BOAC Flight 781
A BOAC de Havilland Comet 1 similar to accident aircraft
|Date||10 January 1954|
|Summary||In-flight metal fatigue failure leading to explosive decompression and mid-air break-up.|
|Site||Mediterranean off Elba|
|Aircraft type||de Havilland DH-106 Comet 1|
|Aircraft name||Yoke Peter|
|Operator||British Overseas Airways Corporation|
|Flight origin||Kallang Airport, Singapore|
|Stopover||Ciampino Airport, Rome, Italy|
|Destination||London Heathrow Airport, London, England|
On Sunday 10 January 1954, British Overseas Airways Corporation Flight 781, a de Havilland DH.106 Comet 1 registered G-ALYP, took off from Ciampino Airport in Rome, Italy, en route to Heathrow Airport in London, England, on the final leg of its flight from Singapore. At about 10:51 GMT, the aircraft suffered an explosive decompression at altitude and crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing everyone on board. The accident aircraft G-ALYP was the third Comet built.
Crew and passengers
The flight was captained by Alan Gibson (31), one of BOAC's youngest pilots. He had flown in the Royal Air Force and had been with BOAC since 1946. He had considerable flying experience, having logged more than 6,500 flight hours. He had been involved in a prior accident in 1951 which involved the forced landing of a Hermes aircraft. He had later been praised for his flying conduct on the 1951 accident flight.
The first officer on Flight 781 was William John Bury (33). He had flown a total of approximately 4,900 hours. The engineer officer was Francis Charles Macdonald (27) and the radio officer was Luke Patrick McMahon (32). They had 720 flying hours and close to 3,600 flying hours, respectively. 
Of the 29 passengers, 10 were children. Among the casualties were Chester Wilmot, a prominent Australian journalist and military historian working for the BBC, and Dorothy Beecher Baker, a Hand of the Cause of God for the Baha'i Faith.
Flight and disaster
Gerry Bull, a former BOAC engineer, said that when he inspected the aircraft in Rome he looked for "incidental damage". He did not find any, so he believed Flight 781 was fit for flight. Bull and the same team of engineers later examined South African Airways Flight 201 before its final flight.
On 10 January 1954, the flight took off at 09:34 GMT for the final-stage flight to London. At about 09:50 GMT BOAC Argonaut, G-ALHJ piloted by Captain Johnson, which was flying the same route at a lower altitude was in contact with Captain Gibson. During a radio communication about weather conditions, the conversation was abruptly cut off. The last words heard from Captain Gibson were "George How Jig, did you get my ...". About this time wreckage was seen falling into the sea by fishermen.
Heathrow Airport initially listed Flight 781 as being delayed; around 1:30 PM the airport took the flight off the arrivals board.
Search and recovery
The New York Times reported on 11 January 1954:
Thirty-five persons were almost certainly killed when a British Comet jet airliner crashed into the sea this morning about halfway between the islands of Elba and Montecristo, off the Italian western coast. Fifteen bodies had been recovered at a late hour tonight and there was slight hope that there were any survivors among the 29 passengers and six crewmen on the British Overseas Airways Corporation plane.
However, the search continued in the sub-zero weather and rising seas. No official passenger list was made available in Rome pending notification of the next of kin. According to unofficial reports, there were no Americans aboard. The passengers included 17 men, eight women, three children and an infant. The crew included a stewardess.
At first the task of finding out what happened was difficult. In 1954, there were no black boxes, no Cockpit Voice Recorders or Flight Data Recorders, so assessment was difficult. Established protocol for aircraft accident investigation did not exist.
Witnesses to the crash were a group of Italian fishermen who were preparing to land their catch. Upon seeing the aircraft falling into the water, the fishermen rushed to the scene to recover the bodies and to find possible survivors, of which there were none. To find more evidence concerning the cause of the crash, the bodies were brought to the coroner for autopsy. During the examination, pathologist Antonio Fornari found broken limbs and damaged limbs, which occurred after death. But Fornari also discovered a distinct pattern of injuries, which were identified as the cause of death, in most of the victims. These injuries consisted of fractured skulls and ruptured and otherwise damaged lungs. Fornari found no evidence of an explosion, and he felt confused by the pattern of injuries.
