The Life & Times of John Wheater(Farnborough, Wokingham, Bristol, Toronto, Farnham) .

John Wheater 12Jul24 (this page updated 23Nov12)

The De Havilland Comet

In the olden days people were carried in aeroplanes with propellers, which were noisy and rattled your teeth.

In 1952 the Comet changed this for ever, when it started carrying people in a jet-engined aeroplane for the first time . It had no propellers, and was smooth and quiet. Unluckily, though, it was unsafe, and, two years later, after five fatal crashes, was withdrawn from service.

The romance and tragedy of these events has been extensively described, for example here. G-ALYP

As an RAE apprentice in 1954, I worked on the investigation prompted by the last of the crashes.
G-ALYP (pictured here) ended up in the sea off Elba in January 1954. After another Comet crashed in April, much of the wreckage of YP was recovered, taken to Farnborough, and hung piece by piece on a wooden framework.

The Head of the Accident Investigation Department was E L Ripley. His staff were: Fred Jones, Joe Almond, Bell, and others (including a German mathematician - we got a lot of stuff from Germany after the war, including a giant iron circular slide rule, though this chap was flesh & blood). One day when we were all sitting round, Bell said "We really must do something, the whole country's waiting for an answer". And that was true. The country had not then realised that 'Great Power' was no longer our role. Many aircraft firms still existed, employed large numbers, and received a lot of public money. The country had been proud of the Comet, and the papers were full of it.

"One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic". Aeroplanes then did not carry all that many. Here is a list of all thirty-five (no survivors) on board Yoke Peter, homeward bound from Singapore, last landed at Rome:

PASSENGERS - 1. Mr J P Hill (B.O.A.C. staff), of Singapore; 2. Mr J Steel, of George Wimpey and Co., of London. 3. Mr F J Greenhouse, of Horley, Surrey; 4. Master R Sawyer-Snelling (14), son of B.O.A.C. staff , of Bangkok; 5. Captain R V Wolfson (B.O.A.C. staff) of Bishop's Stortford, Herts. 6. Mr Chester Wilmot, of Aylesbury. 7. Mrs Dorothy Baker. of Wilmette, Illinois, United States; 8. Mr H E Schuchmann (American), of the Macmillan Company of New York. 9. Mr Bernard Butler, of Blidworth Notts: 10. Miss N Khedouri (15) and 11. Miss R Khedouri (13) of Bahrain: 12. Mr J Bunyan, 13. Mrs A Bunyan, and 14. child, of Stirling; 15. Mr J B Crilly (B.O.A.C. staff) and 16. Brenda Crilly, child, of Bahrain; 17. Miss L Yateen (17), of Bahrain; 18. Mrs K E Geldard, wife of B.O.A.C. staff, 19. Miss G Geldard, and 20. Master Geldard, of Beirut; 21. Mr S Naamin, of Damascus; 22. Mrs E S MacLachlan, wife of B.O.A.C. staff, of Cairo; 23. Mr J Y Ramsden, of Shell Petroleum Company, Beirut. 24. Captain C A Livingstone (B.E.A. captain), of Stirling. 25. A Crisp, 26. Miss E Fairbrother, 27. a passenger named Israel, 28. Mr D Leaver 29. Mr T S H Moore.

CREW - 1. Captain Alan Gibson D.F.C. (31), 2. First Officer WJ Bury, 3. Engineer Officer FC McDonald, 4. Radio Officer LP McMahon, 5. Steward FL Saunders, 6. Stewardess Jean Evelyn Clark.

Some remains of these people were still in the wreckage, and had been since January. It was thus a bit smelly. Joe said to me once "A bit of Chester Wilmot I expect" as I removed a heavy sock. Wilmot was the best-known victim, a BBC War Correspondent who documented his experience in "Struggle For Europe".

And we found letters, some still legible, which duly passed on to the last stage of their curious history :- into the official mail bag, blown out of the sky, down to the bottom of the sea, wait for three months, brought up, off to the hangar at Farnborough, found by a curious technician, back to the Post Office, delivered.

Disasters often provoke speculations of conspiracy and cover-up. One such for the Comet is here. The author loses credibility when he tells us the A in RAE stands for Armament.

The work at the Accident Investigation Department, which I described above, was only a part, maybe a minor part as it turned out, of the work carried out in many parts of the RAE. But in human terms it was certainly the most dramatic. Many departments were involved, including whoever set up the water tank (see below) which yielded the answer. Tony Brooks reminded me of this recently (September 07) when he recalled his work in the department he was passing through. It was thought that a pump might not turn off at the right time after refuelling, and that the tank might thus become stressed. So he was involved in pumping in fuel and measuring the forces generated.

By coincidence, just before Tony called, I had been reminded of these things by an email from Brian Miller, who had seen a documentary on these events, and wrote:

"I watched a documentary last night on the 2 Comet crashes in 1954 (why the hell did they ever let it back in the air after the first?)"

He also suggested that Britain had been unlucky to 'lose the lead' in airliner development. The following is a slightly edited version of my reply:

Well, um, yes, as you know from my web page, I am very interested in the Comet investigation.

You may remember that jet engines work best high up; the Comet was the first jet to carry passengers, and the first to fly high doing so. Passengers need to breathe normally, so the Comet was the first to impose high pressures on the cabin, which thus went through regular cycles of compression. That would have been OK, indeed was OK for many years in the later versions, but for the stress concentrations at those pesky corners.

Much of the RAE was committed to the investigation. There was a flight test programme (unpressurised), the water tank, and the efforts in the regular Accident Investigation Department, where I spent my four weeks. I suppose all were looking for an answer.

The water tank & the metallurgists brought home the bacon, and all has been well since.

I don't agree that we 'lost the lead' because of the Comet. The Americans were for many years streets ahead of everyone in making stuff - still are in many ways - and would have rolled over even a safe Comet, with its pathetic payload.

The Comet was a most staggeringly beautiful machine, as was the Hunter, just two of the new types that flooded into the SBAC show every year of those five.

But the Comet, yes, why wasnít it grounded sooner (there were more than two fatal crashes, actually)? It was because nobody knew the cause; as soon as the cause was known, its ticket was withdrawn. (Actually it was grounded before it was known, after Rome). And nobody knew the cause, because it was a new cause Ė pressure fatigue.

Maybe, people thought, it was sabotage, or lightning, or loose turbine blades; all sorts of pathetic (as we saw later) and expensive measures were taken after Elba, before it flew again. Remember, itís not as though it had just been flogged to BOAC after a quick circuit round Hatfield. But the problem was not discoverable by any of the tests; what bad luck, damn bad luck eh Uxbridge? that the problem showed up, inexorably, only after a certain number of compression cycles.

Good luck, though, for future aircraft, that the payload of fatalities was so low, and that the Elba wreckage was in shallow water. And then, and then...It was so beautiful, such a marvellous achievement, the very first, so clean, after the war, so quiet, so luxurious, the new Queen, Everest.

The country believed in the Comet, as I suppose we believed in ourselves; itís been exhaustively tested, it flies beautifully, but it falls out of the sky; why? why? whatís going on? It is in this atmosphere that your question must be considered.

John Wheater - John.Wheater@gmail.com

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