How The de Havilland Comet Opened The Skies To Travel

A mammoth aviation anniversary is set to pass this week – the first flight of the legendary Comet, the first jet powered airliner.

The Comet first took to the air on July 27, 1949 and unlocked the door to cheap, commercial flights.

But like the current Boeing 737 Max, the Comet had a dodgy start interspersed with crashes and malfunctions.

Passenger aircraft prior to the unveiling of the de Havilland Comet were antique affairs with propeller engines.

They flew low and were uncomfortable for the few passengers that they could squeeze in. Many were converted or based on designs for wartime bombers or cargo planes.

Flying was accessible to the rich few, with ocean liners the most popular way to travel around the world.

If it looks right, it’ll fly right

The Comet looked like a visitor from the future.

The design was sleek and shiny, with swept back wings and four jet engines.

The jet aircraft could cruise at 40,000 feet, well above the turbulent weather that other piston driven passenger planes had to plough through because they could not reach the same heights.

“It still looks modern,” says Alistair Hodgson, curator of the de Havilland Aircraft Museum. “It was clean, it was aerodynamic and it looked like it would slip through the air perfectly – and of course, that’s what it did.”

“There’s an old saying in the aviation industry that if an aeroplane looks right, it’ll fly right,” says Hodgson. “It was the Concorde of its day – it flew higher, faster, smoother than any other airline of that time and made everything else obsolete.”

Battle for the skies

The Comet offered comfortable seats and windows for 36 passengers and sped through the sky at 500 mph – much faster than other aircraft of the time.

But the plane’s controls were riddled with problems that needed fixing as the crashes and unfortunate body count mounted up.

The major issue was the fuselage was too thin, which led to stress fractures and the jet decompressing and disintegrating at altitude.

A battle for the skies ensued as new and improved Comets came into service to compete against the Boeing 707.

The rest is history as millions of us take up the Comet’s legacy to fly quickly and cheaply around the world for business and leisure.