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I was looking at the history of commercial aircraft and was wondering why UK-based De Havilland was the first to produce a jet powered airliner (the DH 106 Comet) when the US had a much bigger civil aviation industry at the time, such as Boeing and Douglas? They only produced their Boeing 707 and DC-8 after the Comet was introduced.

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    $\begingroup$ In the 40s and early 50s, the US were not as advanced as the British in all things concerning jet engines. After all, the jet engine was invented in Europe, in Britain and in Germany. $\endgroup$ – xxavier Jan 3 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ The answer is totally self-evident, they were invented in the UK. (As stated in another comment.) $\endgroup$ – Fattie Jan 3 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ The Soviets also had an advanced program, and as usual with Societ aircraft, they were not beset by safety problems. $\endgroup$ – Harper Jan 3 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ A jet technology answer would need to be somewhat nuanced to account for the fact that the heavier B-47 flew a year and a half before the Comet. While not exactly easy to fly, it somewhat suggests that the issue was more believing something was a good business idea, than being unable to do it. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Jan 3 at 18:26
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So did Canada with the Avro Canada Jetliner, at exactly the same time pretty much. The Jetliner was complementary to the Comet, being a shorter range intercity airplane. It made a sales tour of the US in 1950 and was a huge sensation. Avro Canada was ordered to set the project aside for the CF-100 All Weather Interceptor program during the early 50s so Avro Canada had to decline US airline interest resulting from its sales tour (and a bizarre Howard Hughes/TWA subplot) and the program never really got traction after that as the company went on to put all its resources into the Arrow supersonic interceptor program by the mid 50s. Odd that the Jetliner had its legs cut out from under it by government politics (the Jetliner was initially designed to a state-owned Trans Canada Airlines specification, who later back out) and the Comet by a fatal design flaw, so in the end Boeing prevailed anyway.

The main reason for the US lag was that jet engines were considered by private US airlines to be too immature as a technology to be used for commercial travel in the late 40s, so there was little market interest in the US until an actual aircraft was demonstrated (one factor: first generation commercial turbojets with crude fuel controllers, like the Jetliner's RR Derwents, were very difficult to manage). On the other hand, both the Comet and Jetliner were developed as products for state owned airlines (BOAC and Trans Canada Airlines) wanting to be bold, so they were ostensibly private ventures but with a "guaranteed" state buyer for at least initial production, providing a huge leg up.

There was no US equivalent in the private airline sector in the late 40s/early 50s, only the US military, where the 707 actually got its start.

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    $\begingroup$ Mostly cultural. The only federally run government transportation system in the US is Amtrak, which was set up to provide coach travel as the rail companies bailed to go all-freight. It's a money losing federal government expense basically, that exists for political reasons. State capitalism pretty much always ends up that way. Trans Canada Airlines became Air Canada in the 60s, was privatized in the 80s and is now a publicly traded private company. $\endgroup$ – John K Jan 3 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ @JulianF. Incidentally, most of the European countries eventually ended up going with something closer to the U.S. model of ownership. BOAC - now British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, etc. are all private companies now (though, IIRC, the French government does still own a minority stake in Air France/KLM. Delta owns more of it now than France does, though, IIRC.) $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 3 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ Actually I was surprised to learn that the French and German gov'ts now own only small minority stakes in Airbus. $\endgroup$ – John K Jan 3 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ While US airlines were private, they still were regulated 1938-1978. They could only fly routes, set schedules, and charge fares set by the CAB. The CAB would ensure the airlines remained financially healthy. In order to ensure private airlines could compete against state-owned carriers in international airlines, Pan Am held a de facto monopoly on foreign flights. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Jan 3 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnK that's part fiction though, the governments own a small stake directly but major holdings through the parent companies which they also (part) own. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jan 4 at 3:49
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The conventional wisdom at the time was that jet engines were too inefficient on fuel to be cost effective in commercial travel, especially over long distances. It was Geoffrey de Havilland who challenged this when he was on the Brabazon committee and championed the idea that a pure jet airliner should be on the list of required airliner types.

