I ask you to witness the sad little fleet dock in the port of Azzuro (above), on Elba's eastern shore. It is some 7 hours since Yoke Peter fell into the cold Tyrrhenian Sea, and dusk is settling over the strait of Piombino - 10 January, 1954. From the trawler Francesco Guiseppe they carry the pale corpse of a 10 or 11 year old boy, strapped atop a wooden plank and covered by a fresh white sheet. The somber fishermen then carry off the body Jean Evelyn Clark, a 29 year old stewardess.
She is followed by a procession of 12 more shroud draped bodies up the dirt road and into the stone fortress of Chiesa di San Giacomo Maggiore (above).
In the fort's small, austere, baroque chapel the burdens are laid before the altar.
Candles are lighted and prayers are intoned. And if the spirits of the dead should have awakened, they must have been surprised to find themselves in such a dark sanctuary, such a long way from the cold thin air so close to heaven where they died.
Because de Havilland had built Britain's second jet fighter, the single engine Vampire (which went into service in April of 1945), they believed they were uniquely qualified to build the Trans-Atlantic passenger jets envisioned by the Brabazon Committee. However these would require a range of over 3,000 miles. And the second generation Ghost engines burned 3 – 4 times more fuel at 10,000 feet than conventional internal combustion engines, putting New York well beyond their range. So the cautious de Havilland company decided to approach trans-Atlantic flights in stages.
The Comet 1 would establish profitable routes tying the the British empire together, with flights between London and Singapore or South Africa.
These largely overland routes would allow refueling stops every thousand miles or so, over well established paths, using already established ground facilities. Once the Comet was proven and the three times more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon engines had completed their testing, de Havilland would build the larger transcontinental Comet 2, and then the even larger Comet 3. So from the beginning the Comet 1 and it's Ghost engines were envisioned as test beds.
Throughout 1947 and 1948 de Havilland subjected the Comet fuselage and its over-sized square windows (above) to twice anticipated pressures, through 16,000 cycles from sea level to 36,000 feet and back, simulating over 40,000 service hours.
Since each rivet holding the Comet's aluminum skin required a hole be punched, the decision was made to use the adhesive “Redux”, proven in combat on the plywood fighter/bomber, the Mosquito. It would be used on the Comet primarily “...to affix stiffening...to wing and fuselage panels, the resulting panel being both stronger and lighter than a riveted structure.” After all this was tested and proven, the design was finalized and built.
Not until after three years of testing did the Comet fly. The test pilot John Cunningham described this marvel of modern technology as “Very promising. Very quick.” British Overseas Aircraft Company bought 8 Comet 1's.
Air France (above) bought a pair, South African Airways bought another two, as did Canadian Pacific Airways. And the American giant, Pan American World Airways, signed up to buy three of the Comet 3s, with an option to buy 7 more the following year. With each Comet sold abroad representing over half a million pounds in badly needed foreign currency, and with “eight BOAC Comets leaving London each week: three to Johannesburg, two to Tokyo, two to Singapore and one to Colombo”, by the summer of 1953 it seemed the Comet was indeed a revolution in passenger travel.
However there were some annoying problems. The vacuum tubes in the navigation system tended to overheat. The cockpit's windows would occasionally fog over. And the seals on the hydraulic control system, which powered the flaps and tail rudder, were faulty on the first four Comets. Crews solved this problem by carry extra cans of fluid, and would top off the system whenever they spotted fluid on the tarmac.
And then there those under powered Ghost engines. In late October 1952 a BOAC Comet taking off from Rome, Yoke Zebra, failed to reach V-2, the speed at which pilots would lift the nose to become airborne. Unable to lift up or stop, Yoke Zebra overran the runway and broke the landing gear (above). Pilot Peter Duffrey, who had flown the Comet into Rome, found Yoke Zebra, “... just sitting there hissing – it (had) ripped the belly tank out and there was fuel everywhere.” Luckily there was no fire and no loss of life.
But Duffrey diagnosed the problem immediately. The pilot had raised the nose too high after liftoff, and stalled the aircraft. But the pilot was not helped by the hydraulic system. Duffrey noted, “...the lack of feedback on the controls...allowed you to pull-back as much as you wanted.” That made it easy to stall the aircraft.
That mistake was repeated on 3 March 1953 during the unladen delivery flight of a Canadian Pacific Comet, this time just after lifting off from Calcutta. This time all six crew members and the six passengers on board were killed. A week later a Comet test flight out of Karachi, Pakistan, stalled after lift off and slammed into a stone bridge, killing 11 technicians and crew. This crash cost de Havilland the second Comet the Canadians had ordered but not yet taken delivery on.
Then, in June, it happened again, this time in Dakar, Senegal. Said Duffrey, “As pilots we were becoming very concerned.” In response, new take-off instructions were issued to pilots, and in all future Comets modifications would be made to the wings, and all future Comets would be fitted with weather radars.
Then had come the Yoke Victor tragedy over Jagalgori, India (above). It had been blamed on the weather, but pilot error had not been ruled out. Nor had sabotage. There were a lot of people in Asia and Africa who had an grudge with the British Empire. And a lot of older pilots were suspicious about those new hydraulic controls. And now there was this new disaster over the Tyrryenian Sea. The negative publicity was certain to kill desperately needed sales.
With 24 hours of prodding from Arnold Alexander Hall (above), Director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, both de Havilland and BOAC agreed to temporarily ground all Comets. Hall then opened a comprehensive investigation, which began by looking for nefarious causes and actors.
Admiral Louis Francis Mountbatten (above), 1st Earl of Burma and Commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, was ordered to recover as much of Yoke Peter as possible.
However the Comet tragedy coincided with a series of devastating 7.0 and above earthquakes in Greece, which followed the ruinous Greek Civil War. Mountbatten was also the NATO commander in the Med and in that role, the fragile state of Greek politics and economics made relief efforts the priority over Comet recovery.
It was not easy. One engineer, viewing the search through a primitive video system, described the ocean bottom as looking “as though someone had upended a waste-paper basket”. Still, by 15 March – 65 days after the crash – the Royal Navy had recovered a large section of the front of the fuselage and part of the wings. Four days later they had recovered all 4 Ghost engines. If anyone had noticed the similarity in the way Yoke Peter had broken apart in January and the the pattern Yoke Victor had fallen from the sky 7 months earlier, they were not talking in public.