Flight 100 - History 1949-1958

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By Bill Gunston

A little over four years after the war had ended, the most significant creation to evolve from the Brabazon Committee's 1942 transport aircraft development plan would take to the air, and with it usher in a revolution in civil aviation that remains to this day.

On 27 July 1949 de Havilland chief test pilot John Cunningham, previously a famed night-fighter pilot, celebrated his birthday by leading his flight-test crew aboard the all-silver prototype DH106, the world's first jet airliner, and taking off on its maiden flight. The de Havilland Ghost-powered DH106 was soon afterwards named Comet.

Earlier during that year of the Comet's debut, on 21 April, French inventor René Leduc's concept of an aircraft whose fuselage was a giant ramjet made a major advance, when the O.10 was released from the Languedoc parent aircraft. Pilot Gonord put the unique aircraft into a climb at 346kt (640km/h). A later Leduc aircraft exceeded Mach 1, but his long effort got nowhere.

When the first British jet bomber, the English Electric A1, debuted that same year the aircraft looked rather unimpressive after the succession of futuristic jet bombers that had been developed across the Atlantic for the US Air Force. Legendary test pilot Roland Beamont, famed as a fighter pilot, began testing the new bomber at Warton, near Preston, on 13 May 1949 and the design - named Canberra to help clinch an Australian order - went on to prove a most successful aircraft, flying with 15 air forces. Some 901 were built, plus 48 in Australia and 403 of the derived B-57 in the USA - so much for first impressions!

BRABAZON

The year 1949 also saw two other astonishing British prototypes make their maiden flights, both on 4 September. Bristol chief test pilot Bill Pegg took off from the specially built enormous runway at the company's Filton plant in the giant eight-engined Type 167 turboprop airliner, named Brabazon.

Meanwhile, at Boscombe Down, test pilot SB "Red" Esler took off in the Avro 707, a small jet aircraft intended to investigate the triangular "delta" wing.

Eventually the Brabazon - an unsuccessful creation from the UK's development plan of the same name - was broken up for scrap, while the 707 eventually led to the Avro 698 Vulcan bomber. Esler, however, was killed in the first 707 only 26 days later.

Apart from de Havilland's little Dove twin-piston, the UK's only really successful airliner in the years immediately after the war ended was Vickers-Armstrong's VC1 Viking, which evolved from the Wellington bomber and flew in June 1945. Eventually 163 were built, as well as 252 military Valettas and 163 Varsity crew trainers.

Tragedy struck Avro as it sought to make its mark on the civil sector, when the prototype of the stretched Tudor 2 crashed in August 1947 killing chief designer and father of the Lancaster, Roy Chadwick. The Tudor 2 would also make ominous history three years later, when a crash on 12 March 1950 killed the 80 occupants - the worst British air accident up to that time.

A year after the Comet's first flight, the UK again made civil aviation history when a BEA Vickers Viscount operated the world's first turbine-powered scheduled service. The date was 29 July 1950, the route was London to Paris. The Rolls-Royce Dart-powered Viscount, which was another production of the Brabazon Committee's plan, had made its first flight on 16 July 1948. Regular scheduled services with BEA began on 18 April 1953.

flight front cover september 1951 
Flight sold its cover to advertisers for many years during the 1940s, 50s and 60s

Restricted government funding did not prevent the British aircraft industry from moving into the jet age with a succession of advanced prototypes.

Calendar year 1951, for example, saw the start of flight testing of the Vickers-Armstrongs Valiant, Vickers-Supermarine Swift, Short S.A.4 Sperrin, Hawker P1067 (later named Hunter), Gloster GA5 (later named Javelin), de Havilland DH110 (later developed into the Sea Vixen), Handley Page crescent-winged HP88, delta-winged Fairey FD1 and Avro 707A, and the butterfly-tailed Supermarine 508.

Despite such progress, the RAF had to rely on aircraft of American design to modernise its front-line strength such as Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers (designated as Washington B.1s), Lockheed Neptunes and Canadair Sabres (the F-86 made under licence in Montreal).

After several years of flight-testing the Comet finally entered service with BOAC on 2 May 1952 between London and Johannesburg. The 10,830km (5,850nm) journey, which took 23h 37min, carried 36 passengers and made scheduled stops in Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone. Despite the multiple stops, the Comet's 500mph cruise speed cut 17h off BOAC's existing DC-6B piston service. The return fare for the jet service was £315.

But tragedy would strike on the first anniversary of that maiden service, when a BOAC Comet 1 crashed shortly after take-off from Calcutta, killing all on board. This accident was the start of a tragic succession of Comet crashes that resulted in the type's airworthiness certificate being suspended in 12 April 1954. One of these losses, to G-ALYP, which had flown that first jet service, was investigated in unprecedented detail, and the results of the inquiry were made available to all the jet pioneers to ensure that no mistakes were repeated.

