BEA was the creation of the 1946 Civil Aviation Act which also created both BOAC and BSAA (British South American Airways). BEA’s specific objective was to provide scheduled air services within Britain and between Britain and Europe.
BEA began to suffer losses in traffic volume on key European routes when other European carriers began to operate pure jets in the form of the Comet’s principal rival the Caravelle.
Air France, for example, introduced the Caravelle on their busy service from Nice to London in direct competition with BEA which routed London-Rome flights via Nice.
The Caravelle took 1 hr. 55 min. compared to the Viscount’s 2hrs 45min. On the Paris-London route the Caravelle took 45 minutes compared to the Viscount’s 1 hr. 5 min.
BEA had not been idle though and had begun to plan for the future. They were planning to enter the pure-jet market with the arrival of the ‘second generation’ jets.
There was much debate as to which aircraft to buy. They eventually opted for the Airco 121 ‘Trident’ which as originally proposed by de Havilland could have been in service in the early 1960s.
However, delays, many of them political, ensued. Meanwhile competition on BEA routes became even more intense with the result that the Corporation was forced to get it’s act together, to enter the jet age, and take on the opposition. The question in the short term was should the airline buy outright or lease aircraft pending the arrival of the Trident?
de Havilland had on their drawing-board the short to medium range Mk.4A which had been ordered by Capital Airlines but, as described elsewhere, the order fell through. de Havilland adapted the airframe by extending the fuselage of the proposed 4A by another 3ft. 2in. This derivative was designated the Mk.4B.
The 4B would suit BEA short-medium haul needs admirably. And so, really intended only as a stop-gap measure, in March 1958 an order was placed for six 4Bs for delivery in early 1960.
Incidentally BEA got something of a bargain when it is realized that the reported cost of their Comets was put at £7 million including spares, that is approximately £950.000 per aircraft! This figure can be compared to the quoted price of the 4A in 1956 which was then put at £1.210,000. No doubt particularly favourable terms for the Comet were offered by de Havilland in view of the imminent BEA order for Tridents….
For much of the information presented here I am indebted to Capt. Peter McKeown who was at the time Senior Line Training Captain for BEA and one of a small team of pilots sent to Hatfield to initiate the Corporations preparations for Comet introduction.
The plan was to train a key number of BEA senior staff to enable them to set up BEA’s own Comet Crew Training unit and thus have full control of their own training programme.
The head of the ‘Comet Flight’ was Capt. G.T. Greenhalgh who, along with Capt. McKeown, Capt. J. Munro and the rest of the team, spent much time talking with de Havilland as well as with existing Comet operators such as BOAC and the very experienced R.A.F.216 Sqd. – otherwise known as Transport Command.
They were to assess what, if any, systems and procedures used by these operators could be successfully adopted by BEA and to learn as much as possible on how to approach the setting up of their own Comet training programme.
Right from the beginning BEA decided not to carry a flight engineer -and this was something of a controversial decision at the time.
The reason for this decision stemmed partly from previous Corporation practice: all BEA aircraft up to the introduction of the Comet had been two pilot crewed and also BEA had built up a network of ground engineers throughout Europe. Therefore it seemed unnecessary to carry an additional engineer. Peter McKeown considered that in practice three pilot crews made for a stronger crew and were a good way to operate an aircraft. History has proved him right.
As could be expected there was immediate opposition from the flight engineers union but, as could be equally expected, it was eventually overcome by greater pressure that came to be applied by the pilots union BALPA. Opinion was divided on the subject though and most American manufacturers at the time certified their aircraft for two pilot and F/E operation.
This, of course was the crew mix favoured by BOAC. Incidentally things got interesting when, in the early 1970s, BEA decided to operate ex-BOAC Boeing 707s for a short period in their Air Tours division. Since they only intended to operate the 707s for a limited period, while more suitable aircraft were awaited, it was not viable to appoint, or train, flight engineers specifically for BEA.
As Peter McKeown says,
“If we took them on, what would we do with them later?”
The solution to BEA’s problem was to train all the co-pilots as F/Es.
This was not as difficult as it might sound. The ground examinations were the same as the pilot’s ARB examinations but it included, in addition, the specialist subjects – refuelling, electrical and hydraulic systems. The requirements for a F/E license included ground engineering experience OR, in lieu of that, a number of hours as a pilot on a four engine aeroplane. This resulted in the strange situation where co-pilots licensed on Comets, Vanguards and Viscounts could obtain F/E licenses whereas those licensed on Tridents could not!. Despite Corporation pressure the CAA would not give way on this though.
