Secrets of de Havilland Aircraft Museum’s Comet ‘spy plane’

Flying again! The de Havilland Aircraft Museum's Comet 2R is repositioned by a crane prior to the building of the museum's new hangar. Picture: de Havilland Aircraft Museum

Flying again! The de Havilland Aircraft Museum's Comet 2R is repositioned by a crane prior to the building of the museum's new hangar. Picture: de Havilland Aircraft Museum

de Havilland Aircraft Museum

The world’s first commercial passenger jet airliner – the de Havilland DH.106 Comet – took off from Hatfield’s aerodrome 71 years ago this month. The Hatfield aircraft company also built a ‘spy plane’ version of the Comet.

The de Havilland Aircraft Museum's Comet 2R seen from the Aeropark field. Picture: de Havilland Aircraft MuseumThe de Havilland Aircraft Museum's Comet 2R seen from the Aeropark field. Picture: de Havilland Aircraft Museum

Alistair Hodgson, curator of the de Havilland Aircraft Museum, shares some of the aviation museum’s special attractions and hidden secrets.

Tucked away behind the museum’s car park, it’s sometimes easy to overlook our DH.106 Comet.

It looks in rather a sorry state. But this is an aircraft with a past.

After the design issues that caused the tragic losses of several Comet Mk.1 aircraft were solved, the Mk.2 aircraft already in production had to be rebuilt with the necessary safety modifications.

The RAF's livery can still be seen on the fuselage side of the Comet 2R at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at Salisbury Hall, London Colney. Picture: de Havilland Aircraft MuseumThe RAF's livery can still be seen on the fuselage side of the Comet 2R at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at Salisbury Hall, London Colney. Picture: de Havilland Aircraft Museum

Aside from these, they also had a slightly longer fuselage and more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon engines.

It was intended that these would work on the lucrative transatlantic route to the USA, but the range was still found to be slightly lacking.

Although the airline BOAC ordered 44 Comet 2s, eventually only 18 aircraft were built, and only 15 of them flew.

All of these ended up in the RAF as transport aircraft.

However, the RAF also had a need for aircraft to gather ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) by flying close to the borders of Warsaw Pact countries and listening in to radio transmissions.

The Comet was ideal for this, as its range and load-carrying capacity meant that it could fly long missions loaded with sensitive equipment.

The RAF had a specialist squadron for this task, No.51 Squadron based at Wyton in Cambridgeshire.

The squadron originally had three top-secret Comet 2R ‘Spy Planes’ but one of them had been lost in a hangar fire.

Legend has it that the aircraft might have been saved but the MOD Police wouldn’t allow the fire brigade access to the hangar to put out the blaze!

This is where our own Comet enters the story, as it was transferred from an RAF transport squadron to 51 Squadron to replace the lost aircraft.

Flying with a flight crew of six, plus up to 26 electronics operators, it flew over 8,200 hours in military service before being retired to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in 1975.

Due to excessive corrosion it was dismantled in 1992 but the nose section was donated to our museum in 1995.

We plan one day to restore this historic aircraft as a tribute to the people who flew the secret missions to gather vital signals intelligence.

• The de Havilland Aircraft Museum at Salisbury Hall, London Colney, is now open again after temporarily closing during the coronavirus lockdown.

For more on the museum, and for its opening times, visit www.dehavillandmuseum.co.uk


If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Welwyn Hatfield Times. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the Welwyn Hatfield Times