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1954: 'Metal fatigue' caused Comet crashes
The public inquiry into the Comet airliner disasters has heard that metal fatigue was the most likely cause of two recent crashes.

The first crash happened in January, when 29 passengers and a crew of six lost their lives off the Italian island of Elba.

The Comet's certificate of airworthiness was withdrawn after the second crash, just three months later. Fourteen passengers and seven crew died when the plane went down off the coast near Naples.

It will perhaps be some consolation to the relatives of those who lost their lives to feel that good may come out of evil in this way
Sir Lionel Heald, Attorney General
The Attorney General, Sir Lionel Heald QC, told the first day of the inquiry that initial suspicions of sabotage were unfounded.

He said the painstaking analysis of thousands of fragments of the Comet involved in the Elba crash had revealed that the damage was caused by a fault in the plane itself.

In what Sir Lionel called "one of the most remarkable pieces of scientific detective work ever done", a team led by Sir Arnold Hall, director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, subjected models, full-size aircraft and replicas to the most elaborate and searching tests ever carried out on an airliner.

One fragment collected from the scene of the crash showed that a crack had developed due to metal fatigue near the radio direction finding aerial window, situated in the front of the cabin roof.

The investigators found that a small weakness such as this would quickly deteriorate under pressure, and would rapidly lead to a sudden and general break-up of the fuselage.

In tests on another Comet aircraft, Sir Lionel added, the investigators had found that up to 70% of the aircraft's ultimate stress under pressure was concentrated on the corners of the aircraft's windows.

Sir Lionel said the findings of the investigation would lead to a general improvement in the safety of passenger air travel.

"It will perhaps be some consolation to the relatives of those who lost their lives to feel that good may come out of evil in this way," he added.

The hearings continue tomorrow.

Comet crashes in the 1950s
3 March 1953: Canadian Pacific Airline Comet crashes on take-off from Calcutta airport killing 11 people on board due to pilot error
10 January 1954: BOAC jet crashes off the Mediterranean island of Elba killing 35 people on board
8 April 1954: South African Airways Comet crashes en route from Rome to Johannesburg - all 14 passengers and seven crew die.

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BOAC Comet
Two crashes within five months of each other have grounded all Comet jets

In Context
The Comet was the world's first passenger jet airliner, designed and built in Britain.

It revolutionised air travel, and was the pride of the British aviation industry for its first year, until the first of three catastrophic crashes happened in March 1953.

After the conclusive evidence revealed in the inquiry that metal fatigue concentrated at the corners of the aircraft's windows had caused the crashes, all aircraft were redesigned with rounded windows.

It took four years for de Havilland to get the redesigned Comet re-certified for commercial service.

In the meantime, the American aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, had released its 707 passenger jet, which could carry almost twice as many passengers.

The new American airliner soon cornered the market, and only 90 of the re-designed Comet 4 series were sold.

Most were removed from service by the early 1980s, and Britain's early and commanding lead in the commercial aviation industry dwindled to nothing.

I remember being taken as a child on a school trip to a de Havilland factory just outside Chester in Cheshire, England. I believe the factory was in Hawarden.

This was in 1954 when the Comet air disasters were happening. The factory either built the Comet or key components, there were large signs that said ¿This washer was missing and caused the ???? crash (I can¿t remember the crash details).

Because of the many signs there seemed to be an emphasis on blaming the air disasters on the assembly process which was later found to be not true because metal fatigue was the cause.

The school I was attending was Acre Lane Secondary School, in Bromborough. It was then in Cheshire and now a part of Merseyside.
Terence Horton, USA

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