The consequence of this was that several experienced co-pilots had to undertake an extensive flight engineer’s course before they could qualify.
Senior BOAC F/Es were said to be of great help to BEA in their training program. In fact Peter McKeown, to keep the peace and to show that there were no difficulties in qualifying as F/Es, took the course himself (as a senior captain he need not have done so) and held his F/Es license until he retired.
Going back to 1958. At the end of the year eight base and line captains had been selected, a two month flight engineer’s course was undertaken at Hatfield and de Havilland were to certify the 4B for operation by a three pilot crew.
Mk.3B in BEA colours
Peter McKeown made his first flight in G-ANLO on the 4th February 1959 along with de Havilland’s Peter Wilson.
More valuable experience was gained courtesy of the RAF. Every training captain was able to accept the offer of at least one flight with 216 Sqd. on their Singapore or African routes.
216 Squadron had a vast amount of experience flying Comet 2s and they were happy to share this experience with BEA crews. Peter McKeown made several trips at the invitation of 216 Sqd. to the Far East during March and May of that year.
In April 1959 he also accompanied flights with 216’s XK695, 696, 671 and 715 to and from Hong Kong. These flights illustrated a problem regularly to be encountered when descending from high altitude,
“one sat in a veritable shower of water as the ice which formed from the condensation round the inside of the windscreen frames and adjoining structure thawed”.
This problem also occurred on the Mk.4 variants – but fortunately to a lesser extent.
Between time, in April, he had the opportunity to fly as observer on several of BOAC’s training flights. BOAC having only recently introduced the Comet themselves were still heavily involved in crew training – particularly as their own Comet services were still being expanded. Flights out of Heathrow, mainly on Mk.4s G-APDM and ‘DK, provided the new training captains with much more valuable experience – experience directly related to the commercial operation of the Comet.
The first Mk.4B destined for BEA made it’s maiden flight at Hatfield on 27th June 1959.
This aircraft was destined, initially at least, to undergo extensive production testing while de Havilland test crews evaluated the new type and directly compared performance data and handling characteristics with those obtained on the Mk.3B.
de Havilland were keen to evaluate the aeroplane alongside BEA’s training captains. Every opportunity was taken to work closely with them and often a BEA captain would act second pilot on these development, certification and acceptance flights.
Peter McKeown’s first experience of the Mk.4B was on 13th July 1959 when he joined Peter Buggé for a flight. Several flights were to follow with John Cunningham and Pat Fillingham too.
Certification flights doubled as demonstrations throughout Europe. For example it was decided to demonstrate the new aeroplane in Athens where the Greek carrier – Olympic Airways – had ordered two Mk.4Bs. Capt. Greenhalgh accompanied the flight as second pilot to John Cunningham.
On 19th October 1959 a demonstration flight took place to Cologne with G-APMB. John Cunningham, Peter Buggé, Peter McKeown and Peter Wilson crewed with the writers father, Ted Young, as flight engineer E1. Three demonstration flights were made and later the same day they returned to Hatfield.
As the date for the introduction of scheduled services drew near the training programme gathered momentum. Addition joint flights were undertaken with Captains Atkins (assistant flight manager, training), McKeown (senior line training captain) and (Tug) Wilson (senior base training captain) all accompanying de Havilland crews on routine test flights. BEA pilots joined BOAC as supernumerary crews on regular scheduled services.
With training manuals, operational procedures and system drills drawn up to suit their own short-haul operations BEA were set to begin their program which was aimed at getting a Comet flight of 30, three pilot crews ready for the commencement of scheduled services.
First Impressions of the 4B
A typical experience was described by Peter McKeown in the ‘Enterprise’, the internal magazine of the de Havilland group of Companies, published in 1958.
His first impression of the Comet was,
“one of tremendous controlled power, coupled with a smoothness and lightness of control which is startling in an aircraft of its size”.
Satisfaction was expressed with the power controls and their ease of operation.
The stall was described as, “straight-forward” and recovery as, “conventional”. The speed of the aircraft was appreciated but it was observed that it was all to easy to push the aircraft beyond the MNE at high altitude (the 4B was the fastest Comet derivative). An auto-trim device sounded a warning if this occurred and applied a small amount of up-elevator. Asymmetric flight on two or three engines was described as, “simple in the extreme” – the loss of one engine on take-off being easily corrected by rudder alone above 68 knots.
