It was a revolutionary concept since jet propulsion allowed travel at speeds 50 to 60% higher than the most advanced propeller aircraft.
The first commercial jet airliner took off on this day in 1952. It was the British De Havilland Comet. The British were the first to develop jet technology, apart from the Germans, whose jet engine development was halted at the end of World War II. The De Havilland company was founded by the British aircraft engineer and pilot Geoffrey de Havilland back in 1920.
The first passenger flight using the De Havilland Comet took place on the London-Johannesburg line. It was a revolutionary concept since jet propulsion allowed the Comet to travel 50-60% faster than the most advanced propeller aircraft of that time (e.g. the DC-6). Even the new British queen Elizabeth II decided to fly aboard the Comet, personally accompanied by Geoffrey de Havilland.
In 1952 and 1953 it seemed the Comet would achieve a great commercial success, especially since it didn’t have real competition in the field of jet-propelled passenger aircraft. However, a series of catastrophic accidents prevented this. First, a Comet failed to take off and ran into rough ground at the end of a runway in Rome. There were no deaths, but the plane was rendered completely inoperable. Next, a Comet in Pakistan also failed to become airborne and collided with an embankment. This time all 11 people aboard were killed. Aircraft companies started cancelling orders for the Comet.
Another severe accident occurred in May 1953 near Calcutta, India. A Comet crashed and resulted in the death of 43 people. The event occurred precisely on the anniversary of the Comet’s first flight. An inquiry was ordered and resulted in the adoption of stricter speed limits during turbulence and the introduction of “artificial feel” devices in aircraft. More accidents occurred nonetheless, showing the Comet to be a revolutionary but dangerous product.