How a Comet Destroyed An Entire Industry

The British Empire was the largest, most powerful empire in the history of the world. At its height, the Empire controlled over 14 million square miles of territory and 458 million people – both of which constituted a quarter of the entire planet. The old saying “the sun never sets on the British Empire” was indeed true – so much land was held in so many places that the sun was, in fact, shining on some piece of land held by the British at all times.

It all came to an end after World War II, though. Exhausted and broke after battling Hitler for so long, Britain could no longer afford the luxury of an overseas empire, and most of the territories held by Britain were eventually given their independence.

Although the Empire began falling apart in the late 1940s, Britain still acted as an Imperial power in many industries until the mid 1960s. In shipbuilding, medical research and aeronautical design the Brits still ruled. In fact, it was the last category – aeronautical design – the Brits were in fact ahead of both the Americans and the Soviets. For on January 22, 1952, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), the forerunner of British Airways, began the first commercial passenger jet service using the de Havilland Comet jet.

The Comet was a beautiful aircraft. It looks futuristic even day, with its sleek lines and distinctive engines. In training films (where the plane was pushed to its limit), the plane looked more like a jet fighter than the commercial aircraft we’re used to today. The plane was fast, sexy, ahead of its time… and had one major design flaw.

On January 10th, 1954, BOAC flight 781 took off from Ciampino Airport in Rome en route to London Airport (now known as Heathrow Airport). Takeoff was unexceptional, and the plane rapidly climbed to cruising altitude. Around 15 minutes into the flight, the captain was speaking to the pilot of a BOAC flight heading towards Rome when the London-bound captain’s transmission ended mid-sentence. After trying (unsuccessfully) to re-establish communication with the Comet, the pilot of the inbound flight radioed Ciampino to see if they could get in touch with flight 781. They too, were unsuccessful. Little did either know that the plane had already exploded. Flight 781 had fallen out of the sky and into the sea.

Fishermen from the island of Elba saw the many pieces falling into the ocean and rushed out to the crash site to see if anyone had survived. No one had, and so the fishermen instead began hauling bodies from the water. 15 bodies were recovered in all, and these were taken to a chapel in the town of Porto Azzurro in Elba to await autopsy.

Dr. Antony Fenari performed the autopsies, and almost immediately he noticed something strange about the victims. Many had suffered broken bones on impact with the water, which is not altogether surprising. What was surprising was that many of the bodies showed signs of skull injuries… injuries that occurred while the victims were still alive. Additionally, the lungs of almost every victim were incredibly damaged, in some cases reduced to “goo”.

Although the British initially though that sabotage was cause of the crash, Fenari could find no signs of an explosion on any of the bodies. So sabotage was out. And since the wreckage of the plane was lying on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, British investigators had almost nothing to go on. So Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Comet fleet grounded and also took the unprecedented step of ordering the Royal Navy to “endeavour to locate and salve Comet”.

It was a task easier said than done. In an age before transponders and GPS units, the Royal Navy had only the roughest idea of where flight 781 hit the water. The winter weather also seemed to do everything it could to hamper the investigation. It was very slow going, even though the navy was using cutting-edge technology (for the time) in the search. In the meantime, the grounded Comets were costing BOAC thousands of pounds a week. With the airline hemorrhaging money and the Royal Navy’s search still inconclusive, the British government felt that it had no choice but to allow the Comets to fly again. On March 23 – just ten weeks after the crash – the ban on the Comets was lifted. It would be a fatal mistake.

Newsreel and television cameras rolled as the first post-grounding flight prepared for takeoff from London Airport. BOAC chairman Sir Miles Thomas was even on hand, and he told reporters that

We obviously wouldn’t be flying the Comet with passengers… were we not wholly satisfied that the conditions are acceptable for carrying passengers anywhere in the world.

On April 8th, a Comet left London for Rome, then Cairo en route to its final destination in Johannesburg, South Africa. Like flight 781, the plane took off from Rome without incident. 33 minutes into the flight, the pilot radioed the tower that everything was normal. Minutes later, flight 201 fell out of the sky in almost exactly the same manner as flight 781. And again, the Royal Navy was called to recover any wreckage they could.

Churchill took swift action. He again ordered the Comet fleet grounded and also ordered the Royal Aircraft Establishment to investigate the crashes. Sir Arnold Hall, a Cambridge-educated aerospace engineer, was to head the investigation. Churchill told Hall that “the cost of solving the Comet mystery must not be reckoned in money or in manpower” – essentially giving Hall unlimited funding and scope for the task, something rare in post-war Britain.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate Sir Albert’s genius. You must remember that this was the first full-scale investigation of a jet airplane crash. Flight data recorders didn’t exist yet, and neither did the science of aircraft metallurgy or the techniques of rebuilding downed airplanes. And Hall was given this Herculean task in the pre-computer age; instead of electron microscopes and super computers, all he had were chalkboards and slide rules.

