The Comet Affair
Why the cold war forced the British government to choose between keeping a friend and arming an enemy.
- By Jeffrey A. Engel
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
Rolls Royce (SI Neg. #90-9560)
(Page 4 of 6)
The Allure of the Avon
The speed with which the Soviets had copied the U.S. B-29s and the British Nenes naturally made the U.S. military worry: If Comets were now to be sold to other nations, the aircraft’s Avon engines might eventually end up in Soviet hands too, and be duplicated.
Nonetheless, the possibility did little to temper Britain’s enthusiasm for marketing the Comet. “Provided the aircraft are not sold to a Communist country, we are simply not concerned who the buyer is,” the Foreign Office’s Philip de Zulueta told a colleague. British jets had an enormous lead over their closest rival—the first U.S. jetliners were not expected to carry passengers until 1957 at the earliest. No one in Britain wanted to give up that advantage without a fight.
Charged by Churchill with finding a solution to this delicate problem, a Cabinet committee “weighed the security risk against the country’s economic advantage and need” and “concluded that safeguards could be imposed which would reduce the security risk sufficiently to warrant the sales of these engines or aircraft, thus enabling us to reap the economic advantages of our technical lead.” The safeguards included five major points:
• No airplane powered by, or carrying, a Comet engine could ever fly to, or over, Communist-held territory.
• All scheduled maintenance work, for the engine’s first 18 months of service, must be carried out by British technicians, and on British territory.
• All engine maintenance staff employed overseas must be screened for security.
• All spare engines to be sent abroad must be shipped in British vessels.
• Any spare engines held outside the United Kingdom must be maintained in a British territory, and can be flown to foreign territory only when essential. When housed in a foreign country, the engine must be contained in a building owned and supervised by the British.
Officials initially considered mandating that spare engines held overseas be chain-locked to the floor, the key held only by a British embassy official, but they concluded that this requirement was excessive.
But the safeguards weren’t enough for Washington policymakers, who balked at placing U.S. national security in the hands of a BOAC or Air France. Airlines, by their nature, cared more about profits than precautions. U.S. diplomats declared that Britain had a duty to protect U.S. security, especially after the Nene transaction. President Dwight Eisenhower’s aides buttressed their arguments by citing an obscure 1949 British-U.S. accord that was called the Burns-Templer Agreement; according to its terms, because Avon technology had been developed partly through U.S. assistance and cooperation, the United States deserved a say in whether it should be sold.
“It is virtually certain that the U.S. would not agree to our planned exports of Comets to foreign countries,” Sir Harold Alexander, the Ministry of Defence, warned Churchill. “Their agreement would be necessary before we could put these aircraft into service on our own British airlines!” Another diplomat railed: “To accept American ideas about security of advanced jet engines would cripple our aircraft industry.”
The U.S. aircraft industry, on the other hand, could actually profit from the restrictions, providing firms such as Boeing and Douglas time to catch up to de Havilland. Neither U.S. company had yet even to fly a prototype jet airliner. In a brief moment of candor, John C. Elliott, a U.S. diplomat in charge of negotiating the Comet affair, chatting with the British ambassador, confided that his negotiators were “under pressure from their own aircraft industry” to restrict Britain’s Comet sales.