The ruptured lungs were a sure indicator that the air cabin depressurised because the sudden decrease in pressure would cause the lungs to expand until they rupture. To support the theory and also to confirm the cause of the skull fractures, the crash was simulated at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in Farnborough using the same conditions of the actual plane prior to crash. To do this experiment, a model fuselage was constructed similar to that of the Comet.
Dummies were also seated within the fuselage to simulate possible movements of passengers during the crash. To simulate the crash, the investigators deliberately ruptured the model by increasing the air pressure within it until it exploded. The movement of the dummies within the air cabin at the moment of explosion showed the cause of skull fracture as they were thrown out of their seats and slammed head-first into the ceiling.
Wreckage of the aircraft was eventually found on the sea floor and subsequently raised and transported to the Royal Aircraft Establishment for investigation. Upon examination of the wreckage it became obvious that the aircraft had broken up in mid-air, and initially it was thought that the aircraft might have been brought down by a bomb. Suspicion then shifted to the possibility of an engine turbine explosion, and modifications were put in hand to encase the turbine ring in other Comets with armour plate to contain a possible disintegrating turbine disk.
In the meantime, all Comets were to be grounded until these modifications had been carried out. The possibility of failure of the pressure cabin had been considered but then discounted due to the Comet's cabin having been designed to a considerably higher strength than was considered necessary at the time.
On 12 January 1954, the New York Times reported that BOAC had withdrawn all Comets from service:
The British Overseas Airways Corporation temporarily withdrew from service tonight all de Havilland Comet jet airliners as an aftermath of the crash of a Comet yesterday near the island of Elba. This suspension of jet service by Britain's one big overseas airline was followed promptly by similar action by the two French airlines that use the Comet – Air France and Union Aero Maritime des Transports.
The B. O. A. C. described its action as 'a measure of prudence to enable a minute and unhurried technical examination of every aircraft in the Comet fleet to be carried out at maintenance headquarters at London airport.' It was emphasized that the step did not constitute a 'grounding.' It was taken after consultation with Alan T. Lennox-Boyd, Transport Minister, and had his concurrence – but was not Government-ordered.
The airline has seven Comets. Three are abroad on the outward end of their runs—at Singapore, Johannesburg, South Africa and Tokyo. They will be flown back without passengers, but with mail and airline personnel. The corporation intends to fly the Comet routes with piston engine aircraft so that no service will be left unfilled. The measure taken against the Comet after more than a year and a half of airline experience is drastic and expensive for the airline. But it has been taken elsewhere in similar cases against planes like the Constellation and Douglas DC-6, which, when restored to service, maintained enviable records for safety.
While the official investigation efforts began, BOAC desperately tried to get Comets back in service, and on 23 March it succeeded. BOAC's chairman commented on television, "We obviously wouldn't be flying the Comet with passengers if we weren't satisfied conditions were suitable." But a second BOAC Comet G-ALYY was lost on 8 April 1954; a charter flight operating as South African Airways Flight 201 departed Rome bound for Egypt with 14 passengers and seven crew. Thirty-three minutes into the flight the pilot reported on course flying at 10,000 metres, then all contact was lost.
Initial examination and reconstruction of the wreckage of G-ALYP revealed several signs of inflight break-up:
- Shreds of cabin carpet were found trapped in the remains of the Comet's tail section
- The imprint of a coin was found on a fuselage panel from the rear of the aircraft
- Smears and scoring on the rear fuselage were tested and found to be consistent to the paint applied to the passenger seats of the Comet
With most of the wreckage recovered, investigators found that fractures started in the roof of the cabin, a window then smashed into the elevators, the rear fuselage then tore away, the outer wing structure fell, then the outer wing tips and finally the cockpit broke away and fuel from the wings set the debris on fire.
To find out what caused the first failure, BOAC donated G-ALYU ("Yoke Uncle") for testing. The airframe was put in a large water tank, the tank was filled, and water was pumped into the plane to simulate flight conditions. The experiment was run 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. It could possibly have taken as long as five months. A Seconds From Disaster documentary episode described this task as "grueling".
