Six decades at FL360 – plus ca change…

…plus c’est la même chose. This month marks the 60th anniversary of the first jet passenger service – operated, as I’m sure we all know, by a beautiful BOAC de Havilland Comet.

BOAC de Havilland Comet 1 g-alyp.bmpAnd while I could use this anniversary as an excuse to drone on about the Comet and all that it promised for British aviation prior to its grounding after a spate of tragic accidents two years after its debut, I thought it would be more appropriate to reflect on what that sunny day in May represented for the world and globalisation.

BOAC de Havilland Comet Poster_British Airways.jpgMore than any other moment during the 109 years since the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, 2 May 1952 revolutionised air transportation and marked the start of the modern era of jet travel. For when those 36 passengers departed London (Heathrow) Airport bound for Johannesburg, much of what they experienced for the first time as members of the public has not changed one bit in the ensuing six decades.

After the flight lifted off from Heathrow’s runway 27L (okay, it was called runway No 5 back then), the Comet climbed to an initial cruising height of 36,000ft (FL360) and a speed of 525mph (845km/h or 460kt TAS), and later climbed as high as FL400. Passengers on tonight’s flight BA57 to JNB on board a 747-400 will no doubt be experiencing a not dissimilar flight profile (but without the five refuelling stops!). 

comet-wing-c-rexfeatures-web.jpgPrior to the arrival of the Comet, air passengers lumbered around at heights no greater than 25,000ft in the piston and early turboprop airliners of the day. So in 1952 the Comet – as the world’s first operational jet transport – delivered for the first time a flying experience to the air passenger that would differ little in terms of speed and height for the foreseeable future (with the exception of those lucky enough to experience Concorde during its 27-year reign).

boac-comet-1-cabin-c-british-airways.jpg

The onboard environment is of course a different story. The Comet’s narrow cabin (above, via British Airways) was one area that harked back to the immediate post-war era in which it was spawned. It had just 36 seats arranged in a fairly cosy layout, with a club eight arrangement in a forward, private cabin (often the preserve of the Hollywood set, apparently) and the remaining 28 seats in the main cabin – all four abreast. Aft of the cabin was the entry foyer and “dressing rooms and toilets – ladies port and gentlemen’s starboard”. 

Etihad_-_first_class-web.jpgThis was a world away from the first class cabins of today’s long-haul network carriers (Etihad’s illustrated), but there is no doubt that the Comet’s occupants still found themselves in a quieter, smoother and more comfortable world than anything they had experienced previously when on board one of the lumbering, propeller-driven predecessors.

That first jet service to Johannesburg took 23h 38min, and was flown by BOAC Comet Yoke Peter, shaving an amazing 17h off the existing service operated by a Douglas DC-6B. The return fare in 1952 was £315.comet1-side-el-gear-up-web.jpgThe flight arrived in JNB two minutes ahead of schedule after a routing which involved refuelling stops in Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone. There were two crew changes – one in Beirut (where Capt Michael Majendie was relieved by Capt J Marsden) and the other in Khartoum (where Capt Cliff Alabaster DSO, DFC (the former BSAA pilot who crewed the first ever flight from Heathrow in 1946) took over for the final legs to Johannesburg). 

comet-highway.jpgSuch was the novelty that de Havilland’s jet delivered to civilians in terms of high altitude cruising, that a book – Comet Highway - was commissioned to celebrate the views from the Comet’s passenger windows. As the book summarised it so succinctly in its foreword: with the arrival of the Comet “the World would never be the same again”.

It added: “Swift and secure high-altitude flight is no longer the prerogative of the specialist few, for the Comet has brought it to the multitude, and many thousands of everyday travellers have already experienced the wonders of jet flight at eight miles a minute in a magic world eight miles above the levels of the oceans.”

I couldn’t have put it better – de Havilland, the Comet and BOAC: We salute you!

Read Flight’s news report on the World’s first jet airliner service, in its 9 May 1952 edition, here (from our archive)

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