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