His motives aren't entirely clear - it could be that his experience with with the H-1/Goblin engine used in the Meteor and designed by his friend Frank Halford meant that he had a better understanding of the benefits jet engines could bring to airliners or you could take the cynical view that since he not only owned an aircraft design company but also had close ties to pretty much the only serious manufacturer of jet engines in Britain at the time (Halford Engines which would become de Havilland Engine company in 1943) that having a jet airliner on the list meant that his company would be essentially a dead certainty to get the contract. So he stood to make a great deal of money out the idea, he had certainly done well out of providing jet engines to the military and a jet-based passenger liner would be the way to ensure continued prosperity when the war came to an end.

As for why they "got there first" well there's lots of reasons - the British and the Germans had invented and patented turbojets first, American efforts didn't really start until GE built the W.1 (with the help of Whittle) and the early years of American jet power was all done using licensed British designs.

Secondly you're forgetting that at the time Boeing was primarily a military supplier, it wasn't until they developed the 707 that they had any significant presence in civil aviation. Douglas had grown rapidly during the War but found itself struggling after the WWII ended - the government orders stopped and they were left with a surplus of aircraft. Going into the jetliner business would have been very risky and very difficult for them at a time when they were struggling.

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  • $\begingroup$ I understand exactly where you're coming from in terms of the conventional thoughts of the time regarding the inefficiency of jet engines, however I wasn't aware that Douglas were struggling after the war - I would've thought that the tremendous success of the DC-3/C-47 and even the DC-4 would've kept them afloat easily! Also, I'm unsure about your statement that Boeing was primarily a military supplier as they were definitely producing civil aircraft at the time, such as the 247 and the 377? $\endgroup$ – Julian F. Jan 3 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ @JulianF. Boeing certainly had civilian products but it was a small part of what they did at the time, the 247 was retired before the war (and less than a hundred were built), the 307 production was halted by the war (they only made 10) and the 377 wasn't built until 1947 and wasn't exactly a resounding success. Between 1950 when that finished and the 407 in '56 they didn't make any commercial aircraft at all it was all Military $\endgroup$ – motosubatsu Jan 3 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ @motosubatsu, comparing numbers is difficult because many of the Boeing 247's competitors got adapted as military transports, but the pre-war civilian airliner market was small. "Less than a hundred built" is a reasonably successful aircraft for the era. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 3 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Indeed the numbers aren't hugely relevant.. my main point was that the 247 had already been out of production for some time by the point we are talking about so isn't really an example of Boeing's civil aviation presence at the time of the Comet $\endgroup$ – motosubatsu Jan 4 at 9:18
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Back in the late 1940‘s, Boeing made all of it’s money in military planes. It had huge success with the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress. On the commercial side of their business, Boeing was a distant third to the sales to Lockheed and Douglas, the two leaders in commercial aviation at the time. Even with their military success, their commercial offering, the 307 Stratoliner could not compete and lost money. Commercial aviation was an area Boeing wanted to focus on to help offset times when military contracts ran dry. The problem was coming up with a plane that generated interest in the civilian market because Douglas and Lockheed had really fantastic planes. They would need to do something radical to compete.

While de Havilland was busy building the Comet, Boeing was building the all-metal, jet-powered B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress bombers. The B-47 was actually in service before the Comet. Boeing tried to create a commercial version of the plane, which they presented as the Model 473-60C in 1950, but failed to generate any interest with airlines.

Boeing new for a certainty that the US Air Force would need a jet-powered tanker to refuel planes. They made the existing KC-97 tanker which was piston-powered as well as the B-52 and realized that the maximum air speed for the KC-97 was the minimum air speed for the B-52, which made in-air refueling hazardous. So it stuck with the concept of an all-metal jet-powered commercial plane they could market along with a jet-powered tanker. This eventually became the Boeing 707 and the KC-135 Stratotanker, which both are fundamentally different, but were derived from a common prototype, the 367−80.

