Enter the Jetliner

Virtually every aeroplane enthusiast knows that the first commercial jet aircraft was the de Havilland Comet. Making its first flight in July 1949 and entering service with BOAC in May 1952, the Comet was revolutionary. Before the Comet, passenger flights were undertaken in a ‘propliner’, many of them designs that had proliferated as transport aircraft in the Second World War (the DC-3, for example), or civil aircraft largely derived from bombers (such as the Avro York). That meant relatively slow, noisy and somewhat uncomfortable flights, down amid the weather.

Comet Prototype at Hatfield

Comet Prototype at Hatfield, unlikely birthplace of the Jet Age

Desiring to break the American domination of air transport (in 1939 the Douglas DC-3 was carrying 90% of all airline passengers), de Havilland undertook the challenge of producing the world’s first jet airliner. As a whole new class of aircraft, getting it into the air in just four years was an engineering feat.

Relatively few people know that a rival, larger jet airliner lifted into the air just thirteen days after the Comet’s first flight, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

And it wasn’t American… but Canadian.

Avro Canada’s C102 Jetliner was a world-beater. During route proving trials it flew all over North America, breaking just about every passenger transport performance record there was – and it was the first jet to carry airmail. Several US airlines were terrifically impressed by the Jetliner, and repeatedly expressed interest in buying some. Even the United States Air Force wanted to buy a fleet of twenty…

Advertisement for the Jetliner

Advertisement for the Jetliner (Flight Global archive)

Then on June 25th 1950, the Korean War began. Avro Canada was also developing military aircraft including the CF-100 Canuck fighter and with the demands of the Cold War forcing Canada to expand its military, work on the Jetliner was shelved. Howard Hughes was desperate to acquire some Jetliners for TWA and suggested building them under license. Convair was keen to do the work, but the Canadian government insisted that the Jetliner must not be a distraction.

Howard Hughes and the Jetliner

Do those look like the trousers of a billionaire to you? Howard Hughes and the Jetliner.

Despite being almost complete, the second Jetliner prototype was scrapped – and after seven years of service (much of it flying in support of the CF-100 programme) the first and only Jetliner was declared surplus to requirements. It was donated to the National Research Council, but they didn’t have room for it so it was cut up. Its only legacy would be the word jetliner – long afterwards used to describe any jet passenger aircraft.

Avro Canada C-102 Jetliner

Jetliner

The Comet didn’t fare much better: not long after they entered service, metal fatigue caused several Comets to break up in mid-air: their large, square windows concentrating the stresses acting upon the skin of the aircraft as it was pressurised on ascent, and then depressurised on descent. Commercial flights of the redesigned Comet wouldn’t resume until 1958, and while the Comet 4 addressed the flaws in the original design, it had largely been denied its opportunity.

By then, Boeing had finally got in on the act and developed their 707. They came late to the party, but they cleaned up – with 1,010 built between 1958 and 1979. For comparison, de Havilland only produced 114 Comets. Being a larger aircraft, the 707 carried more paying passengers, and was therefore more attractive, economically.

Boeing 707

Boeing 707

The technical problems that did so much to harm the Comet are all too common in ambitious projects that set out to effect a revolutionary change within an industry, but the political problems that destroyed the Jetliner are far harder to anticipate. The history of the aerospace industry is littered with project cancellations that remain contentious to this day, such as the British Aircraft Corporation’s TSR-2, or Avro Canada’s CF-105 Arrow. (Yes: Avro Canada again.)

Politics. It seems that little ‘P’ in your PESTLE analysis is every bit as hard to predict as wing flutter in a high-performance aircraft.

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