The De Havilland Comet: The Engineering Disaster Inceptor of Civilian Jet Aviation

De Havilland DC 106 Comet 19 photos
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Sixty-nine years ago, to the date, a Comet crashed in the Mediterranean Sea and changed the world forever. On April 8, 1954, a De Havilland DH 106 Comet plummeted into the water, effectively ending the service life of the world’s first commercial jet airplane. The disaster – like any other catastrophic event in the history of humanity – served as a paid-in-blood lesson for aviation and brought about technological progress.
Following the conclusion of World War II, the British Empire was on its knees, having lost the world-superpower status, despite emerging on the winner’s side of the armed conflict. Saved from insolvency by a US $4.33-billion dollar loan, Britain needed something to leave the world in awe.

The war itself had technological side effects – one of the many being the explosive development of new means of transportation. Aviation was one of the world’s new wonders, and the war only cemented its reputation as the future of travel.

Human flight was becoming commonplace by the end of the 40s, but a new twist on a new marvel changed everything: jet power. Experimented during the Battle of Britain, the new thruster was chosen as the next logical step for civilian aviation.

De Havilland DC 106 Comet
On July 27, 1949, the first passenger aircraft equipped with jet engines took to the air – Britain’s De Havilland DH 106 Comet. It was an astounding box-office success, unanimously acclaimed and praised by journalists and aviators alike. Not without merit – the Comet was faster, quieter, more luxurious, and overall better than its piston-powered competitor.

However, the Brits rushed its development to the limit, fearing losing the spotlight to someone else (Boeing was seen as the main threat). Partly, their fears were real because only two weeks after the Comets’ debut, another jet made its maiden flight.

It wasn’t an American design, as the De Havilland – and British - officials thought, but an Avro Canada Jetliner (from Canada, if needs be said). But the Comet was the first – and it would go down in history as a leap forward in human flight.

De Havilland DC 106 Comet
Unfortunately, it would also go down in flames – not metaphorically this time. A deadly hidden design fault caused the mighty jet to explode. It took three crashes – resulting in the loss of 99 lives – until the Comet 1 variant was grounded permanently. The last one, on April 8, 1954, revealed the fatal flaw that had caused all three accidents.

De Havilland wanted to be the first to launch an operational jet airplane for long-distance commercial flight - and succeeded. The Comet shortened the trip from London to Tokyo from 86 hours to 36. but the frenzy to put the plane in service meant compromises had to be made in its manufacturing.

The massive (by the era’s standards) airplane skin was built from punch-hole riveted aluminum. It was also designed to fly at altitudes up to 42,000 feet (13,000 meters) above sea level – twice as high as any civilian propeller-powered aircraft.

De Havilland DC 106 Comet
The height necessitated a pressurized hull, which blasted the Comet out of the sky. Repeated stresses on the rivet holes (from cyclical pressurization) developed into microscopic cracks. Over time, the cracks became larger and larger until the sheet metal gave it. An explosive depressurization resulted, effectively rupturing the fuselage and destroying the aircraft.

Oddly enough, the initial manufacturing process was to drill the rivet holes instead of punching them, thus increasing the stress tolerances of the aluminum sheets. In the haste to launch the airplane first, the decision was made to go for the faster procedure.

The April 1954 disaster was the second in three months – On January 10 of that year, another Comet 1 crashed in the Mediterranean. A large-scale investigation was initiated, and salvage teams were deployed to recover as many parts as possible.

De Havilland DC 106 Comet crash
During one operation, an underwater television camera was used to aid the rescue vessels in identifying the airplane fragments. It was the first time a video camera was used to film underwater – and you can see it being used in the second video below.

Despite its terrible date, the De Havilland jet paved the way for what has now become the most popular way of travel. Fatefully named ”Comet,” the airplane shone bright and short on the firmament of human progress, just like its celestial namesake.

The maiden flight of the DH 106 Comet occurred in 1949. It entered regular service on May 2, 1952, with a 17-hour and 16-minute flight from London to Johannesburg, South Africa. The historic trip was documented adequately on video – play it below – and on paper.

De Havilland DC 106 Comet inaugural service flight
One American, a journalist from Popular Mechanics, was onboard to witness the groundbreaking achievement. The stunning plane made an impression on him, just as it did on everyone else – passengers and onlookers.

His article is included in the gallery if you’re curious. I’ll cite one paragraph “Where the propellers normally ae located were four gaping, oval mouths – the inlets to its powerful turbojet engines – waiting to gulp air.”

A bit carried away by the euphoria of the moment, the Pop Mech reporter wasn’t entirely accurate in his description. The four engines were mounted in the wings, not under them, and very close to the fuselage.

De Havilland DC 106 Comet
For an unconcerned eye, the fantastic Comet looked like it had no engines at all – the lack of propellers made it look like it flew by magic, not by then-high-tech science. However, the engines were present and produced 5,000 lbs of thrust each (22 kN) - enough to thwart the Comet at eight miles per minute (or 480 miles per hour / 772 kph).

The hefty DH 106 was 93 feet in length (28 meters), 29 feet 6 inches tall (9 meters), and had a wingspan of 115 feet (35 meters), with a wing area of 2,015 square feet (187 square meters). The first Comet had a maximum take-off weight of 50 tons (110,000 lbs) and a capacity of 36 passengers.

Tiny, compared to 2023 flying ships, but if the airplane were any bigger, it would have become economically unfeasible. The early jet engines were voraciously fond of fuel, and this was a drawback for the aircraft size. A bigger plane required so much fuel that it would have made the trip unaffordably expensive.

De Havilland DC 106 Comet
The few passengers that could board the Comet were pampered in every way imaginable. Apart from 48-inch legroom and on-plane cooked five-course meals with fine beverages, the travelers enjoyed turbulence-free flights (or so the airlines claimed) above the weather in previously unheard-of silence.

This would be a relative statement but consider the yardstick of the time – the day’s noisy, vibrating piston engines were deafening in flight compared to the jets. However, the Halford H.2 Ghost 50 turbojet would fail the loudness test under current regulations.

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About the author: Razvan Calin
Razvan Calin profile photo

After nearly two decades in news television, Răzvan turned to a different medium. He’s been a field journalist, a TV producer, and a seafarer but found that he feels right at home among petrolheads.
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