LONDON — Over the course of Oct. 4, several thousand people will hop aboard an airplane and make the hours-long trip between New York City and London. Few, however, are likely to notice that their flight coincides with the 60th anniversary of jet-powered flight across the Atlantic.
British Airways marked the occasion on Wednesday, at a small gathering at their headquarters outside of London’s Heathrow International Airport.
The airline, then known as BOAC – or British Overseas Airways Corporation – piloted two de Havilland Comet 4s across the ocean on Oct. 4, 1958. One flew New York to London nonstop, while the other flew London to New York, with a stop in Newfoundland to refuel.
The British-built airplane flew at speeds of over 500 mph, a full 150 mph faster than the next fastest airplane of its day.
“It was so exciting,” recalled former BOAC Comet 4 flight attendant Peggy Thorne of the first flight. Mrs. Thorne was hand-picked to work the very first Comet flight between New York and London.
Overnight, flight times across the Atlantic dropped dramatically. Ocean crossings in even the fastest piston aircraft of the time, such as the Douglas DC-7 and Lockheed Super Constellation, typically took well over 15 hours. Other aircraft, such as Boeing’s Stratocruiser, took even longer.
“On the Stratocruiser it had taken us 20 hours to get across the Atlantic,” said Mrs. Thorne. “Then all of a sudden there was somebody saying our flight time would be approximately six hours and 10 minutes. It was incredible,” she said.
Even in the opposite direction, flying into the wind between London and New York, the jet made the trip in a comparatively fast 10 hours.
The achievement would later earn it a nickname as the Concorde of its day, referring to the iconic supersonic airliner that would halve Comet’s record-setting speed only a decade later.
For the flight crews, that suddenly shorter flight time often meant making some adjustments to their usual in-flight routines.
“We hadn’t finished serving the food!,” said Mrs. Thorne of the first Comet flight. “Breakfast ran into morning refreshments, which ran into lunch, and by that time we were on the ground in London. They ate and drank from when they got on board until the time they got off,” she said.
While flight crews might have found themselves strapped for time, passengers found themselves strapped in for a luxury experience the likes of which the world hadn’t seen before. “It was such a novelty,” said Mrs. Thorne.
The jets sat a whopping 48 passengers at first, split between first-class and deluxe-class cabins. Menus included cocktails and canapes, five-course lunches, petit fours and an entire afternoon tea service.
Besides the stellar service and astonishing speed, jets provided a substantially smoother ride than their piston predecessors. For one, the Comet could fly much higher at 40,000 feet, often well above the weather that other aircraft had to fly through. The engines themselves ran much more smoothly, without any of the hiccups and jostling common in piston airplanes.
The ticket cost flew about as high as the jet itself. British Airways said the first tickets cost in excess of $10,000 in today’s U.S. dollars (consider that an average U.S.-to-London ticket today is closer to $500), making air travel an enclave of only the very wealthiest of people.
“We had such a wonderful passenger load. They all wanted to be on the first jet service,” said Mrs. Thorne.
Not everyone, however, was quite so thrilled.
“Pan American was not very impressed with this,” said former BOAC Comet navigator and pilot Hugh Dibley. The iconic American airline, anticipating the arrival of Comet’s early rival, the Boeing 707, had been heavily advertising itself as the first jet service across the pond for weeks.
“The airport authorities at Idlewild (now New York JFK) just needed noise clearance tests on takeoff,” said Mrs. Thorne. “They were playing cat and mouse with us and Pan Am, who wanted to get ahead.”
In a surprising last-minute move, officials in New York unexpectedly cleared the Comet for service on Oct. 3. BOAC wasted no time, launching the flights the very next day. When the first flight arrived in New York from London, onlookers reportedly booed the passengers and crew as they left the jet.
The Comet’s first commercial trans-Atlantic flight was also a victory for its maker, de Havilland. The British aircraft manufacturer had pioneered the Comet 1 some six years earlier, in 1952, making it the very first commercially produced passenger jetliner in the world.
Initially it flew routes from Europe to Africa or what was then described as the Far East, hop-scotching across continents on flights typically under five hours. Even still, the Comet cut airborne travel times down from a week to a few days.
But the Comet’s reign came to an abrupt end after a series of mid-air explosions grounded the jets worldwide after only two years of service. Investigators discovered that the airplane’s unusually thin fuselage skin and square windows were no match for the intense demands of high-altitude pressurization. Cracks, whose roots traced back to the manufacturing itself, grew until the airplanes literally fell apart mid-flight.
Committed to a comeback, engineers were forced to completely redesign the Comet. They churned through a handful of paper iterations before settling on the rounded windows, much more powerful engines, and thicker skin of the Comet 4.
For airlines looking to buy, the changes would not prove enough. During the four-year gap between grounding and the introduction of the Comet 4, U.S.-based manufacturers Boeing and Douglas had had ample time to catch up. Boeing unveiled the 707 in 1957, a jet that would go on to define the early jet age, while Douglas rolled out the venerable DC-8, which first flew in May of 1958. The two went on to handily crush the Comet, in terms of sales.
Both jets “could carry more passengers, had more range, and flew faster at an economical speed,” said Dibley. “There was no doubt,” he said, that the Comet just couldn’t compete.
Even the Comet’s reign as the only passenger jet across the Atlantic was short-lived. Pan Am launched the Boeing 707 only three weeks later, between New York City and Paris. BOAC itself retired the Comet from its fleet in the mid-1960s, replacing it with – you guessed it – the 707.