A number of scheduled services finally began, as planned, on April 1st thus –
G-APMB operated BEA’s inaugural jet service from Tel Aviv to London via Athens and Rome and services started from London to Nicosia (with Cyprus Airways).
Also on the same day G-APMD opened the London-Moscow service. It was planned to be a non-stop overnight flight leaving at mid-night. The 3½ hour flight, when added to time zone of plus 3 hours, meant that passengers would arrive in Moscow in the morning – in time for a full days work. A turn-around of 2½ hours was planned with the aircraft returning to London again in the morning. The advantage for BEA of this scheduling was that their crews would not require an over-night rest (costly). The service was to operate twice weekly.
Olympic Airways started their London-Athens service too. The arrangement was for two BEA 4Bs and two Olympic aircraft to operate daily into Athens from London, Paris and Rome. From Athens Olympic would serve Istanbul, Nicosia, Beirut, Tel Aviv and Cairo.
May 1st saw further route expansion: London-Warsaw with twice weekly flights including an overnight turn-around – elapsed time each way was 2½ hours.
Also planned was a London-Nice service. Caravelle already operated this route – it was hoped that the Comet would reduce flight time to 1hr. 45 min. – undercutting Air France by 10 minutes. Also from May 1st London-Dusseldorf began as a daily service and London-Malta was non-stop – operated nightly.
Other services –
May 14th the London-Zürich service began.
June 1st London-Copenhagen (on this route there would be Caravelle competition from S.A.S.).
Also on the same day services to Oslo started but, because of ‘noise’ objections, the flights were re-routed to Gardermoen Airport. Gardermoen was situated 25 miles from the City, and was being used for commercial jets in place of the more convenient Fornabu airport (six miles away from the city).
June 5th London-Malta and London-Nice.
On July 1st it was planned to begin services (G-APMA) to Stockholm via Oslo. However, again, because of problems with the Norwegian Authorities, services had to be revised in the Autumn with the London-Oslo route reverting to Viscounts when it was necessary to use Fornabu – and the Comet service to Stockholm was re-route via Copenhagen.
Between the commencement of scheduled services on April 1st and the end of October 1960 the fleet of six BEA Mk.4Bs achieved a utilisation rate of 6 hours a day.
They carried 188,000 passengers over 146,000,000 passenger miles. Comets accounted for 15% of BEA summer traffic at a load-factor of 66%.
In fact the utilisation rate was not as high as it could have been because of the nature of short-haul routes. The main operational advantage of the Comet was that it was able to operate efficiently on 1300-1500 mile stage lengths. On these it was able to make an outward flight, a rapid turn-around and return the same day – which was something the Viscount could not do.
To improve the training programme and to cut the amount ‘air time’ necessary flight simulators were ordered. BEA estimated that simulators would cut airborne training time to about 7 hrs. They were based at Heston. The cost of the simulator was put at £180,000 – cost effective training. BEA needed to train about 90 pilots during the six months to summer 1960. Obviously Olympic crews used the facilities.
By April 1962 they had 60 captains and 95 first officers available for duty. Over the next few years a great many foreign crews made use of the Comet simulator including Olympic Airways, Kuwait Airways, M.E.A. and Sudan Airways as well as Transport Command.
Two particular incidents caused BEA some concern and resulted in the temporary grounding of the 4Bs.
On October 29th 1960 an axle of a 4B fractured at London Airport. The aircraft slid forward for a few yards but fortunately was not badly damaged. This incident resulted in BEA and Olympic (it did not affect BOAC operations) grounding Comets for twelve hours so the nose legs could be inspected for similar problems. de Havilland called for crack inspection by dye penetration methods, chromium deposit and shot-peening.
The second incident took place on 6th November when a 4B was taxiing out for take-off from Zürich. The Comet suffered a fracture of its nose-wheel axle which resulted in the loss of both nose-wheels. After the second incident all 4B front axles were replaced as a precautionary measure. The solution to this problem was for a special axle sleeve to be retrospectively fitted to all 4Bs to strengthen the axle. The problem, which only affected the 4B, was related to the different stresses encountered in short-haul operation. BEA (and to a lesser extent Olympic) 4Bs had individually accumulated more take-offs and landings than any other operator.
In 1961 another grounding was ordered. The Captain of a 4B noticed that flap readings differed according to the gauges – one set indicating 40° and the other 20° flap. The aircraft returned to the airport where the fault was traced to an electrical problem. Meanwhile the flaps were given a precautionary examination and, during this examination, cracks were found in the flap hinge bracket.
