With jets athunder, a new de Havilland Comet III, successor to the ill-starred Comet I, took off from Hatfield, north of London last week and roared 11.440 miles to Sydney, Australia in record flying time: 24 hr. 23 min.. for an average speed of about 475 m.p.h. All Britain hailed the flight as a national triumph.
Crowed British Overseas Airways Corp.
Chairman Sir Miles Thomas: "A magnificent achievement . . . Britain is maintaining her pre-eminence in the development of civil jet aviation." Sir Miles should have known better. Since the end of World War II, Britain's proud planemakers have claimed the sky for promising new planes, only to see one after another go down as galling and expensive flops.
As a result, both Britain's military-plane program and its civilian transports are lagging far behind the U.S.
Last week, as the applause over the Comet showed, many were still playing what BOAC's Sir Miles himself once condemned as "the merry game of brochure-manship"—covering up basic deficiencies with torrents of pressagentry and hopeful prediction. Despite its good flight, the Comet III is but a prototype of a prototype that is to fly sometime in 1958, will be both slower, smaller and shorter in range than Douglas' DC-8 or Boeing's 707 jet transports.
Bugs & Bugs. The troubles of British aircraft are due primarily to inefficient planning, limited resources, inadequate research and development, slow and often outmoded production methods. Instead of carefully working up to advanced aircraft, British designers tried to make great leaps into supersonics, and crashed short of the mark. U.S. planemakers usually test every part of a new plane in metallurgical laboratories, wind tunnels, etc. before it flies. But British designers, partly because of a shortage of facilities, build a complete plane, skimp on preflight tests. On top of that, they generally build only one to three prototypes; thus when a bug is discovered, the entire test program must be halted until the fault is corrected. The U.S., on the other hand, builds prototypes in batches of ten or more.
Blame also rests on the civilian Ministry of Supply. Lacking expert knowledge of R.A.F. and airline needs, the supplymen frequently let political and economical considerations weigh too heavily. "Beyond that, the planemakers themselves are slow to improve production methods, have antiquated plants, e.g., for a long time Vickers virtually hand-built its prize Viscount airliner (TIME, Jan. 3) in converted hangars.
Hunter & Javelin. As a result, the R.A.F. currently relies on U.S. F-86 Sabre jets for much of its first-line defense, while Britain's own planes have fallen victim of one slowdown after another. Items: The Supermarine Swift, designed by the builders of World War II's famed Spitfire, was first ordered in 1950. So many troubles cropped up that four versions have been scrapped; a fifth has just been put into production only for reconnaissance.
¶ The Hawker Hunter, another fighter ordered in 1950, was plagued by many bugs, e.g., its engine surged or stalled at high altitude when the guns were fired.
It is now the R.A.F.'s exclusive day fighter, but is no match for the newest Russian and U.S. supersonic fighters.