In a 300-word announcement, Pan American World Airways this week surprised and dismayed the American aircraft industry. The announcement: Pan Am has ordered three Comet jet liners from Britain's De Havilland Co. at an estimated cost of $6,300,000, they are the first foreign planes, according to the Air Transport Association, ever ordered by a U.S. line. Pan Am, which expects to get the planes in 1956, also has an option to purchase seven more for delivery in 1957. As a warning to U.S. planemakers, Pan Am's President Juan Trippe added: the deal with De Havilland would "permit the acquisition of a fleet . . . [for] principal trade routes abroad if suitable American-manufactured jet transports were not available by that time."
The planes Pan Am is buying are not the Comets now flying on British routes, or the Comet II to be brought out next year. Pan Am's will be the Comet III, which Eastern Air Lines' Eddie Rickenbacker talked of buying (TIME, Sept. 8). The Comet III, said Trippe, will be powered by four Rolls-Royce Avon engines, and will be able to carry 58 first-class passengers (78 tourist class) at cruising speeds of 500 m.p.h. for 2,700 miles nonstop. It "will be the first jet transport," said Trippe, "able to operate efficiently over the principal routes of Pan American."
Pan Am has not decided whether it will fly its Comets on Latin American or Far Eastern runs or across the Atlantic, which a Comet could do in about nine hours with one stop at Newfoundland or Ireland, four hours under present elapsed time.
From a competitive standpoint, Pan Am made the deal with De Havilland because it had little choice. Unlike any other U.S. line, Pan Am competes around the globe with British airways. As long as the British intend to put Comets on their routes, Pan Am has to have jets ready also, if only for prestige and to gain jet plane experience. There was no doubt that the British had won an important skirmish in the battle for commercial jet supremacy. The victory may also turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to American plane builders. They have shown signs of dawdling away the lead the U.S. has in jet engines (TIME, Oct. 20). Now, U.S. planemakers will have to hustle to have their own jet transports ready by 1957.