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The First Jetliner

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Only one Comet, an aircraft known as the world's first jet airliner, is still flying. This vintage airplane landed at O'Hare recently, then taxied to the northeast corner of the airport and parked on the spot reserved for Air Force One. Every president since Eisenhower (also the Beatles, popes, kings, generals, and United States cabinet members) have entered Chicago by way of O'Hare's Air Force Reserve base. Air Force One always faces east; Comet 4 XV814 faced west.

Protocol had nothing to do with why the plane's nose reflected the afternoon sunshine. Manufacturing customs explain the difference. The doors of American-made planes are on the left side of the fuselage. The British De Havilland Company installed the Comets' doors on the right.

British Royal Air Force Group Captain Roger Beazley descended the stairs and shook hands with Colonel Jon Gingrich, the base commander, and Ross Jacobs, a British-born member of the Chicago-O'Hare Rotary Club. "This aeroplane hasn't let us down since 1958," the pilot said, stretching his neck and shoulders after the four-hour-20-minute flight from Travis Air Force Base in California. "I wish I had shares in Kodak today," the gray-haired officer said, looking around at the crowd of Rotary Club members and friends gathered to greet him. "After getting some of these green-suited worms off, you can all have a look inside."

About 15 aviation buffs circled around, eyeing the red, white, and blue Comet with curiosity and awe. "I still think it's one of the sexiest airplanes ever made," marveled one of the Rotary Club members.

The Comet's sleek design was once described as what a child would probably come up with in a first try at drawing a jet aircraft. This Comet carried 15 men who were nearing the end of a 21-day, round-the-world mission for the British Ministry of Defence (MOD). The crew needed to refuel somewhere in the midwest. Chicago became a pin in the flight map because some crew members had seen a videotape of a Channel 11 documentary called The First Jetliner. Producer John Davies's 30-minute piece told the story of the airplane that revolutionized commercial flying in the 1950s, rendering the propeller plane obsolete before it too was eclipsed by bigger and faster Boeing and Douglas jets. Only 112 Comets were built. One of them has been sitting at O'Hare for 16 years.

Chicago's Comet is a year younger than the one the Brits were flying. You may have seen its wingless and rusting fuselage sitting north of the Kennedy Expressway near the O'Hare entrance.

In 1976 the owner of an Indiana nudist colony bought that Comet and brought it to O'Hare with the idea of using it to ferry customers. Naked City went bankrupt first. Over the years the plane was towed to several different spots at the airport, drawing notice mainly by birds in need of a place to nest. But in 1986, after the city of Chicago acquired the title at a sheriff's sale and made plans to scrap the derelict plane, the local Rotary Club intervened. Soon the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum was expressing interest in what apparently was the only remaining Comet in the U.S.

The plane had to be disassembled for shipping, and a three-year volunteer project ensued. The Rotary's "Team Comet" gathered enough parts to fill a dozen semitrailers. Before travel arrangements were finalized, however, Smithsonian officials changed their minds and asked that the plane be shipped to an aviation graveyard in Arizona. Team Comet members still hope to see the plane restored in their lifetimes. They now hope to send the plane to Reno's Nevada Air Museum, where officials promise prompt reassembly and display.

"The crew is watching you like hawks," Captain Beazley joked, as the diehards entered a Comet that actually flies. "They're afraid you'll start taking off the bolts."

The visitors edged through crowded aisles. Most of the plane's seats had been removed. Duffel bags were piled high among the seats in the front of the plane. In the rear, above a half dozen spacious work stations, were two rows of radios, power packs, and related electronic gadgetry in what used to be the passengers' storage compartments.

Such is the fate of an airplane that once changed the way people view time and distance. In 1952, after the Comet's inaugural passenger flight, travel time between London and Rome shrunk from several days to two hours and six minutes. Four decades later, the last Comet has been reduced to serving as a flying laboratory in which five scientists enjoy plenty of elbow room for comparing different radio prototypes.

"We're able to work here in a fairly civilized manner," David Abel said, as he described exercises involving the use of the satellite located in the bubble atop the tailfin to bounce airwaves off the ionosphere. Abel, scientist with the MOD's Defence Research Agency, said everyone on the plane had taken a two-day course, learning how to use gas masks and dinghies as well as how to extinguish fires. "Because there are no stewardesses, we're on our own."

Staffing problems of a different kind will take this Comet out of service in December. It will be stripped down for its parts to enable another Comet to fly. The other Comet, also the property of the British military, will itself be grounded in December 1993. The planes can fly, but people with the expertise needed to keep them in flight are scarce. The Royal Air Force employs two engineers who have the technical authority to sign papers certifying Comets to fly. Only they understand the aircraft systems and know how to maintain the parts.

Standing inside the cabin, Captain Beazley recalled the most memorable reception in this Comet's first round-the-world trip. "We arrived at Sri Lanka quite late, but dozens of people were there. The truck carrying the power pack was the oldest thing I've ever seen. The tires were absolutely bald. A sign on it read, 'This power pack is to be used for Comets and nothing but Comets.' This chap told me the power pack has been used every day for the last 35 years. He was delighted to finally have the chance to plug it into a Comet."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Maine.

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