If the Atlantic could be considered a vast aquatic race track, then the US and the UK were the countries that competed to cross it. Both battled to be the first to reach the other’s side in what became the transatlantic jet race, pitting flag carrier BOAC British Overseas Airways Corporation against “chosen instrument” Pan American World Airways. New York served as the former’s destination and the latter’s origin. But the supplier of their aircraft seemed the least likely to do so–the UK’s de Havilland Aeroplane Company, whose last major airliner, the DH.95 Flamingo, only attracted 16 sales because of World War II, and the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company, whose B-247, B-307 Stratoliner, and B-377 Stratocruiser orders were hardly higher.
Although aircraft such as the Douglas DC-7C “Seven Seas” and the Lockheed L-1649A Starliner represented the pinnacle-of-piston engine types and could cross the Atlantic in both directions without payload restrictions or the need for intermediate-stop refueling, their speeds had reached a plateau. Anything higher, which would reduce travel times, required a new powerplant type—in this case, the pure-jet engine, whose limited application had so far only been of the military kind. Both de Havilland, with its DH.106 Comet, and Boeing, with its 707, would change that.
The de Havilland Comet
Conceived as an Atlantic mail plane and named after the DH.88 Comet racer to reflect its speed, the DH.106 Comet featured 20-degree swept-back wings, four 4,450 thrust-pound Ghost 50 Mk 1 centrifugal turbojets installed in the wing root, a conventional tail, and accommodation for 36 four-abreast passengers.
“The first flight, conducted by aircraft G-ALVG on July 27, 1949) lasted 31 minutes,” according to “The Comet Emerges” article in the de Havilland Gazette (No. 52, August 1949, p. 17). “In the course of it, (Chief Test Pilot) Cunningham climbed to 10,000 feet, tried out the general handling qualities of the aircraft over a range of low and medium speeds, and flew along the runway at 100 feet in salute to several hundred members of the de Havilland technical and experimental departments… Handling was thoroughly satisfactory in every respect…”
BOAC inaugurated the first scheduled Comet 1 jetliner service, in cooperation with South African Airways, on May 2, 1952, carrying 30 passengers on the Springbok route from London to Johannesburg and completing the multi-sector flight in 12 hours, 37 minutes. The type replaced the piston-powered Handley Page Hermes.
While the Comet took “the first pure-jet airliner” title, its success was not sustained.
On January 10, 1954, when aircraft G-ALYP, the first production example, took off from Rome at 10:31 after a refueling stop on the multi-sector routing from Singapore, now bound for London, it inexplicably exploded off of the island of Elba, bursting into flames and plunging into the ocean and taking the lives of all 35 on board with it. Three months later, disaster once again befell the aircraft and once again during a climb-out from Rome. On April 8, 1954, aircraft G-ALYY, operated by South African Airways, took off at 18:32, ascending through 28,000 feet, bound for Cairo, when it exploded and plunged into the Mediterranean Sea off of Stromboli, also killing all on board.
Four days later, the Comet’s certificate of airworthiness was withdrawn and it was grounded. Had the jet age come before its time, it could only be wondered?
The Boeing 707
Some 5,000 miles across the very Atlantic that the Comet had hoped to conquer, another contender was taking shape to do so—the Boeing 707.
Significantly differing from the DH.106, it featured 35-degree swept wings and four cowling-encased, pylon-mounted, 9,500 thrust-pound Pratt and Whitney JT3P turbojets.
Piloted by A. M. “Tex” Johnston and R. L. Dick Loesch, the aircraft, at a 110,000-pound gross weight and sporting its brown and canary yellow livery, was “cleared for a north takeoff” and rotated at 125 knots, disengaging itself after a 2,100-foot acceleration run at 14:14 local time and executing its initial climb out over Lake Washington.
It served as the prototype of the first production version, the 707-120.
The Transatlantic Race
Although the Comet appeared to have been defeated, it achieved ultimate victory. Neither jet engine technology nor the speed it brought had been the culprit behind its inexplicable accident history, but the insufficiently thick fuselage skins, subjected to double-piston airliner altitude pressurization, had—its very design flaw.
After a four-year grounding and the most extensive aircraft accident investigation ever undertaken, the definitive, extensively modified version, the Comet 4, appeared with thicker, fatigue-resistant aluminum alloy skins, a 111.5-foot length, 15 oval windows per side to eliminate sharp cutouts, a 76-passenger capacity, and four 10,500 thrust-pound Rolls Royce Avon 524 engines.
The way the Comet 1 had launched the jet age and inaugurated scheduled jet service, it only seemed logical, to do the same across the Atlantic, perhaps achieving the aircraft’s rightful reward, which it did on October 4, 1958.
Piloted by Captain Roy Millichap, aircraft G-APDC was accessed by a mobile boarding stair at London-Heathrow Airport that day, in front of which was an arch that proclaimed, “BOAC Comet 4: First-Ever Transatlantic Jet Service.”
It symbolically represented the re-established jet age and the beginning of a new era—that of pure-jet service across the Atlantic Ocean.
Jet flight was like no other. Because of the lack of propeller vibration, the smoother air of high-altitude cruise, and the increased vertical distance between the aircraft and the ground, de Havilland described the experience as “motionless travel eight miles high.”
“There is a strange sensation of being poised motionless in space, which is quite a new experience, and intensely pleasurable…,” according to the “Simplicity: The Secret of the Comet” article in Enterprise: The Internal Magazine of the de Havilland Companies (April 1950, p. 8). “Instead of being in a vehicle, one seems to be seated in a room, which is located above a painted scene. In a turn it is the scene which appears to move around.”
The New York Times touted the Comet’s ultimate technological triumph in a headline that read, “British Gloat as Their Comet Wins Race to Inaugurate Transatlantic Jetliner Service.”
Aircraft G-APDB, operating the first eastbound transatlantic crossing from then-named Idlewild International Airport, did so nonstop, touching down in London after a mere six hours, 12 minutes, competing with and beating Pan American.
Twenty-two days later, that very carrier’s aircraft N711PA, named “Jet Clipper America” and operating as Flight PA 114, made its own historical oceanic crossing. Powered by four Pratt and Whitney JT3C-6 engines, it departed New York-Idlewild with four cockpit and seven cabin crew members and 40 first-class and 71 coach passengers, touching down in Paris-Le Bourget eight hours, 55 minutes later after a one-hour, seven-minute refueling stop in Gander. 707-121 service was subsequently extended to Rome on November 9 and London on November 16.
Stephen Eastman, a Boeing employee who took the inaugural flight, wrote, “Some (of the passengers) were veterans of air travel who normally would have been settled down with earplugs, blankets, and pillows to endure the 12 or more hours of punishment from noise, vibration, and buffeting in rough air at lower altitudes (in propeller aircraft),” as noted by Sam Howe Verhovek in Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World (The Penguin Group, 2010, p. 205).
During the first two weeks of Pan Am’s transatlantic 707 service, it carried 1,098 first and 1,853 coach class passengers on the route, achieving more than a 95-percent average load factor.
Although Boeing lost the race, it perfected the long-term run. Because neither the Comet 4 nor the 707-120 were considered true transatlantic airliners and therefore required their intermediate refueling stops, BOAC operated its last New York service with the British type on October 16, 1960, replacing it with the Boeing 707-420. Pan American replaced its own original short-body 707-121 with the 707-320. Both introduced increased-capacity fuselage stretches, modified wing planforms, and higher rated engines for true transatlantic-range capability, demonstrating that, while Boeing’s contender failed to win the coveted “first across the Atlantic” award, it succeeded in achieving the “sustained one.”