% on the North Atlantic compared to the summer period of 1958. On the Eastern route there was a 22% increase in traffic but on the Southern route only a 2% increase.”

As 1959 drew to a close proving flights were combined with demonstrations flights as the airline planned their return to South America after a six year absence. In November G-APDR set off on a 14,000 mile trip to Buenos Aires. On December 8th the Comet was refused permission to land at Buenos Aires airport – the decision was only passed to the crew on their final approach! The Argentinians claimed that they thought the plane was arriving much later! The reason for the refusal? Politics.

Competition from the Comet was beginning to upset some airlines. It was said that Japan Air Lines were exerting pressure on all jet operators, including Pan Am. with the 707, demanding increased landing fees. As a result BOAC were considering the imposition of a surcharge of between £2 and £2 10s on Comet 4 flights between Tokyo and Hong Kong to offset these additional charges.


Advertising the service

Fly by B.O.A.C. and S.A.A –
4 flights weekly to Johannesburg.
South Africa in less than a day .. by Comet jet airliner … air travel at its finest, fastest, smoothest … yet at no extra fare.
Leave London after lunch on a Tuesday and arrive at Johannesburg the following afternoon… as rested as when you set out. Cruising in the Comet in the upper air… at 8 miles a minute… you’ll find there is a complete lack of vibration…. absolutely no travel fatigue… delicious complementary meals and mealtime drinks are served in flight… prompt attention is paid to your every need… no tips or extras – not even for the superb service.
Via Rome Cairo Entebbe Livingstone at no extra fare….


Unfortunately 1960 saw a number of incidents affecting the Corporations Comets.
There had been a series of minor accidents – thankfully none of them resulting in the total loss of an aircraft. On May 20th the Minister of Transport announced, in Parliament, that there was to be an increase of 5 Knots in the approach speed recommended by de Havilland – following an extensive review of the Comets operating procedures following a number of worrying reports.

One such incident occurred at Calcutta in June 1959. A Comet 4 struck trees on each of two approaches to the runway. The collisions resulted in damage to the flaps and, with the consequent loss of drag because of the damage, resulted in a too fast an approach on the final attempt at landing. The damaged aircraft overshot the runway in the wet. It was also expected that the 5 Knot increase in approach speed would counter any possible unexpected turbulence which was thought to have contributed to the accident.
There were further amendments to operating procedures too. For example,- there were changes to the approach flap configuration [this following an incident in June 1959 where a Comet struck a fence on the approach to New York], the installation of an undercarriage horn warning system – as well as flashing lights – and an alteration in the Checklist [this was following an incident in Rome in October 1959 when a Comet 4 landed with its landing gear retracted!].

Hither too, horn warnings (an FAA requirement but not CAA and therefore not fitted to BOAC Comets) would be automatically activated if 40° of flap was selected while the undercarriage was retracted.
Another recommendation was that a set time interval be introduced before a second take-off run was attempted to allow the brake systems to cool after a previously abandoned take-off. This change followed extensive damage to the wing structure of a Comet which had just take-off from Beirut in February 1959 when a tyre on a retracted wheel burst. The brakes had apparently overheated after an earlier take-off had been abandoned and insufficient time had elapsed for the brakes to cool before the second run was made.
In these incidents there was no injury to crew or passengers.

Comets leave the North Atlantic

Almost exactly two years after BOAC began their transatlantic services the Comet was withdrawn from the route – simply did not have the range.
However, despite this fact, 92% of their Eastbound flights had made the journey non-stop! Westbound the figure was not so good – as would be expected, with 10% not requiring a stopover. So during the period October 4th 1958 to October 16th 1960 – the final flight – the total number of crossings made was 2304, that is, an average of just over 3 a day.

94,000 passengers were carried on the London – Montreal, Toronto and Boston routes at a load-factor of 74%. An average of all Comet routes showed a utilisation rate averaging 10½ hours/day. Total hours flown by Comet 4s during the first two years of operation was 68,500 hours carrying 327,000 passengers and over 1205,000,000 passenger miles were flown.
As the Comets were withdrawn from the north Atlantic and replaced by Boeing 707s the freed aircraft opened up other routes. For example, weekly flights on the increasingly important Abadan/Doha route supplementing existing weekly Britannia services.
Comets still crossed the South Atlantic. At Rio de Janeiro’s Galeao Airport the runway was specifically extended to make it suitable for Comet 4 operations and so BOAC included Rio on it’s scheduled London-Santiago service.
So in 1960 North Atlantic Comet services ceased. In September 1964, however, Comets were to be brought back on transatlantic routes to meet an unexpectedly heavy Scottish demand for flights! BOAC-Cunard operated three extra services a week during August and September. There would be a scheduled stopover at Gander, Newfoundland and the return flight, from New York, would be made on the same day.
1964 saw a first for Cork Airport, Eire when, in July, a BOAC Comet, on Charter to Air Lingus, brought a load of French students from Paris.The airport had been open for just 2½ years when it received its first passenger jet.

End of the line

Also during 1964 came the news that the Corporation felt that the time was coming to dispose of some of their nineteen Comets. There had been an enquiry from T.H.Y of Turkey who were considering taking a Mk.4. from BOAC. The Corporation also let it be known that they expected to have two or possibly three 3 Comets surplus to requirements during 1965. In fact they began testing the second-hand market by offering one example for sale at an asking price of £600,000.


Over the next five years all the Comets were sold off thus –

  • G-APDA, ‘DB, ‘DC, ‘DD and ‘DE were sold to Malaysian Airways during the second half of 1965.

  • G-APDF was sold to the R.A.E. in March 1967.

  • G-APDG was sold to Kuwait Airways in December 1966.

  • G-APDH was written off after a crash landing while on lease to Malaysian Airways in March 1964.

  • G-APDI was sold to Aerovias Equadorians in May 1966.

  • G-APDJ was sold to Dan-Air, London in April 1967.

  • G-APDK was sold to Dan-Air, London in May 1966.

  • G-APDL was eventually sold to Dan-Air, London in January 1969.

  • G-APDM was eventually sold to Dan-Air, London in January 1969.

  • G-APDN was sold to Dan-Air, London in April 1968.

  • G-APDO was sold to Dan-Air, London in May 1966.

  • G-APDP was eventually sold to Dan-Air, London in January 1969.

  • G-APDR was sold to Mexicana in December 1964.

  • G-APDS was sold to the R.A.E. in January 1969.

  • G-APDT was sold to Mexicana in 1966.

Thus ended BOAC’s association with Comet – an aeroplane they had sponsored and supported from the beginning of its turbulent history in 1946. They had shown faith in the Comet 1 by placing advanced orders, they had shown faith too in de Havilland after the much publicized accidents by ordering the Mk.4. It was a pity that after a twenty three year association with the marque they only had, in effect, the benefit of 10 years operational service with the Comet.