It was on this day – Thursday 2nd May 1952 – that the world’s first passenger jet service from London to Johannesburg took off. It was a BOAC De Havilland Comet Yoke Peter with 36 fare-paying passengers on board. The journey was some 7,000 miles with stops at Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone. At Beirut and Khartoum there was a total change of crew. That first part of the journey was piloted by Captain A M Majendie who signed and presented each passenger with a First Flight Certificate. A single, one-way flight ticket, cost £175 with an out-and-back ticket costing £315 – a £35 reduction for the trip. These prices were the same as on a BOAC piston engine flight – but that flight took around 28 hours. The total flight for Comet Yoke Peter took a shade under 24 hours to complete!
On Saturday 2nd May 1953 – exactly one year after Yoke Peter had made the trip – a Comet flew into a major tropical storm near Calcutta and crashed. The Indian Government’s Inquiry decided that the cause was either failure of the structure, or loss of control, through the severity of the storm. Only a few of the fragments of the plane that had been recovered were sent back to Britain’s Royal Aircraft Establishment [BRAE]. The rest had been ‘disposed of’ so the BRAE had minimal resources to consider the possible causes of the crash.
None-the-less, the checking, researching and developing of the Comets continued. The tests on the cabin structure were so harsh that they did finally have a failure of the surface skin at the corner of a window. The resulting checks deduced that this would only happen long after the life of the aircraft was over. It would not affect any aircraft in service.
While all this research and so-forth was going on, Comet York Peter was continuing with scheduled flights and receiving praise by passengers for its smoothness for passengers and elegance in the air. On Sunday 10th January 1954 Comet York Peter left Rome on a normal flight. On board was its normal crew of 6 together with 29 passengers.
At 09.51 hours all radio contact with the plane was lost.
Comet York Peter had fallen blazing from the sky into the Mediterranean Sea near the island of Elba. There were no survivors – there couldn’t be after a drop of 27,000 feet!
Fifteen bodies, a few personal effects, some cargo and a few pieces of Comet York Peter were recovered by the Italian salvage operation. However, there was no clue to the cause of the disaster although Sabotage was not ruled out.
Britain’s pride was chattered and B.O.A.C. suspended all Comet flights.