The de Havilland Comet in RCAF Service
By Captain M. Joost, Office of Air Force Heritage and History, 1 Cdn Air Div
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 (Op 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 few 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Unfortunately, the Comets were withdrawn from service in January 1954 after a series of disastrous crashes in commercial service.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.
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, being ferried to Mountain View for disposal on 30 October. One Comet, number 5302, was sold on 30 July 1965 to a purchaser who hoped to put it in service as a VIP transport, cannibalizing 5301 for parts. The flying Comet became CF-SVR. It was flown to Mount Hope near Hamilton where it sat until January 1968. It was then taken to Florida as N3735 for use in charter service. There were too many snags, with the result that 5302 met the nemesis of so many old Aircraft - the cutting torch.
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.