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De Havilland Comet - The plane that changed the world

In October we shall be publishing James Carlton's new book: De Havilland Comet, The plane that changed the world.

Here is a brief extract from the opening pages:

"Four years after the end of the Second World War, at a small airfield in Hertfordshire, a brief event marked the greatest advance in aviation since the Wright brothers. The prototype of de Havilland’s Comet airliner took off, climbed to ten thousand feet, carried out some simple manoeuvres and safely returned 30 minutes later. The press, who had already gone home, missed the most important first flight in British history. We had entered the Jet Age; the world had been shrunk and Britain would soon reap massive benefits to be followed by tragedy and loss. Seventy years later, the Comet’s legacy still reverberates. The British would continue to produce technically brilliant but commercially unsuccessful long-range airliners until 2002, since when we have not built any large, complete, civil aircraft at all.

Britain’s failure to profitably exploit her two great technical breakthroughs of the war: Frank Whittle’s jet engine and Alan Turing’s computer, were part of a wider decline in manufacturing and engineering which may never be reversed. This book will retell the Comet story in the light of new information on the tragic accidents which befell the Comet 1, and the missed opportunities which blighted the later designs.

Two British prodigies: Frank Whittle and Alan Turing, designed and built the most important inventions of World War Two. Both had to overcome indifference, and even outright hostility to their work, and both were poorly treated by their country. Whittle, who had suffered two nervous breakdowns from his struggles to get funding and facilities, ended his days in the USA as a research professor.

Throughout his life he remained bitter about the treatment he had received from the British Government and some parts of British industry. Turing fared even worse: having agreed to be chemically castrated following a conviction for homosexuality, he later committed suicide.  Whittle received a knighthood in 1948 while Turing was granted a pardon in 2013 and recently appeared on a British bank note. In 2002, a BBC poll of the 100 greatest Britons ranked Turing at 21 and Whittle at 42.

Whittle had successfully run a prototype of his jet engine as early as 1937 but, thanks to government indifference, jet-powered military aircraft did not enter service early enough to materially affect the war, and a huge opportunity was lost. One area where the government did show some foresight, however, was in recognising, early in the war, that there would be an urgent need for new transport aircraft following peace.

In 1942, Winston Churchill had travelled to the Moscow Conference in the unheated bomb bay of a Consolidated Liberator bomber - the prime minister’s freezingly uncomfortable journey had helped concentrate his mind on the need for better transport aircraft. He later talked to Sir Stafford Cripps, the Minister of Aircraft Production, and his predecessor Lord Brabazon, both of whom recognised the danger that Britain could end the war with a serious lack of good transport aircraft.  Worse  still,   American  firms would be able to produce civilian aircraft based upon military designs; and Britain would end up being forced to buy them.

Later that year, the influential magazine Flight wrote in an editorial: ‘The whole British Empire at the present time has an operational fleet of transport aircraft, comprising conversions, makeshifts and cast-offs, totally inadequate to represent the Empire in serving the air routes of the world in the peace to come. Have we to rely upon other nations to do it for us? The British aircraft industry is equal to the task. The Government should decide this vital question at once.’ In the best of British traditions, a committee was formed under Brabazon’s chairmanship, and we are living with its conclusions to this day.

Geoffrey de Havilland was an early recruit to the Committee. Then 60 years old, de Havilland was one of the world's greatest aeronautical engineers and his de Havilland Aircraft Company had built what was arguably the best and certainly the most versatile military design of the war: the DH.98 Mosquito. At that time there was still a widespread belief that jet engines were only suitable for military aircraft, being too noisy and thirsty to have any practical civilian use. De Havilland disagreed, and began to push the Committee towards a purely jet-powered civil airliner.

De Havilland was no ordinary businessman; early in his career he had been chief designer for the Airco company, producing a series of machines which all bore the prefix DH, and were used in large numbers during World War One. When Airco was sold to BSA, de Havilland started his own business and quickly became successful, especially with the Moth family of aircraft which were built and sold in the thousands and became standard trainers for the RAF and many other air forces. His DH88 racer, also called Comet, won the 1934 England to Australia air race and helped cement de Havilland’s reputation for innovative high-speed aircraft. At the beginning of the Second World War the de Havilland company used their own money to develop their ‘Wooden Wonder,’ the celebrated Mosquito which, despite initial scepticism from the government, became one of the most successful and adaptable military aircraft of the era.

De Havilland finally persuaded the Brabazon committee to back the idea of a trans-Atlantic, jet-powered, civil aircraft, but the initial proposal was for a small plane which would carry mail and only six passengers. He continued to press for a larger aircraft and the Type IV, as it was then designated, eventually evolved into a jet-powered, 100-seat high-speed transport. The first production contract, for both the aircraft and the engines was given to the Handley Page company, but it soon became clear that they were struggling with the huge technical challenges and the contract was transferred to de Havilland in February 1945.

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