A Celebration of the de Havilland Comet
The de Havilland Comet in RCAF Service
On 29 May 1953, the first of two 40 passenger de Havilland Comets arrived in Ottawa. With the arrival of this aircraft, the RCAF became the first air force in the world to operate jet transports and the first operator to make scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the RCAF was looking for a high speed, high altitude aircraft and for an aircraft to augment air transport forces. A high speed aircraft was required to test Canada's fighter forces and radar chain. There were no large aircraft in RCAF service that could fly at an altitude of 40,000 feet at 450 mph. At the same time, the Korean airlift (Operation HAWK) had placed a strain on Air Transport Command. The Canadair North Stars, though fantastic aircraft, were no longer in production. In early 1951, it was decided that the Comets could fulfill both these roles, with an order being placed with de Havilland in England that November.
In October 1952, more than 60 air and ground crew from 412 Squadron were sent to England to receive familiarization training on the Comet. On 14 March 1953, the RCAF received its first Comet. The two RCAF crews subsequently flew over 100 training hours, including flights to Johannesburg and Singapore. By Friday, 29 May 1953, the first crew was ready to return to Canada.
A large crowd turned out at RCAF Station Uplands for the arrival of Comet 5301. It had made the trans-Atlantic crossing in 10 hours 20 minutes, with stops in Keflavik, Iceland, and Goose Bay. The Comet then went on a cross-Canada tour, demonstrating its speed and sleek lines.
The Comets were soon put to work on VIP flights. On short flights, they cut the normal air travel time by one third. On longer flights, travel time was reduced by over 50 percent. The Comets also flew as targets for exercising ground radars and Air Defence Command CF-100s. They were able to perform both roles admirably, with their maximum altitude of 40,000 feet and cruising speed of 455 mph achieved by four de Havilland Ghost turbo-jet engines, each rated at 5,000 lbs. thrust. The Comet had a range of about 2500 miles with a capacity payload and fuel allowances for headwind and stand-offs. A crew of seven included the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer and radio officer and two cabin crew.
Unfortunately, the Comets were withdrawn from service in January 1954 after a series of disastrous crashes in commercial service. When the trouble had been pinpointed, the Comets were ferried to de Havilland, England, for structural modifications in August 1956. They resumed service in the roles for which they had been intended, on 1 November 1957 as Mark IXBs.
A First Hand Experience of the Return to Service
Following the Rome disaster the RCAF aircraft were grounded for a period and subsequently flown unpressurized across the Atlantic to de Havilland where a modification program took place.
In August 1957 our crew from 412 Squadron proceeded to Hatfield for familiarization and flight training.
F/L Dean Broadfoot (senior pilot) - F/L Bill Carss - F/L Paul Major - F/L Paul Lemieux - F/L Stan Jenkins - F/L Gord Macininch - F/O Dwayne McBride - F/O Rober Glover - F/L Harry Morison (Navigator) - F/O Dick Brown (Navigator) - F/O Garth Thomson (Navigator) - F/L Paddy Maclintock (Navigator) - F/L Hugh Filleul (Radio Officer) - F/L Bob Rose (Radio Officer) - F/O Bob Mackenzie (Radio Officer) – F/L Jerry Savard (Navigator).
These crews completed flying training with flights throughout the UK and to Germany. On September 16, 1957 the two aircraft departed Hatfield enroute to Rome, El Adem, Khartoum, Entebee, Salisbury, Jo'burg, where the crews were royally greeted by de Havilland staff and enjoyed their hospitality for three days. The return flights followed the same route arriving back in Hatfield on Sept 23rd.
On Sept 26th both aircraft departed Hatfield, returning to Canada via Lages, AFB in the Azores, Chatham NB. to Ottawa, ON.
The two Comets, besides their role as VIP transport, were used for unscheduled domestic flights and for regular runs from Ottawa to Marville, France. They also continued exercising Air Defence Command. The Comets were retired in 1963.
The Comet was a vast improvement in terms of comfort for the passengers. No longer did they have to sit in a vibration-filled, noisy cabin. The ability to fly above rough weather also improved the ride. The flights were advertised as being so smooth you could stand a pencil on end or have a full glass of water and not spill it.
The improvements in speed were also highlighted. One popular comparison against piston-engined airliners is illustrated in this anecdote. One night a Comet flying from Gander to Paris passed a RCAF North Star over the mid-Atlantic. The North Star had left two hours earlier, headed for London. The Comet flew to Paris and after a brief stop, took off for London, arriving shortly before the North Star.
With its greater speed and altitude, the Comet was able to fly great circle routes at a time when other airliners were flying commercial air corridors. Its comforts were a pleasant surprise for travelers used to the noise and vibration of commercial airliners of the time. The Comet ushered in the age of the jet airliners, and the RCAF was there.
I was personally involved in the "sale" of the two RCAF Comets. Some have said that Comet 5301 was cannabalized to make 5302 serviceable. Both aircraft were for sale at Mountainview as they had been flown in from 412 Squadron. The buyer from Crown Assets was negotiating both with Crown Assets and with others to whom he intended to resell both aircaft - at a profit.
I flew a number of potential buyers to Mountainview to see the aircraft. The various negotiations continued and the principal buyer decided that if he waited long enough the aircraft would be sold to him at scrap prices rather than as they were. That was an accurate but sad decision for the fate of the aircraft.
