The Comet Affair

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

Air & Space Magazine

ON MAY 3, 1952, THE COOL QUIET OF AN ENGLISH MORNING WAS BROKEN BY FOUR JET ENGINES screaming to life. A brand-new airliner was about to make history, inaugurating the world’s first commercial jet service. sleek, fast, and wholly without peer, the comet, owned by british overseas airways corporation, held 36 business executives, luxury travelers, and distinguished guests of the airline and the airplane manufacturer, de havilland aircraft. the comet’s maIden voyage: a multi-stop journey from england to south africa.

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It was a flight that signaled a new age of travel. The Comet’s four Rolls-Royce Ghost jet engines, each of which provided 5,000 pounds of thrust, nearly halved the time needed to fly from one end of the British Empire to the other, reducing travel time from London to Johannesburg from 36 hours to 23. With speeds like that, BOAC’s chairman, Sir Thomas Miles, boasted, “New Yorkers will be able to take a swim in Bermuda and dry themselves at home.”

Unprecedented speed was only half the Comet’s allure. The aircraft’s engines, advanced aerodynamic design, and the relatively new technology of cabin pressurization enabled it to climb high above inclement weather—nearly twice as high as most airliners of the day—and cruise through skies of unprecedented calm. When the first group of voyagers stepped onto Johannesburg’s Palmieterfontein Field—surrounded by 20,000 spectators lined up to witness the arrival—one young woman questioned by reporters paid the airplane the ultimate compliment: During the flight, she had fallen asleep.

The following year, BOAC began to equip a second generation of Comets with Avon engines. Unlike the Ghosts, which used centrifugal flow, the Rolls-Royce Avon employed an axial-flow design, which shot air directly through the engine, a more efficient arrangement. Airlines from around the world lined up to purchase the Avon-powered craft.

British policymakers were hopeful that Comet sales would help give the nation the economic boost it needed in the years following World War II. Duncan Sandy, the United Kingdom’s supply minister, wrote to Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “On whether we grasp this opportunity [for extensive Comet sales] and so establish firmly an industry of the utmost strategic and economic importance, our future as a great nation may to no small extent depend.”

That goal would not prove easily achieved. The United States objected to the sales, citing concerns that lax airline security in foreign nations offered innumerable opportunities for Communist agents to steal the technological secrets of the Avon. And with Avon-like engines affixed to their wings, Soviet airplanes might gain the range and the payload capacity to launch, for the first time, atomic strikes against the United States.

Theoretically, propeller-driven Soviet bombers operating from secret airfields far above the Arctic Circle could already hit most major U.S. targets (at least during the six months of the year the airfields were not iced in). But those lumbering airplanes would be pushed to the limit of their one-way range; they didn’t pose nearly as big a threat as long-range jet bombers capable of outflying U.S. defenses and returning safely home.

The United States had another reason to fear British technology ending up in Soviet aircraft. It had happened before.

“How Mad We Are!”
Pressed with mounting debts at the end of World War II, Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s government had offered to sell any Royal Air Force airplane to any nation with the cash.

The British Air Ministry had reassured Attlee that it “did not worry about selling its best warplanes abroad.” The technical prowess of British manufacturers was so great that RAF warplanes would surely always outpace Soviet Bloc designs, and indeed, Rolls-Royce was already working on engines far more powerful than the Nene and Derwent. According to the British Air Ministry, “Rolls-Royce are confident that they will be able to keep several steps ahead of any country” to whom they sold an engine. From both military and commercial perspectives, Britain felt secure.

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