Douglas Aircraft had a commanding position in the commercial aviation market after World War II with the DC-3 and the DC-6. Unfortunately, it was in the same financial pinch Boeing was trying to avoid with the end of government aircraft orders after the war. This lead to laying off nearly 100,000 workers. Douglas had to scale back, but was in a great position filling orders for existing planes and felt no need to rush into anything new.

At Lockheed, things were going very well. Before World War II, it had a firm commitment from TWA to build the Constellation. When the war started, the existing plane became a military transport known as the C-69. After World War II, it introduced the plane to the civilian market and finished filling orders for TWA.

Sleek and powerful, the Constellation was fast, had the first widely available pressurized-cabin in the civil market and capable of transatlantic flight. At the end of World War II there truly was no plane that really match it and for the next 15 years, they sold over 800 variants of the Constellation. In fact, De Havilland based the layout of the cabin and the flight deck of the Comet on the Constellation to boost appeal.

In addition, Lockheed had a very healthy military business. It was building the P-80 Shooting Star, America’s first jet-powered fighter and later, the F-104 Starfighter. There was no shortage of amazing planes being produced by Lockheed in this era. It just didn‘t focus on a commercial jet-powered airliner.

Unfortunately for Lockheed, jet-powered planes by Boeing and Douglas started taking over routes formerly run by piston planes. Since Lockheed did not have a civilian jet, it left the market in 1961. It didn‘t make a civilian plane until the the introduction of the L-1011 Tristar in 1968.

The Comet was the first to the marketplace, but being first is not always a guarantee of success. As we know, Boeing managed to dominate the jet-powered commercial market for decades, based on the success of the 707. One of the contributing factors to it‘s success was based on the failure of the Comet.

After a series of unexplained crashes, the entire Comet fleet was grounded in 1954, and didn‘t fly again in commercial service until 1958. During this time, Boeing was developing the 707. Many of the Comet design failures that emerged helped Boeing avoid the same issues. The 707 had it‘s first flight in 1957 and entered service in October 1958. The loss of planes damaged the reputation of the Comet, the fact the 707 could fly farther, carry more passengers doomed the Comet. It simply could not compete.

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For the same reason the Soviets put a satellite in space before the US -- someone will always be the first, and there's nothing anywhere that says it has to be the US.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sure, I understand that someone has to be first, but looking at the situation after the war, with the US having a much larger presence in the civil aviation industry compared to Britain whose presence was almost nonexistent, it seems a bit strange that Britain beat the US to the jet age, doesn't it? $\endgroup$ – Julian F. Jan 3 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ @JulianF. With Germany out of the running for obvious reasons that left only Whittle and Halford making any real headway in jet development, both British. It wasn't about presence in Civil aviation.. It was about the engineering of jet engines. Everyone was looking to repurpose the tech gains from wartime, one of Britain's was the aviation jet engine so its not strange at all really. $\endgroup$ – motosubatsu Jan 3 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JulianF. and that larger presence was one reason why new airliner designs were slower to take off in the US. There were so many discarded military transports in the US that were converted into civilian airliner and cargo aircraft there was no real need for new aircraft for quite a few years, whereas the European airlines were pretty much defunct after the war and needed all new aircraft to start up again, which weren't available cheaply in bulk. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jan 4 at 3:51
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    $\begingroup$ @JulianF. I have no idea what you mean by "presence." The UK aviation industry did not have the production capacity afforded by the US industrial sector and the peace of mind that comes with distance from the war, but there was no shortage of engineering know-how. Nothing strange about that. $\endgroup$ – Juan Jimenez Jan 4 at 20:23
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Because the national commitment to build the Comet, along with the Brabazon and several other speculative aircraft, was part of the British War Plan. The goal was to win the economic postwar, and they threw everything at the wall to see what would stick.

Similarly, the Soviet and Canadian governments put a high priority on getting a jetliner in the air.

In all cases, that priority included money, and those governments planned all along to pass any project losses on to their taxpayers.

Whereas in the United States, aircraft design is largely driven by airline commitments, and that requires the approval of two groups of private Boards of Directors who are singularly concerned with the bottom line.

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