Hall ordered that all the wreckage be taken to a hanger at Farnborough, where he began reconstructing the aircraft. In doing this, he noticed that many bits of debris from the front of the plane ended up in the rear of the jet, thus indicating that whatever had happened happened at the front of the plane. Around this time, the autopsy reports came in for flight 201. The five recovered bodies all showed injuries strikingly similar to those of flight 781. All of this led Hall to wonder if the entire plane had simply exploded due to decompression. He built a scale model of the aircraft inside a pressure chamber… and when he pressurized the model, it exploded into a million pieces.

Hall decided that he was on to something, and he next had a huge water tank built. The tank was around 112 feet long, 22 feet wide and 16 feet deep – big enough to fit an actual Comet jet (there were sealed holes in the tank to allow for the wings). He then filled the tank with water, and then filled the plane with more water (so that the cabin was effectively pressurized). After five minutes, the excess water was released from inside the plane, and the process is repeated over and over again, all day, every day. Hall himself thought that the test might have to run for six months or more to get results.

He needn’t have worried. After just three weeks of testing, the Comet ripped apart in the water tank. Although de Havilland’s engineers had asserted that the plane could easily handle 10,000 or more flights, the test plane failed catastrophically after just 3,000 simulated flights. Hall had the tank drained, and the results were even worse than he imagined: there were massive tears in the plane’s aluminum skin, especially around the windows, doors, and other stress points. It was convincing, but it wasn’t enough to say for certain what the cause of the crash was.

This is where sheer luck enters the story. Hall had other engineers rebuilding the failed planes in the hanger, and although they knew that they plane had exploded due to decompression, they couldn’t exactly say why. It was at this point that an Italian fisherman snagged a huge piece of wreckage in his net. This piece in particular was from the roof of the plane, where two windows were mounted to allow for long range radio reception. And it was in this wreckage that Hall found what he was looking for – absolute signs of metal fatigue where the windows had been riveted in the roof. Although the de Havilland engineers had designed all windows to be glued into place, they were riveted into place by the manufacturing arm of the company. Tiny cracks almost instantly appeared around the rivets, and after several flights the cracks got longer and longer… until failure was inevitable.

Once this became known, de Havilland made major changes to the Comet design and construction. Several new versions of the Comet were designed and produced.

But it was too late. Boeing had already taken an insurmountable lead in the manufacture of passenger jets, and British aircraft manufacturers simply couldn’t compete. BOAC itself ordered 15 Boeing 707 aircraft in 1956. Although patriotism compelled the company to switch to British-made Vickers VC-10 planes, BOAC stuck to its guns and flew both planes. Eventually, the VC-10 planes would be taken out of service for Boeing’s 747-400 jets. Eventually, all British aircraft companies were bought, sold or merged into companies that specialized in defense contracts. Although many aircraft components are still manufactured in the UK today (Rolls Royce aircraft engines for example), the overall production of aircraft in the UK was destroyed… by a Comet.

How The Writing Gets Done

You might think that writing short articles like these is pretty easy. In a way, it is. I know a lot about history and am always on the lookout for new and groovy things to tell you about. But just knowing a story and being able to bring it to a mass audience are two different things. I can “know” something and tell the missus all about it; to do that, I don’t need a lot of names, dates and places – I just need the gist of the story. However, to tell the world about something you have to provide specifics. And this is where things get complicated.

Take the above story, for instance. My main inspiration for the story came from an episode of the British version of Seconds From Disaster (which is also popular on the National Geographic Channel here in the US). I also consulted Wikipedia and various other online sources. One “fact” in particular stuck out at me – the fact that the TV show and every written source I could find stated that flight 781 was “en route from Rome to Heathrow Airport”. That didn’t seem right to me. I knew that Heathrow was originally called “London Airport”, but I had no idea when the name was officially changed to “London Heathrow Airport”. You’d think that finding out when the name change happened would be pretty easy… but you’d be wrong.

The Wikipedia article on Heathrow mentions nothing about the history of the name, and neither does BAA’s site (the British Airports Authority is the company that owns Heathrow, as well as Gatwick, Standstead, and other major British airports). I next found a site that detailed an extensive history of the site that became Heathrow; while it could tell me what was on the land in the year 1235, it couldn’t tell me when the name change happened. I was finally able to track down something at this BBC “Today in History” site. Apparently the Queen opened a new terminal on December 16, 1955 and was quoted as saying that in doing so, she marked an “important stage in the story of London Airport”. There are a few other direct quotes from the Queen from that day that refer to “London Airport”, so at the time of the crashes, the Comets were either going to, or coming from, “London Airport”. (It appears that sometime shortly after the Queen’s speech that the name was changed to Heathrow). The rough amount of time it took me to find this out: 40 minutes.

It’s little things like this that can throw you off your rhythm. I was having a rough time getting this article off the ground (haha!) and the “Heathrow question” didn’t help a bit. It’s little factoids like these that can take forever to get to the bottom of. I know that a pope gave Henry VIII the title fidei defensor (“Defender of the Faith”) for Henry’s book, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (“The Defence of the Seven Sacraments”), which defended Catholicism against Martin Luther. But which pope gave him that title? And when? On what date did hDo that e bestow the honor to Henry? The best I can find out is that Pope Leo X gave Henry the title in October of 1521. Good luck if you can find the actual date… Lord knows I gave up a long time ago!

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