Dan Air – Comets Operated
Dan Air Comet at Duxford 2001
Founded in 1953 as the airline subsidiary of Davies and Newman Holdings plc. which had been formed in 1922 as shipbrokers who were to specialize in oil tankers. By the 1950s the company were wishing to expand their operations. It was decided to enter the aircraft brokerage business and a DC 3 was acquired in 1953 with another the following year.
The company specialized in carrying freight and was fortunate to land an Air Ministry contract to operate between Britain and Singapore. Gradually the Lasham based fleet increased with the acquisition of Yorks, Bristol Freighters (used extensively on the Woomera route taking supplies out to the rocket range) and Airspeed Ambassadors. In early 1960 two de Havilland Doves were added to the fleet.
Scheduled services began in 1959 from Gatwick to Jersey. Dan-Air Engineering Ltd., as the subsidiary was called, also began to serve Bristol, Cardiff and Liverpool. By now the package holiday trade was expanding greatly and the company decided to concentrate on inclusive tour (IT) and charter work.
Faced with competition from Freddie Laker’s British United Airways, who were ordering the B.A.C. 1-11 for their IT European routes, it was time Dan-Air had jet transports of their own. The first move was made in May 1966 when two ex-BOAC Mk.4s (G-APDK and G-APDO) were purchased and so, for the first time, Dan-Air began to operate jet aircraft. In 1967 Dan-Air were able, no doubt because they could now offer the Comet, to land contracts with some of the countries largest package tour operators. In 1969 Dan-Air landed a contract with a German tour operator and, as a consequence, began to service Berlin.
U.K. bases were set up at major airports where package tours were to operate from: Glasgow, Luton and Manchester were later joined by Belfast, Birmingham and Edinburgh. All these cities were now linked to the major European holiday resorts.
When one remembers that the Comet was designed primarily for the long to medium-haul ‘Empire routes’. It’s use on comparatively short-haul routes should have put it at a disadvantage operationally. The package-tour scene was not what the Comet was all about. Here the objective is maximum payload / minimum flights. The greater the payload / flight the lower unit cost. The ex-BOAC Comets were configured to carry between 60 and 81 passengers resulting in a marked increase its flight frequency and the ratio of landings to flight hours.
BOAC’s utilization had been reasonably high but the stresses encountered were quite different form short-haul operations. It will be remembered that the Mk.4B had to be specially modified (when compared to the Mk.4) in certain respects before it was considered suitable for BEAs short-haul operations.
Dan Air Seating arrangements
So the stresses upon the fuselage would be proportionally greater but conversely the stresses upon the wing structure would be less – because less fuel was carried – or greater because of the increased number of landings.
However BEA had demonstrated that the higher capacity Comets were more than capable of operating successfully on relatively short-haul routes. BEA. after all, did not originally want the Comet and only took it as a stop-gap measure. It gave an excellent account of itself once in in service – so much so that the airline ordered more Comets.
Dan-Air were not in the new aircraft market though and had not, at this stage in their history, ever ordered direct from the manufacturer. They had to buy the most economical ‘jet’ they could – the Comet being ‘economical’ in that its purchase price was relatively low.
Obviously being one of the first commercial passenger jets into service meant that Comets were, with Boeing 707s, the first of their type to appear on the second-hand market in any numbers. As it happened Dan-Air’s need for jets coincided with BOAC phasing out the Comet. The Corporation had been testing the market for second-hand jets when Dan-Air came along.
So suitably modified the MK.4 could be made to suit Dan-Air well. de Havilland (who since 1960 were part of the Hawker Siddeley Group of companies), assisted Dan-Air in devising the necessary modifications. The plan was to increase the standard cabin seating to accommodate 99 passengers, this required that the cabin floor be strengthened. The wing structure was stiffened too to withstand the more frequent landings – based on experience gained with the 4B.