We arrived at Mountainview one evening to find 5301 sitting on the ramp on its main gear and tail with the nose cut off and gone, looking like a beheaded fish...horrible. Comet 5302 had all RCAF avionics and equipment stripped from it...or rather chopped out of it! Connectors were not undone, the cables were all cut. Equipment was not unbolted it was chopped out. Absolutely disgraceful!
I understand there subsequently was an investigation as to who had issued such orders and in particular chopping the nose off 5301, but I don't know the outcome. The result was one Comet was destroyed and it was harder to sell the one remaining Comet rather than two together. It took a long time and a lot of effort to repair the damage done to 5302. Eventually it was flown over to Trenton where it was repainted blue and white with registration CF-SVR. Later it was ferried to Mount Hope (Hamilton) where I with one of the ex-412 Squadron flight engineers would fire it up and taxi it around periodically.
Ownership of the aircraft had changed hands and was in dispute with litigation. Arrangements were being made with Transport Canada for a ferry flight to a buyer in BC when the aircraft was spirited away by another ex-412 Squadron crew and flown to Miami. The aircraft was destined, we understood, for Peru, but never turned a wheel again after parking in Miami and was eventually scrapped.
Whether it never flew again because of snags, as suggested in your narrative, or because of the litigation surrounding the aircraft and its "theft" is unknown to me but it likely was both.
a sincere "thank you" to Robert Fassold for making this information available.
And the story Continues
Our thanks to Larry Wilson who also reported on 11 June, 2001, as follows:
I went down to the Canada Aviation Museum this afternoon to see about the Comet. It is there and I got a special tour to see what is left of it. It has not been restored and is way in the back of the hanger jammed in amongst numerous others. What is left of the Comet is exactly as you said - the nose section and the cockpit. I don't think what remains is more than eight feet long. As far as any detail goes, the only thing visible was the number 01. In talking to my tour guide (who knew a lot about the planes on display and not too much about those not yet restored) the museum is supposed to be building another hanger but the Comet and others probably won't be on display for another 5 years.
Memories of the Comet
During my career I flew eleven different transport aircraft. Some I liked, some I disliked, but the Comet was truly my first choice. When it came on the world scene it was ten years ahead of any other production or proposed aircraft. (The one exception was a smaller passenger jet built by AVRO in Toronto, a plane that never got into production, unfortunately.)
The Comet was very streamlined, could fly to extreme altitudes, was relatively fast for it's time and handled as quickly and smoothly as a fighter airplane.
Just an afterthought. I flew the last scheduled flight into Marville on 01 March 1962 after which the Yukon took over the skeds completely. We still flew the Comet into Marville after that on a few Specials. The very last flight was flown to LFQM was on the 8th of August 1963 by Ron Goddard and myself. Best Regards, Jim Rittinger
Also from Canada
I flew the RCAF's Comet 1As with 412 VIP Transport Squadron in Ottawa from 1960 to 1963. Often flew with Jim Rittinger in both the Comet and the squadron's VIP B-25 Mitchells and will contact him directly. There are a number of the 412 Comet crews still active. A few years ago, when Roger Lewis from the UK was pursuing his intended book on the history of the Comet and disposition of all airframes, I helped set up interviews in Canada for him with a number of the RCAF Comet pilots and flight engineers, hosted him in Ottawa for a few days and visited him in the UK subsequently. Sadly, not long after that Lewis died at an early age and his widow was searching for at least a custodian if not an active user of the wealth of data he had collected in what was a life long passion for the Comet. I hope she was successful and that his extensive and enthusiastic efforts somehow are being recognized at the reunion.
Bob Fassold, Major General RCAF (Ret)
F/L's Bob Fassold (later the Air Force's Chief Flight Surgeon)
From Ren L'Ecuyer
I am retired from the RCAF (like so many others) and I have been maintaining a number of RCAF military related web sites on the Internet since late 1997. I have estblished a section which is dedicated to the RCAF Comet aircraft.
This can be viewed at: http://www.marville.org/other/maother-7.html
I am always looking for additional material or photos to add to our Comet area. Any assistance which you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks to Ren L'Ecuyer for saving me a lot of research work to put these few notes together. And thanks to Ken Churm, Toronto. The North American Liaison Representative for the Comet 2002 event – Member DASA, for his able assistance in bridging the gap between former RCAF Comet aircrews, who unfortunately, were unable to attend this memorable occasion
As a final note the current CO 412(T) Sqn , LCol David Mulcair in Ottawa sends:
412 (Transport) Squadron has been priviledged to operate both of these wonderful aircraft in its distinguished history. Each year the squadron flies thousands of successful Challenger departures. I don't attribute that success merely to the good operation of the current fleet, however. Instead, 412 Squadron daily stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before. The Comet was, it seems to me, a high point in our story. It was a "first" for a squadron that has always led in the passenger transport role. In this respect, I am grateful that you asked me to send these few words. The connection between yesterday and today lives on at 412 Squadron, and the Comet is part of that. Thank you for making me aware of this re-union, thank you to the many many people who flew the Comet, maintained the Comet, served on the Comet and supported the Comet. 412 (Transport) Squadron sincerely salutes you.
Promptus Ad Vindictam
Updated: August 12, 2004