Examinations found cracks in similar positions on another three aeroplanes. The problem this time was related to the fact that on the 4B the air-brakes were placed proximate to the hinge structure (and so were different from the Mk.4 or 4C). de Havilland concluded that operation of the air-brakes may have placed excessive stress on that particular area of the hinge bracket resulting in fatigue cracking. Again the unique operational environment of the 4B was responsible. Strengthened the brackets solved the problem.
By March 1960 seven 4Bs were in service with BEA.
The Comet had brought Athens within 4 hours flying time of London (compared with 23hrs in a Viking).
Incidentally BEA had operating arrangements with carriers other than Olympic and Cyprus Airways. They entered into an agreement with Transportes Aereos Portuguese [TAP] who wanted to lease a Comet for their Lisbon-London route. This lease ended in October 1962 when TAP bought their own aeroplanes.
Air France’s Caravelle was providing stiff competition to BEA’s piston-engine aeroplanes on the short Paris-London route – passenger appeal was proving costly to BEA – jets were clearly preferred by the traveling public. It was decided to put Comets on this route too – although it was less then ideal for such a short range. Services began on October 28th.
Other new services included London-Madrid and London-Helsinki (via Stockholm). 1964 saw direct flights to Tel Aviv twice a week. But by now BEA were beginning to phase in Tridents and work for the Comet began to decrease.
In 1966 competition at home from British Eagle and British United Airways forced BEA to put Comet on the short London-Glasgow route twice daily. Despite being less than ideal the 4B acquitted itself well.
Accidents to G-ARJM & G-ARCO
BEA’s first Comet loss was on 21st December 1961 when G-ARJM was lost at Ankara, Turkey – it stalled on take-off. The inquiry blamed the accident on a faulty instrument concluding that the direction/horizon indicator pitch pointer was obstructed resulting in a crash from 400 ft. – killing twenty.
A second Comet loss occurred on 12th October 1967. G-ARCO was en route to Nicosia from London via Athens. It disappeared from radar screens after passing the Rhodes beacon. After a long enquiry it was concluded that a terrorist’s bomb had brought down the Comet. 66 people died. Parallels with the Pan Am ‘Lockerbie’ disaster cannot be avoided.
August 1968 saw the temporary use of Comets on German routes – daily to Frankfurt, to Berlin, Hanover and Bremen and twice daily to Dusseldorf. Once the BAC 1-11 became available the Comets were withdrawn. Peter McKeown having become Senior Training Captain on Comets and Viscounts switched temporarily to the BAC 1-11 500.
This was the year BEA revised its livery. White roof, light grey underside with dark blue cheat line and tail but with a sectioned union flag on the tail, ‘BEA.’ was in red and white. The original red wings were retained to reduce the cost of re-painting!
Gradually over the next two years Comets were withdrawn from service and put into storage. In late 1969/early 1970 a subsidiary charter company was formed called BEA Air Tours which was aimed at catering for the package holiday market – IT tours.
With Peter McKeown now appointed Flight Manager, operations began on 6th March 1970 (using surplus 4Bs) with a flight by G-ARJL to Palma from Gatwick.
From then on Comets operated to all the usual holiday destinations – principally to Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean. Eventually ten 4Bs were seconded for charter work – all but one having been transferred from BEA to the new company.
Transferred were G-APMC, ‘MD, ‘MF, ‘MG, G-ARCP, ‘GM, ‘JK, ‘JL and ‘JN. The one Comet not bought outright by Air Tours was G-APME which was leased temporarily.
These aircraft continued in service until their limited capacity became a handicap. In late 1971 Airtours bought BOAC 707s but continued to fly Comets on occasions.
The last Airtours Comet flight took place on the 31st October 1973 with a flight from le Bourget, Paris to Gatwick. In Airtours service Comets had carried some 2 million passengers. If one adds to this figure some seven million passengers carried by BEA [over 110 million miles] one could say the Comet had served the airline and the public well.
Peter McKeown described the Comet as, “the love of my life” and “probably the best pilots’ aircraft there has been”
– a feeling expressed by many of his colleagues. The last Comet he flew was one of the original aeroplanes delivered to BEA. G-APMC. which made its last Air Tours flight on 21st October 1973 to, and from, Helsinki. It was sold to Dan Air in November.
The work of BEA Comets was complete. The so called ‘stop-gap’ purchase had proved to be far, far more than a stop-gap. Millions of passengers and dozens of aircrews had developed a great affection for the aeroplane and many were sad to see surplus aircraft sold off. Over the next 14 months all were all sold, directly or indirectly, to Dan-Air, London.
To quote Peter McKeown once more,
“The Comet really was a delight to fly. Far easier to control than the 707. Perhaps, compared with the 707, the Comet was a thoroughbred flats racehorse against a hack jumper.”
Having said that he went on to say that the 707 was, “a magnificent workhorse” which he enjoyed flying.