Official findings concerning BOAC Flight 781 and South African Airways Flight 201 were released jointly on 1 February 1955, in Civil Aircraft Accident Report of the Court of Inquiry into the Accidents to Comet G-ALYP on 10 January 1954 and Comet G-ALYY on 8 April 1954. After the equivalent of 3,000 flights simulated with G-ALYU, investigators at the RAE were able to conclude that the crash of G-ALYP had been due to failure of the pressure cabin at the forward ADF window in the roof. This window was one of two apertures for the aerials of an electronic navigation system in which opaque fibreglass panels took the place of the window glass. The failure was a result of metal fatigue caused by the repeated pressurisation and de-pressurisation of the aircraft cabin. Another fact was that the supports around the windows were riveted, not glued, as the original specifications for the aircraft had called for. The problem was exacerbated by the punch rivet construction technique employed. Unlike drill riveting, the imperfect nature of the hole created by punch riveting caused manufacturing defect cracks, which may have caused fatigue cracks to start around the rivet. The investigators examined the final piece of wreckage with a microscope.
52 years after the incident, Paul Withey, an aviation expert, went to the Science Museum in London to examine the aircraft parts using present-day technology. An aircraft piece was mounted on a plate. Withey received an impression of the aircraft part using a silicone-based putty. At Imperial College London Withey used an electron microscope to examine the putty impression of the fatigue crack. He found a manufacturing defect when zooming to 800 times and confirmed that Sir Arnold Hall's investigation was correct. This was shown in Seconds From Disaster.
Effects of the disaster and findings
The Comet's pressure cabin had been designed to a safety factor comfortably in excess of that required by British Civil Airworthiness Requirements (2.5x P as opposed to the requirement of 1.33x P and an ultimate load of 2x P, P being the cabin 'Proof' pressure) and the accident caused a revision in the estimates of the safe loading strength requirements of airliner pressure cabins.
In addition, it was discovered that the stresses around pressure cabin apertures were considerably higher than had been anticipated, especially around sharp-cornered cut-outs, such as windows. As a result, future jet airliners would feature windows with rounded corners, the curve eliminating a stress concentration. This was a noticeable distinguishing feature of all later models of the Comet.
- An episode of Seconds from Disaster, "Comet Air Crash", focused on this and the second Comet crash. The flight was also featured in depth in the Channel 4 programme, A Great British Air Disaster.
- List of notable decompression accidents and incidents
- Lists of accidents and incidents on commercial airliners
- List of structural failures and collapses
- "First of the Fleet" photo caption, p. 361. Flight and Aircraft Engineer (30 March 1951). Hosted at flightglobal.com. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
- "Comet Air Crash" ("Crash of the Comet"). Seconds From Disaster.
- "1954: Comet jet crashes with 35 on board". On This Day: 10 January. BBCNews. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
- "Dorothy Baker – A personal reminiscence". Bahá'í News (276): pp. 8–9. December 1977. ISSN 0195-9212.
- "Dorothy Beecher Baker". findagrave.com. 15 June 2011. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
- The New York Times (11 January 1954)
- The New York Times (January 12, 1954)
- "ObjectWiki: Fuselage of de Havilland Comet Airliner G-ALYP". Science Museum. 24 September 2009. Retrieved 9 October 2009.
- A Great British Air Disaster – Channel 4
- A Great British Air Disaster; Beat the Ancestors – TV review | Television & radio | The Guardian
- Official Report (1955), Report of the Public Inquiry into the causes and circumstances of the accident which occurred on the 10th January, 1954, to the Comet aircraft G‐ALYP.
- Stewart, Stanley (1986/89). Air Disasters. Arrow Books (UK). ISBN 0-09-956200-6.
- "Comet Cover-Up Channel 4, 13 June 2002" (Archive). The Bulletin No70, Embargoed until 0001 Thursday 4 December 2003, Broadcasting Standards Commission, p. 4 (PDF 6/40).
- "Report of the Public Inquiry into the causes and circumstances of the accident which occurred on the 10th January, 1954, to the Comet aircraft G-ALYP." (Archive) – Hosted on the National Transportation Safety Board website – Begins on Page 6 of 169
- "Piece reference BT 220/115." – The National Archives
- Flight 781 is in the US Federal Aviation Administration's Lessons Learned From Transport Airplane Accidents library.
- Pre-crash picture of G-ALYP Flight 781
- A 1953 Flight article on runways illustrated with a picture of G-ALYP some time before the crash
- Photo of reconstructed wreckage of G-ALYP