Jetliner First Flight...
I think the last aeroplane flight I took was in the early ’70s in a Vickers Viscount powered by four propellors… but this coming April I’ll be taking my first flight in an Air France A380 jet, flying from Paris to San Francisco, then hopping across to Denver, then Detroit, Ontario and Vancouver before returning to SF and eventually back to France in early May. It will be my first trip to the United States and Canada, and long overdue as my three adult daughters and their offspring have lived across the pond for more than three decades. But then again I’m kinda slow with technology and only bought my first portable phone a year ago. So considering the maiden test flight of the world's first jet-propelled airliner - the Comet - was on July 27th 1949, when I was just five years old, my timing is about right for a trip in a jet!
But with air travel so commonplace nowadays I don’t think I’ll find any special printed ephemera to celebrate my own first flight. How times have changed… and this BOAC Comet 4 Jetliner First Flight London-Sydney graphic was typical of a multitude of “souvenir” covers issued after WW2 during the then new era of world air travel, and depicts a map of the route across a globe between London, represented by St. Paul's Cathedral, and Sydney in Australia with its famous bridge. This cover was flown on the first flight leaving London on November 1st 1959, the outward route stopping at Frankfurt, Beirut, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta (the destination of this letter), Darwin and finally Sydney. On the return flight Bahrain was substituted for Karachi due to runway repairs at that airport.
BOAC - British Overseas Airways Corporation - flew covers on all their first flights, often addressed to airline managers and staff, and which rarely contained any correspondence… they were sent simply to mark the inauguration of a new route. Perhaps the original idea was thought to become a collectible aspect of postal history but with so many issued, and of no real necessity since an envelope by definition is meant to contain a letter, the value of such mail is very little. Flight mail from earlier times which was not marked or illustrated to commemorate an “event”, but later proven to have been on a pioneering flight from location to location by virtue of a dated postmark on a postage stamp and mark of receipt on the reverse, are much more valuable and therefore highly sought after today.
Of course the other aspect of this cover is that it was flown on a Comet 4. The original de Havilland DH106 Comet was the world’s first jet-powered airliner and flew from London to Johannesburg in 1952. The aircraft was hailed as a great success for British aviation, but barely a year after it went into commercial service disaster struck. In March 1953 a Comet crashed on take-off killing all 11 on board. Two months later another went down a few minutes after take-off from Calcutta killing all 43 people. The following January another dived into the Mediterranean killing 35. Detailed investigation revealed a devastating design flaw - metal fatigue. The constant stress of re-pressurisation at high altitude would weaken an area of the fuselage around the Comet's square-shaped windows. The exterior would then become so stressed that high-pressure cabin air would burst through the slightest crack, ripping a large slice in the aircraft's fuselage. All Comets were grounded, the jets were redesigned and re-entered commercial service in 1958 - with a severely damaged reputation. Many airlines opted for the new American Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, each of which could seat almost twice as many passengers as the Comet. Although confidence in the Comet never recovered, the military maritime patrol version still flies today as the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod.
Image + words © Ed Buziak 2018.
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