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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.

“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.

The pressure wasn’t enough. Churchill’s cabinet unanimously rejected the idea of letting the United States restrict Comet sales. Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary and future prime minister, explained: “Our economic needs differ from theirs [the Americans] and must be given full weight. We cannot afford to refrain from earning foreign currency, provided adequate security arrangements are made.”

Still, the decision hadn’t been easy. Britain worried that seeming uninterested in U.S. security could destroy Anglo-American cooperation, the bonds of language, kinship, and mutual security often termed the “Special Relationship” upon which Britain’s foreign policy rested. The United States and the United Kingdom had been the closest of allies through two world wars, and each expected much of the other.

The British decided to defend their decision by going on the counterattack. They had learned that the Pentagon was planning to sell advanced fighters—most likely F-86s—with axial-flow engines, similar to the Avon, to air forces throughout western Europe. London charged that these NATO militaries were rife with Communist sympathizers. Indeed, according to a series of British Treasury Office documents declassified in 1999, analysts believed that if France’s military got these U.S. aircraft, there would be “a definite risk” of the Soviets’ acquiring an engine, and that giving Avons to Italy or Denmark would “in our opinion lead almost inevitably to compromise of the engines to the Russians.” One British analyst even said that it would be safer to land a British Comet in Moscow’s Red Square than to give such engines to the Italian air force.

If Washington was willing to jeopardize its own security this way, the British declared, then surely it had no grounds for objecting to the British selling Comets to other nations.

In a nation dominated by the cold war and McCarthyism, such arguments failed to impress. The British were selling Comets merely for profit, the Americans retorted. The Pentagon was selling aircraft to protect the entire free world.

The Soviets’ Big Surprise
In 1954, London decided to proceed with its Comet export plans. The U.S. state department prepared the Congress for another round of startling revelations: Britain was once more about to sell airplanes that could eventually aid the enemy. U.S. officials were hard at work putting the finishing touches on their damning brief when, in an instant, the entire debate changed forever.

The report that filtered into London was brief but clear. On January 10, 1954, a BOAC Comet had exploded only minutes after departing from Rome. Of the 35 passengers and crew members on board, none had survived. No explanation was available. The same thing had happened to a Comet flight out of Calcutta the previous year: Though the airplane reported no difficulties beforehand, it suddenly burst into a fireball, and 43 lost their lives. Less than four months after the Rome accident, a third Comet exploded, again only minutes after takeoff. This time 21 died.

After the third explosion, London’s Air Ministry immediately ordered Comets throughout the world grounded. Years of investigations (entailing raising one of the broken airplanes from the ocean floor) in time proved an unexpected culprit: metal fatigue, combined with problems in the new technology of cabin pressurization. Years of work would be needed to solve these complex, unforeseen problems—years that saw Britain’s lead over its U.S. rivals disappear.

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