04 October, 2018

A moment in history.........60 years since the first jet engine flight between Europe to New York.

Peggy Thorne at the British Airways Global Learning Academy, with
 Sophie Picton (L) and Nadine Wood (R)
Sixty years ago, the British Overseas Airways Corporation,  -  BOAC, the forerunner to British Airways became the first airline to fly a turbo jet engine aircraft between Europe and New York. 

It was on 4th October 1958 that BOAC flew two de Havilland Comet 4 aircraft, one from New York to London and the other from London to New York. One of the original cabin crew members, Peggy Thorne, 91, had joined BOAC in 1950 and was hand-picked to serve customers on the first flight.

First jet engine flight across the Atlantic

Yesterday, British Airways hosted Peggy, and Captain Hugh Dibley FRAeS, a former Comet 4 navigator, at an event to celebrate the historic achievement. “It was marvellous” Peggy remembers. “We were used to travelling to New York on Boeing Stratocruisers which took up to 20 hours. We couldn’t believe the flight was possible in such a short time.”

Peggy Thorne with the crew of the first transatlantic jet engine flight 
Despite 60 years having passed, Peggy fully recalls the inaugural flight: “It was so exciting to be the first – it was wonderful. There were all sorts of dignitaries on board, press and the chairman of BOAC. It was a thrilling experience. We served customers Madeira biscuits and coffee when they came on board, followed by cocktails and canapes, and then a five-course lunch with wines. Petit Fours followed and then there was Afternoon Tea! Our customers loved it – they ate and drank from when they got on board until the time they got off.”

Hugh said: “The Comet 4 was delivered to BOAC on the 30th September and flew across the Atlantic on the 4th October, which was quite a surprise to some people, not least because it was so fast!"

"The Comet 4 was a firm favourite with pilots, as it was nice to fly and the design meant it was quite easy to make smooth landings. It also had great passenger appeal due to it's beautiful appearance and take-off performance."

Peggy was also invited to see how the airline now trains its cabin crew members: “It’s overwhelming. The technology and the number of aircraft training cabins - we had nothing like this in our day.”
US airline Pan Am had been promising that it would be the first airline to do this but was beaten by Britain’s BOAC with its new jet engine aircraft by several weeks. It was at the time front page news around the world.

How things have changed

Back in 1958, Comet 4 could fly just 48 customers every day from London, how things have changed, today BA operates up to 12 flights a day from the capital, offering around 3,500 seats. On the Comet there were two cabins, Deluxe and First Class. Today, British Airways flights feature four cabins, to suit all budgets - World Traveller, World Traveller Plus, Club World and First. In 1958 a ticket to travel on the Comet staggeringly cost the equivalent of £8,000. Today, a return flight costs far less - from £292.

British Airways celebrates its Centenary next year

With just a few months left before British Airways begins its Centenary celebrations, Alex Cruz, British Airways Chief Executive and Chairman, paid tribute to the crew of the first flights: “British Airways and its predecessors have always pioneered innovation and hospitality and this is a great early example. Next year we celebrate 100 years of taking Britain to the world and bringing the world to Britain, and the quality of service we provide to customers is better than ever.”

A BOAC Comet at Duxford   Photo British Airliner Collection
The Comet above is 'G-APDB', Delta Bravo and was built at Hatfield, It's first flight was on 27th July 1958, and, according to The Duxford Aviation Society, following successful completion of various tests was delivered to BOAC during the 12th September 1958. The airline used it for crew training initially, along with its sister craft 'G-APDC' and they were both officially handed over to BOAC on 30th September.  BOAC flew the Comet on a flight to position it at New York, before it embarked on the history making flight homeward on 4th October 1958, making the journey to Heathrow in a record time of just 6 hours 11 minutes.

The aircraft also saw service in Canada during 1958 when it was used as the primary air transport for Duke of Edinburgh, during his tour of the country.  It regularly flew the trans-Atlantic route for BOAC before it was deployed on services to Africa. The airline finally retired the plane in 1965, it was when sold to Malaysian Singapore Airlines, who operated it for around four years before selling it on to Dan-Air. During its service with Dan-Air it mostly plyed the package holiday routes to Europe with over a hundred passengers at a time. Its career with the UK holiday airline was faily short, the company decided to retire it in November 73 with the last commercial flight taking place on Monday 12th. Rather than scrapping the iconic mechanical wonder, they donated it to the East Anglian Aviation Society at Duxford for preservation. She remains at Duxford, on display as a magnificent testament to British aeronautical achievements of the 1950's. 

Left is Captain Hugh Dibley FRAeS, a former BOAC Comet 4 Navigator and later Boeing pilot, who gave a talk about the iconic British aircraft at the Speedbird Centre in Waterside on 03 October 2018

(Picture by Nick Morrish/British Airways)