BOAC Comets were designed to be safe for about 12,000 long-haul type flights. To extend the working life it was necessary to modify the wing front spar too, the bottom booms, the rear spar top boom and the bottom skin panel in the area of the wheel well cut-out. In fact Corporation Comets were sold with the front and rear spar top modifications completed to give a further 2,000 to 4,000 flights. These were expensive modifications making BOAC Comets better value still.
Whether expensive spar-modifications were made depended upon the number of hours accumulated. This became important as Dan-Air acquired more used aircraft. With very high standards of maintenance and servicing BOAC’s Mk.4s had lived a relatively easy life and were in good condition which was more than could be said for some of Dan-Air’s later purchases.
The modification described are only part of the story. For a more complete picture – click here – to see details of the official Modification Statement as applied to one particular Comet 4C – G-BDIF (which was an ex-Sudan Airways aircraft ST-AAX bought in June 1975) are reproduced.
This statement gives us some idea of the amount of work needed to be completed before the aircraft joined the fleet. The amount of detailed modification required is even more interesting when one considers that this particular Comet was only used for four full holiday seasons before being withdrawn from use in 1979! The statement reproduced relates to the 4C -b similar statements applied to the other variants too.
The Comets proved well suited to their new role and Dan-Air expanded their fleet as and when they could as other carriers retired the type. BOAC’s G-APDJ was purchased in April 1967 and G-APDN joined the fleet in October the same year.
The next phase of purchases came in 1969 when, in January, G-APDL and ‘DM, and (in March) G-APDP were added to the fleet list, all being ex-BOAC. G-APDL was to suffer the indignity of belly landing at Newcastle Airport in October 1970 (strangely after a history of such landings) and was damaged beyond repair.
In the late ’60s a number of foreign carriers began retiring Comets. Malaysian Airways put all five ex-BOAC Comets up for sale. G-APDA, ‘DB, ‘DC, ‘DD AND ‘DE were all acquired by Dan-Air towards the end of 1969. Fortunately these Malaysian Comets had been little modified since BOAC. Thus they only required minor modification before being put into service. One aircraft though (G-APDA-the first production Comet 4) was not flown again commercially and was used for spares.
The IT market continued to expand and so did Dan-Air operations. In March 1971 a C.A.B. foreign-carrier permit was obtained enabling them to resume long-haul flights. For these routes Boeing 707s were being purchased – the first of a number of Boeings that were to join the company.
In 1970 it was decided that since spares would become progressively more difficult to obtain, and Comets were coming on the market relatively cheaply, the company would buy up any reasonable aircraft they could as they became available. An ex-BOAC Mk.4 G-APDG was acquired form Kuwait Airways in September 1970 and the first of three East African Airways Mk.4s (5X-AAO) was bought in November the same year. The other two E.A.A. aeroplanes (5H-AAF and 5Y-AAA) were purchased in early 1971. None of the E.A.A. aircraft were to see service with Dan-Air. One aircraft was said to have cost Dan-Air only £5,000! Perhaps that says something for the state these aeroplanes were in after a strenuous life operating in Central Africa. Corrosion was said to be a particular problem.
Dan-Air purchased it’s first 4Cs when two Kuwait Airways aircraft (9K-ACA and 9K-ACE) were acquired. They were re-registered G-AYWX and ‘VS respectively. The former aircraft was said to have had the least number of hours of all Dan-Air purchases to date. It was with this Comet that the independent airline made it’s first VIP flight. Foreign Secretary – Sir Alec Douglas-Home – visited Istanbul, Dubai, Delhi, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and back to Britain via. amongst other stopovers, Rawalpindi and Ankara.
During 1971 the first of Aerolineas Argentinas remaining Mk.4s and a single Mk.4C came on the market. One Mk.4 was re-registered G-AYIY and the 4C G-AROV (its original de Havilland registration) and were used by the company. LH-AHN and LV-AHS (temporarily registered G-AZLW) were not flown but used for spares.