The question of how pilots were selected for the ‘Comet flight’ is interesting. As explained, conversion courses were necessary. BOAC were having a number of difficulties after a series of accidents, all taking place on approach, and all subsequently attributed to pilot error.
Comet Flight Manager G.T. Greenhalgh decreed that any pilots (who were otherwise selected by seniority) not converting to the jet relatively easily should be failed. Apparently some found the Comet course difficult but later successfully converted to Trident(?). On wonders whether the ‘pilots aeroplane’ – as it was often described – was really quite so easy to master as we have been led to believe – or could it be that the Trident was that much easier to fly with its greater use of automated systems?
de Havilland’s production line excelled and once again easily beat delivery schedules – in so doing nearly caused BEA’s carefully laid training plans to be disrupted.
In November G-APMB was delivered six weeks ahead of the contract date and the second aeroplane – G-APMC – was delivered the same day too!
In the original contract five 4Bs were to be handed over by April 1960 and the remainder by June. In fact all six were delivered by April.
In November 1959 only three BEA Captains had a Comet license. Messrs. Atkins and Wilson flew ‘MB to Stansted where with de Havilland’s Peter Wilson, crew training continued. So on 10th November – the day after delivery – Captains Atkins, McKeown and Wilson began regular flying to build up certification hours for the Civil Aviation Authority. Crews also had to check each other out on the flight engineer’s panel and de Havilland F/E’s, particularly Jimmy Hamilton, were a,
“great help to us during this time”.
As 1959 closed a series of route proving and training flights were planned. But initially things did not go smoothly – poor weather disrupted a trip to Moscow, diplomatic problems hindered plans to visit Warsaw, noise problems at Oslo and Stockholm meant revisions to the program.
The Oslo authorities also said they were not permitting the Comet or Caravelle to use Fornabu Airport until runway improvements were completed – due in 1962.
But the Comet had however already passed noise level tests at Stockholm and was allowed to land there. The real reason for these difficulties was that the Norwegian authorities had been upset after an earlier visit by a Caravelle and they were the first Authority to have refused turbojets landing-rights. Yet the Comet was said to be the quietest of the four jets operating in Europe at the time (the others being the Boeing 707, Sud Caravelle and TU 104).
On December 5th a successfully flight was made to Moscow (described by Peter McKeown as, “A bit of an epic that!!“). On the 6th another was made to Warsaw and later Stockholm and Zürich were visited.
All these flights were used too to evaluate flight planning and fuel management, for line training and jet handling, and to enable ground staff to practice handling and turning the aircraft around in the planned 45 minutes. Because of the pay dispute (details below) fare-paying passengers were not carried – but BEA staff often were.
On 21st February 1960, during one of these proving flights, an unusual incident occurred. Peter McKeown says that the incident stood out in his mind – a typical understatement!
The Comet was G-APMB and the Co-pilot was Don Hill – Peter takes up the story,
“I had landed at Copenhagen and run into deep slush at the end of the landing run which flamed out two of the engines. Some hours later, when the runway had been mostly cleared, and ground running of the engines indicated no damage (ground checks by engineers and full power running against the brakes showed no malfunction), I took on a minimum amount of fuel for Dusseldorf i/o for London to make sure we got off before reaching slush at the far end of the runway. As I got airborne No.4 engine quit, followed fairly smartly by No 1 and 2!. A hasty circuit was made (cloud base was about 600ft, I can remember it was quite murky and the trusty Avon kept us aloft until a safe landing was achieved at Kastruf(?). Subsequently all the engines had to be changed”.
The problem was traced to grit being thrown up in the slush and damaging the Avons. Following this incident there was much research into devising some form of mudguard for the nose-wheel assembly but, despite de Havilland’s efforts, it was not a practical proposition.
Instead in experiments conducted at Hatfield, and at Bedford, it was discovered that if the ground speed was held below 80 knots most of the spray missed the air intakes. This led operators to adopt a skimming nose-wheel technique when taking off from wet runways and,
“pretty severe limits were imposed on takeoffs and landings on wet/slushy runways.”
The nose was lifted at 80 knots and held just off the runway until Vr. The engine relight switches were left on throughout the takeoff just in case.
Peter McKeown pointed out that this technique made for a much smoother takeoff and some pilots employed its use on all take-offs.
BEA planned pretty demanding scheduling for the 4B. They calculated on the basis of a 2,800 hours utilisation rate i.e. a six aeroplane operation with no stand-by aircraft. This was revised early on and the target set at 2,400 hours – still high for a short-haul carrier.