BRITISH AIRLINER LEAD

Ignorant of swept-wing progress in the USSR in the West at that time, it was still possible to contrast the sluggish development of advanced military and naval aircraft in the UK with what was going on in the USA, where prototypes became production aircraft in less than half the time. Astonishingly, the reverse was true with civil transports, where no other country had anything to compare with the turbojet Comet and turboprop Viscount.

But the USA could not ignore the progress being made on the other side of the Atlantic, as the manufacturers faced the prospect of their mighty incumbent piston airliners like the Boeing Stratocruiser, Douglas DC-7, and Lockheed Constellation being made obsolete overnight. Boeing was the first to respond, with its Dash 80 turbojet, which flew on 15 July 1954 and would be the forerunner of both the 707 jet airliner and KC-135 jet tanker. In parallel with the civil jet development, Boeing had been working on a heavy bomber for the USAF, which crystalised as the eight-engined B-52 that entered operational service in June 1955.

b-52 cutaway
The eight-engined B-52, designed by Boeing for the US Air Force and drawn as a cutaway by Flight

Meanwhile, back in the UK the short-haul Viscount was a huge export success with over 400 sales. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the first long-range turboprop, the Bristol Britannia. The Bristol Proteus-powered airliner suffered very slow development, punctuated by accidents, and by an unhelpful stance by the main customer, BOAC, which demanded solution of an obscure icing problem before at last accepting the first Britannia 102 into service in February 1957, almost five years after the start of flight testing.

The cancellation on 29 November 1955 of the Vickers-Armstrongs V1000, a long-range jet transport for the RAF, spelt disaster for the UK's civil airliner aspirations. The decision also terminated the civil VC7 version, with BOAC saying it had no need for such an aircraft. The Vickers managing director, George Edwards, said: "We have handed to the Americans the world market for big jet airliners." On 24 April 1956 BOAC ordered 16 Boeing 707s, because there was no similar British aircraft.

WORLD SPEED RECORD

On 10 March 1956 the Fairey Delta 2, a small research aircraft developed on a shoestring budget, was flown by test pilot Peter Twiss to a new absolute world speed record of 1,132mph, beating the old record by the unique margin of 310mph. Less than a year later, on 1 February 1957, the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics released a picture of a strange-looking single-seater, the Lockheed U-2. The "U", said NACA, meant utility, as it was a general-purpose research aircraft.

fairey delta ii
On 10 March 1956, the Fairey Delta 2 set a new world speed record of 1,132mph

A Soviet diplomatic visit to London in 1956 aboard a Tupolev Tu-104 twin turbojet airliner, highlighted that the jet age had not passed that nation by. This transport derivative of the Tu-16 bomber - even retaining the latter's glazed nose - made its first flight the year before.

The French had been quick to respond to the Comet's early success, with the development of a short-haul twinjet, the Caravelle, for Air France. Built by Sud-Est Aviation at its small plant in the southern city of Toulouse, the design even borrowed the Comet's nose section. The first R-R Avon powered Caravelle flew in May 1955, and entered service four years later.

By the time Boeing was ready to deliver its first 707 to Pan American in late 1958, de Havilland had regrouped after the tragedies of 1953-4 and completed its redesigned, enlarged and longer-range Avon-powered Comet 4 series for BOAC. The two rivals entered service just three weeks apart on transatlantic services in 1958, the Comet first between London and New York on 4 October the 707 following on 26 October between New York and Paris. But, amazingly, developments in the next decade would make both these aircraft obsolete in both size and speed terms.

Bill Gunston was Flight's technical editor from 1951 to 1964


Continue reading The Flight Century

Chocks away - 1909 - 1918
Britsh aviation made a slow start, but within the decade the country was making aircraft and the RAF had formed

Peace ... and war - 1919 - 1939
The inter-war years were a time of renaissance, innovation and record breaking and the creation of the air travel industry

Fight for the edge - 1939 - 1948
The Second World War brought aerospace innovation on both sides, but the sound barrier remained intact until 1947

Faster and higher - 1959 - 1979
The jet was king and the Jumbo Jet proved bigger was definitely better. Meanwhile, the Harrier showed the UK could still lead

Electric jets and stealth - 1979 - 1999
Innovations of the 1980s brought far-reaching changes in virtually every area of aviation - and Flight became truly International

Flight 100 - history of 21st century
As we entered the 21st century fuel efficiency and green design were beginning to take over from the quest for size and speed

Flight into the future - The next 100 years
We covered exciting, almost unbelievable, breathtaking developments in our first century of  publishing. What might feature on our pages in the next 100 years?

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