As described earlier whether an aircraft was flown or used for spares depended on the cost of the necessary modifications. All the Mk.4s were converted to seat 99 (finally stretched to 106). The longer fuselage 4B were re-fitted for 119 seats and the 4C, initially, for 109 and later they too were modified to carry 119 – i.e. the maximum number of passengers the Comet ever carried. Flight Services lightweight seats were used to keep the additional weight down.
The various Comet 4 variants had differing cockpit layouts and ‘customers’ choice equipment. Minor variations had to be accepted because it would have been prohibitively expensive to standardize here. However there was much in common to be found: standard equipment comprised dual VHF and HF, ADF, DME, weather radar, transponder and Smiths Autopilot and flight system. Dan-Air operated their Comets, in the (then) conventional way with two pilots and flight engineer per aircraft.
The first Comet 4Bs were acquired with G-APME from BEA in February 1972. When BEA and its associate company Olympic Airways, disposed of their Comets in the late 1960s they did so either to one of its own subsidiaries companies (Airtours) or to Channel Airways. Later in April 1972 ex-Channel Airways G-APYC joined Dan-Air. This Comet was involved in a hair-raising incident in May 1973 – fortunately without injury to the 113 passengers and crew of seven. Returning to Manchester from Alicante there was a hydraulic failure resulting in the nose wheel failing to lock down and there was only limited flap available. The flight was diverted to Manston, Kent where an ’emergency’ foamed-covered runway had been laid.
The aircraft touched down and after a short distance the nose-wheel collapsed. The aircraft finally stopped some 280 ft (86m) beyond the paved area! It was repaired to fly again!
Over the next two years more 4Bs were acquired:1972 – G-APMB, ‘YD, ‘ZM and G-ARDI came from Channel Airways, G-APMD was from B.E.A. In 1973 G-APMC, ‘MG, ‘MF, G-ARJN, ‘JK, ‘GM, ‘JL and G-ARCP (all ex-BEA). Ex-B.E.A. G-ARCP had to be re-registered G-BBUV because Dan-Air already had a ‘Charlie Papa’ (BAC 1-11 G-AXCP) on its books. It could have led to confusion.
Of these, G-ARMC, GM and ‘JL were not flown and this was the case too with the only 4C acquired during the year (OD-ADT) from M.E.A. This meant that by the end of 1973 Dan-Air had acquired 38 Comets out of a total of 74 built.
At this point ten of Dan-Air’s Comets had not been commercially flown after acquisition. How much Dan-Air paid for their aircraft was not disclosed but in Mid-1973 a broker was offering two Mk.4s (no history given) for £125,000 each.
In June 1975 Sudan Airways disposed of two Mk.4Cs. ST-AAX, the last Hatfield built Comet, was re-registered G-BDIF (see Appendix X). ST-AAW reverted to its original (de Havilland) designation – G-ASDZ – although this aircraft was never flown commercially by Dan-Air. The registration G-ASDZ had been originally allocated to this Comet in November 1962 so that de Havilland pilots could fly the aircraft out to Khartoum for the country’s Independence celebrations.
Sudan Airways had put ST-AAW into storage at Khartoum in October 1973 as more modern aircraft replaced them. In fact both Comets had been put on the market earlier in the year in the hands of a broker – the asking price was £170,000.
ST-AAW was flown to Britain and put into storage at Tees-side airport where it remained for about 2½ years pending its sale. Dan-Air most certainly paid less than the asking price for these aeroplanes.
Further Comets were added to the fleet when five 4Cs from RAF Transport Command’s 216 Sqd. (formerly C.4s) were bought. These aircraft were in excellent condition and were to be the last operational Comets Dan-Air purchased. It was believed that a unit price of £120,000 each was paid.
The five were registered G-BDIT, G-BDIU, G-BDIV, G-BDIW and G-BDIX (formerly XR395, ’96, ’97, ’98 and ’99 resp.) ‘IV retired in November 1979 and the remaining ex-RAF aircraft retired in late 1980.
Lastly Egypt Air’s four 4Cs were bought in October 1976 and used for spares. They were temporarily given the registrations G-BEEY (SU-AMV), ‘EX (SU-ALM) and ‘EZ (SU-ANC). SU-ALL was not re-registered but broken up on site in Cairo in October 1976.