But plans were revised again in June 1959 following the signing of an agreement between BEA and Olympic Airways. BEA were represented at the signing ceremony by Lord Douglas and Aristotle Onassis signed for Olympic – the agreement was the formation of a Consortium to provide integrated services between Europe and the Middle East. On the strength of this agreement Olympic bought two 4Bs.
Even with eight Comets it was apparent that the original scheduling had been too tight, that is, it was impractical without the availability of a stand-by aircraft.
The problem was solved by BEA buying a 7th 4B in August 1959. Part of the Consortium agreement included the maintenance of Olympic 4Bs by BEA. This arrangement was a great advantage for Olympic – they had a fully integrated jet service while only having to purchase two aircraft. BEA gained greater flexibility. Cyprus Airways too had operational arrangements with BEA and their services were to be fully integrated into the Consortium’s route planning.
It is interesting to note that with a configuration providing for 22 first class (seated four abreast) 64 tourist class (seated five abreast), and a rate utilisation of 2400 hrs. the Comet fleet would carry the same number of seat/miles per year as of a fleet of 25 Viscounts!
The BEA and Olympic Comets were technically identical, the only difference being the respective insignia. Integration now allowed one stand-by aircraft to be based at London Airport. Integration also meant that it would thus be possible for an Olympic crew to operate Olympic routes in BEA aeroplanes, and vice versa.
This was an interesting diversion for one of BEA’s Comets. A £10,000 prize had been put up by the Daily Mail, who were sponsors of the first channel crossing (won by Louis Blériot) in 1909. BEA entered a ‘BEAline’ team.
By June 1960 it was clear BEA needed more aircraft. An order was placed two more 4Bs for delivery by March 1961. A price of £2.5 million including spares was quoted.
Such was the popularity of the Comet – both with the airline and passengers alike – that the original concept of the 4B as a ‘stop-gap’ aeroplane had changed considerably.
At this point Olympic added two 4Bs making a fleet of four. With extra aircraft at their disposal there was a further revision of BEA services which resulted in Comets being put onto some of their short-haul routes too. Competition from European carriers was forcing this move – clearly even on short routes the public preferred turbo-jets.
BEA typical short-haul operations naturally placed different demands upon the aircraft with respect to servicing and maintenance, say when compared to BOAC.
It became viable for the Consortium arrangement to set up their own maintenance facilities Enormous 4B experience was accumulated resulting in increases to the recommended specified service intervals – much of the benefit was due to Avon development. BEA adopted a system of standardized checks: Check 1 was made at 200 hours, check 2 at 1,070 with a major check (check 4) at 6,420 hours.
However tying up Comets on short-haul routes meant too few aircraft being available to cover the more lucrative European routes. Additional Comets were needed and, with the introduction of the Trident still being some way off, BEA had to think in terms of placing further orders. Approached were made to the Ministry for two more 4Bs bringing the fleet to twelve aircraft plus the four Olympic Airways aircraft.
[Actually these orders brought the Comet order book to 60 aircraft – well over Sir Aubrey Burke’s (Managing Director of de Havilland) prediction in 1956 that 50 aircraft would need to be sold to allow the Company to break-even].
In fact the government were generous – or perhaps embarrassed (by their failure to make a firm decision on the ‘second generation’ jet project, resulting in the delayed availability of Trident) and allowed BEA to purchase 4 additional aeroplanes. At this point seven aircraft had been delivered to BEA and ten were due to be in service by the Spring of 1961.
On problem BEA encountered before scheduled services began was a protracted dispute between the airline and its pilots over rates of pay.
The demand was for a special increase for operating turbo-jets. Matters came to a head when, having received its aircraft early, BEA intended operating the 4B on certain routes on an ad hoc basis before regular routine jet services began.
Crews refused to operate on revenue flights until the claim was settled and this forced BEA to abandon the idea of ad-hoc flights. The Corporation had to work very rapidly to resolve the dispute before scheduled services were due to begin in April 1960.
To put the matter into perspective the claim was for new rates for Senior Captains increasing their salary from £3500 to £4200 per annum and the claim included a demand too for a reduction of two hours in their working day. Generally though it was the demand for a reduction in working hours that was the problem and not the increase in salaries. In any case turbo-jet crews would have expected to receive increases in line with the practice of other operators. Eventually Ministry of Labour conciliation officers had to be consulted in an attempt to resolve the dispute. The matter was resolved.