On This Day

de Havilland Comet, de Havilland plane
Press Association/AP
The de Havilland Comet makes its first commercial flight, May 2, 1952.

On This Day: First Commercial Jet Flight Takes Off

May 02, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 2, 1952, British Overseas Airways Corporation launched commercial air travel by jet, sending 36 passengers from London to Johannesburg on the de Havilland Comet, a four-engine aircraft.

De Havilland Comet Makes First Commercial Flight

The British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) de Havilland Comet, built by the firm of British engineer Geoffrey de Havilland, was a major advance in jet design. The pride of the British air industry, it challenged formerly dominant American aircraft companies like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

The early Comet was a four-engine plane about the size of a small Boeing 737, carrying between 36 and 44 passengers. Like most early commercial jets, it was roomy, and passenger comfort was a much higher priority than in today’s commercial planes. Its quiet “Ghost” engines were smooth and vibration-free, and the fast, high-altitude jet engines cut average flight times in half.

The Comet first flew in July 1949 and made its first commercial flight three years later on May 2, 1952. The first flight took off from London with 36 passengers and making stops at Rome, Beirut, Khartoum (Sudan), Entebbe (Uganda) and Livingstone (Zambia) before landing in Johannesburg nearly 24 hours later.

The Comet’s Fatal Flaw

The Comet was initially an overwhelming success, but a design flaw soon surfaced. In March 1953, a Comet crashed on take-off in Pakistan, killing all on board. Then, on May 2, a year after the inaugural flight, a Comet crashed over India during a thunderstorm. Finally, after a Comet crashed near Rome in January 1954, British authorities decided to ground the fleet.

An investigation found that metal fatigue cracks were spreading from the corners of the square-shaped cabin windows, causing catastrophic loss of cabin pressure. The planes were redesigned and returned to service in 1958, but its reputation was irreparably harmed and airlines favored the much larger Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8.

Despite its flaws, the Comet changed commercial aviation by proving that jet aircraft, once considered only suitable for the military, could be fuel-efficient and comfortable enough for passenger flights.

Key Player: Geoffrey de Havilland

Designer Geoffrey de Havilland had a strong interest in flying machines, but had to take work as a draftsman until a wealthy grandfather invested 1,000 pounds to help him design and construct his first airplane. De Havilland later joined His Majesty's Balloon Factory in Farnborough in 1910, working as an airplane designer there before founding his own company.

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