The IT market had continued to expand during the 1970s with more carriers taking a slice of the market. This market was very competitive and the newer IT operators were equipping with more modern aircraft – BAC 1-11, Trident, Boeing 727 etc.
These modern aeroplanes made the Comet look dated and, usually, they had lower operating costs. On the other hand, in aircraft terms, Dan-Air had got their Comets for next to nothing. A book value of Zero was offset by the cost of modification and aircraft’s higher thirst. However the balance still – just – favoured the Comet.
Utilization rates continued to increase. For the 1977 season Dan-Air were using nine 4Bs and nine 4Cs. These aircraft accumulating 23,123 hours during the year compared to 17,217 hours for the 1975 season. Because IT was seasonal it enabled the winter lay-off period to be used for maintenance. The average utilization rate was quoted as being 1500 hours p.a. but of course the bulk of this total was accumulated during a relatively short season. The average per monthly total was around 360 hours per aircraft.
By the late 1970s the economic balance had swung against the Comet and Dan-Air were planning their last scheduled flights. To see how the Comet compared at this time with contemporary aircraft one has to look at its fuel efficiency compared to other turbo-jets. Remember that in the seventies there was an oil crises of such proportions that some airlines (e.g. Olympic) were virtually made bankrupt and the whole world began to appreciate that fossil fuels were a powerful political weapon and, in any case, that oil reserves were finite and should be conserved.
Take, for example, the number of passenger kilometers/ kilogram of fuel for various aircraft: the Comet scored 14, the Boeing 707 15, Boeing 727 30, the latest Caravelle 36 and the DC 10 40.
The Comet was facing stiff competition from more modern jets and, just coming into service at this time, was the first of a generation of Airbus aircraft. They incidentally scored 37.5 on the above scale. With a fuel efficiency equivalent to Concorde the Comets days were numbered.
The last full season for the Dan-Air Comets was in 1980 when four (ex-RAF) 4Cs plied the holiday routes. By November 1980 all Comet services had ceased – the Comet was never to be used commercially again.
Dan-Air purchased 49 Comets: 19 Mk.4s, 15 Mk.4B and 15 Mk.4Cs. Of these six Mk.4s, four Mk.4Bs and six Mk.4Cs, i.e. 14 aircraft, were not flown again. The vast majority of the Comets were eventually phased out and used for spares.
Apart form the incidents cited above the following were fortunate in not being reduced to scrap –
G-APDM, a Mk.4, was transferred to the Catering Unit at Gatwick for training purposes in May 1974.
G-APDB was withdrawn from service after its last flight on the 23rd November 1973. By the time it made its last scheduled IT flight (to Alicante) it had logged 36,268 hours 57 min. – more hours than any other Mk.4. It was presented to the East Anglian Aviation Society and was then transferred to Duxford on the 12.2.74. On the flight was de Havilland’s Pat Fillingham and members of the Imperial War Museum staff as well as members of the East Anglian Aviation Society. En route a farewell fly-past of Hatfield was made. The aircraft was prepared for the flight at Dan-Air’s Lasham base. One condition of the donation was that the aircraft continue to carry the Dan-Air livery.
G-APYC, a 4B, was sold to the Ministry of Defence in December 1978 but saw little use. It was reported to have been dumped the following year.
G-APMB (4B) was sold to Gatwick handling for training use in December 1978.
G-APYD (4B) was sold to the Science Museum’s Transport Collection in October 1979. It was delivered to Wroughton, Wiltshire on November 1st where it is now preserved.
G-BDIT (4C) made its last Dan-Air flight in October 1980. It was sold to the Warbirds Museum of G.B. Ltd., Blackbushe in June 1981. Sadly this aircraft was broken up in July 1984.
G-BDIU (4C) last flew for Dan-Air in October 1980 and was sold to the R.Ae. at Bitteswell in June 1981. In July it was disassembled with the nose section being transferred to RAFKinloss in February 1986 as 8882M.
