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The Comet Affair

Why the cold war forced the British government to choose between keeping a friend and arming an enemy.

Not only were U.S. fliers outnumbered by MiGs, they were frequently outmatched as well, especially at high altitudes (see “To Snatch a Sabre,” June/July 2003). The Soviet airplanes were designed for speed and for swooping down on enemy bomber formations from well above 40,000 feet. “We couldn’t touch you if you wanted to get high enough, and you could outrun us,” Risner told a Soviet ace nearly 30 years after the war. “But if we got you below 20,000 feet, we’d eat your lunch.”

Comparisons are difficult to come to a conclusion about, as the two aircraft were designed for distinctly different purposes: the Soviet as a bomber-interceptor, the American as a dogfighter. “I could make ace in a day flying a MiG just by picking off stragglers trying to come and get me” at 50,000 feet, claims Colonel Stephen Bettinger, a Sabre pilot who did make ace during the war.

In the end, it may well have been better training and a stronger command that helped the U.S. pilots achieve a higher kill ratio.

One thing remains certain: The Soviet fighter would never have had a realistic chance of gaining air superiority over Korea had it not first gotten a British-built engine.

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.

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