G-BDIW (4C) last flew for Dan-Air in November 1980 before being sold to the Classic Air Museum in Dusseldorf in February 1981. This aircraft took part in a farewell to the Comet flight on November 9th 1980 from Gatwick.
G-BDIX (4C) was sold to the East Fortune Museum after making its last commercial flight in October 1980. It is now preserved at the Museum of Scotland.
The only Comet to be lost in Dan-Air service was the ex-BOAC Comet 4 G-APDN. The accident happened on 3rd of July 1970 when the Manchester aircraft crashed into the Monteseny Mountains – some 34 miles (55 Km) NW of Barcelona, Spain.
Dan-Air announced the there were 112 people, including 7 crew, on board. It was thought that when it was last heard of it was only 7 miles from its destination. That would have placed it safely across the Pyrénées. Further it was reported that the weather at Barcelona was clear and there was nothing to indicate trouble with the aircraft.
Later it was reported that the last radio message came when the Comet was at 6000ft. Prat Llobregat airport said the control tower lost contact with the aircraft when it was over Sabadell, 12 miles from Barcelona. Experts were flown out to assist the local investigators. The British team consisted of representatives from the Board of Trade, the RAF and de Havilland.
It was soon clear that the Comet was some 7000ft lower than it should have been when it crashed. Flight plans required that all aircraft maintain a minimum height of 13,000ft over the Pyréneés, that is, 2000ft above the highest peak in the area. This altitude had to be held until Sabadell where the descent began to 3000ft. The last massage received from ‘DN reported its height was 6,000ft, some 40 miles distant.
The investigation was not helped by comments made in the British press. They made accusations (attributed to pilots who regularly flew in the area) that many Spanish A.T. Controllers were incomprehensible in the international aviation language – English. Speculation abounded that the crew may have misunderstood the radioed instructions of Barcelona A.T.C.
To make matters more difficult there were unfortunate delays in recovering the flight recorder. which would provide information as to speed, height and rate of climb at the critical time. The recorder was finally released after being held up by the Spanish authorities for 5 days.
The Board of Trade had the decoder analyzed. Meanwhile other concerns surfaced – this time about the general standard of navigational aides around the Costa Brava. In response the Spanish Air Ministry issued a statement setting out what equipment was available and stating that it was fully operational and that it complied with the specifications laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. At Barcelona there had been 53,702 air-movements during 1969. There were four direction beacons as well as those at Gerona.
When the recorder had been decoded details of the Comets heading, altitude and speed were passed back to the Spanish Investigators. What the recorder indicated was that, for some unknown reason, the Comet had changed course 25 miles before it should have done.
These findings were dealt with by Frederick Corfield, Minister of State for the Board of Trade, when he made an announcement to Parliament. The plotted flight path showed that instead of following the normal practice – passing over Sabadell radio beacon before turning to the SE and descending over comparatively low ground towards the coast – the aircraft turned onto a south-easterly heading 25 miles before reaching Sabadell.
As a result the aircraft descended to an area of high ground and struck the slopes of Monteseny at a height of about 3500ft. All the evidence available indicated that there was no pre-crash failure or malfunction of the aircraft. From a study of the recording of the ATC conversation it was clear that the pilot was aware of the altitude at which he was flying and therefore altimeter misreading or mis-setting was not relevant.
However it also appeared form the interchange of massages which include references of an ETA for Sabadell, and a radar contact, that both the pilot and the radar controller at Barcelona mistakenly thought that the aircraft had in fact passed over, or close to, Sabadell before descending. How this came about was not known.
For a full personal account of Dan Air and it’s history and demise dedicated to Capt. Robert Selby see
Short Video by seanstu
A few Scenes on the Ramp A at Gatwick in the 1970’s featuring a Dan Air Comet 4c. Also in the background a Dan air 727, BCal DC10 and a British Airtours 707. From Are You being served movie. See clip here