View Full Version : Channel Four's Comet 'hatchet job'

t'aint natural
14th Aug 2002, 21:30
The Times on Monday carried a brief story saying J.M. Ramsden, the former Flight International editor an de Havilland apprentice, was seeking an explanation as to how he and other former DH staff who took part in the Channel Four documentary on the Comet has been duped into doing so on a false pretext, and how their contribution had been wilfully distorted in order to create a sensational programme which was untruthful.
The Times story was a precis of a lengthy article in the AOPA UK magazine, General Aviation. I must say I was originally impressed by the Channel Four documentary, but having seen Mike Ramsden's article I understand why he's unimpressed. I know there was some discussion here when the programme was shown; I'll try to get a copy of Ramsden's article and post it here.
I look forward to hearing Channel Four's explanations.

15th Aug 2002, 10:04
A link to The Times did not work, so here it is:

August 12, 2002

TV probe into Comet crashes 'wilfully untrue'
By Raymond Snoddy, Media Editor

A ROW has broken out over a Channel 4 documentary that alleged that the Comet jet crashes of the 1950s happened because the makers ignored repeated safety warnings.
Mike Ramsden, an aviation specialist and an apprentice who worked on the jet that began its scheduled passenger services 50 years ago, has denounced the programme as wilfully untrue.

Mr Ramsden, a former editor of Flight International, argues in this month’s issue of General Aviation, the magazine for aircraft owners, that the programme, Comet Cover-Up, claimed wrongly that de Havilland failed to carry out metal fatigue tests.

The documentary in the Secret History series looked at the story of how two BOAC Comet 1s broke up over the Mediterranean in 1954 with the loss of 50 lives.

The documentary alleged that senior de Havilland executives knew that the plane was susceptible to metal fatigue, yet were so desperate to be the first to fly a jet airliner that they chose to ignore repeated warnings and postponed crucial safety testing.

Mr Ramsden says he plans to make a formal compaint about the programme to Channel 4 because it has “damaged the reputation of good men who cannot answer back”.

David Newman and Alan Peters, senior members of the Comet design team, have also publicly criticised the programme broadcast in June.

They believe it gave “a completely false impression of the atmosphere and motivation of the de Havilland company. No one who knew the de Havilland directors of the day would ever associate them with a ‘mad race for profit’.”

The documentary’s core allegation was that secret letters proved de Havilland was advised that the fuselage would fail from fatigue but refused to fatigue-test it.

Mr Ramsden has not received a copy of the secret letters from the senior producer of the programme, Richard Sattin. He believes the letters referred to the wing which was not implicated in the crashes. Mr Sattin insisted that the letters concerned not just the wing but wider safety issues.

An inquiry found that the Comet 1 window frame failed catastrophically from fatigue because of bad riveting of the window frames to the fuselage.

Mr Ramsden and Mr Newman say the programme ignored the extensive fatigue tests carried out before the aircraft flew. “Too technical and boring, perhaps. But to state as fact that de Havilland refused to fatigue-test the Comet is just wilful untruthfulness,” Mr Ramsden insisted.

PPRuNe Pop
15th Aug 2002, 17:29
Moving this to Aircraft History and Nostalgia where it was discussed after the C4 programme.

t'aint natural
15th Aug 2002, 18:22
OK here's the full AOPA magazine story:


Past editor of Flight International, J M (Mike) Ramsden worked on the Comet 1 as a de Havilland apprentice, and appeared in Channel 4's recent documentary on the world¹s first jetliner. Here he challenges its truthfulness.

Channel 4's Secret History series about the Comet 1 disasters, broadcast on 13 June, was wilfully untrue. Entitled Comet Cover-Up, the documentary alleged that de Havilland and its chief designer R. E. Bishop didn¹t just put an unsafe aircraft into passenger service. They did so knowingly, and didn¹t test it properly, in pursuit of profit.
Principal Films had invited D H veterans to help them mark the 50th anniversary of jet passenger transport, to be screened by Channel 4 on 2 May 2002. Director and interviewer Steve Ruggi, producer David Coward and sound and cameramen met us in our homes and other locations around Hatfield, birthplace of the jet airliner. John Cunningham, retired de Havilland director and chief test pilot, agreed to meet them in the de Havilland Museum¹s Comet 1 cockpit. Ralph Hare, retired Comet structures engineer, also met them on location and gave hours of his time and expertise.
Their smilingly deferential questions ranged over the whole history of the Comet project. One or two questions seemed rather suspicious. Was de Havilland arrogant? Well, we had made some very good aeroplanes, but arrogant? Sir Geoffrey de Havilland drove a Morris Minor and would hold doors open for lowly apprentices.
We knew that the programme was going to be about tragedy as well as triumph questions and sent them photographs, films and documents without charge documentary.
They set the scene truthfully enough. One after the other in 1954, two BOAC Comet 1s broke up over the Mediterranean with the loss of more than 50 lives. The world-beating British jetliner fleet was grounded while the Royal Navy, the Royal Aircraft Establishment and a public inquiry painstakingly investigated and established the cause. They found that window or hatch frames in the Comet's pressurised fuselage had failed
from fatigue.
We had made manufacturing and design mistakes, and these mistakes - all in Lord Cohen's thorough published 1955 report - were splashed on every newspaper front page. Well, we had been pioneering jet passenger transport, solving problems
never posed before, and there were no excuses. We got it wrong. But we most definitely had not neglected to fatigue-test the Comet 1, as the documentary alleged. Here are three of its many mendacious quotes:
*Senior de Havilland executives knew that the plane was susceptible to metal fatigue, yet so desperate were they to be the first to fly a jet airliner that they chose to ignore repeated warnings and postponed crucial safety testing.
*The secret compromise by the Government, de Havilland and BOAC to postpone full-scale fatigue testsS is recorded for posterity in the confidential letters we have discovered
*None of the executives involved in the Comet ever went on record about the secret fears they shared before the accidents, and the relatives of the passengers who died in the accidents were never compensated
*'Secret letters' are cited in support of these grave allegations. Secret letters from whom, dated when, saying what exactly? Fleeting glimpses of old files and lingering close-ups of the word 'fatigue', accompanied by doom-laden music and voice commentary, prove nothing.
Video pause and replay buttons catch a bit of a 1951 Royal Aircraft Establishment internal memo about fatigue-testing the Comet's wing. Hang on - the Comet's wing never suffered a fatigue failure. It was the fuselage that fatigued.
The documentary's core allegation, said to be proven by the secret letters, is that de Havilland was warned that the fuselage would fail from fatigue but refused to fatigue-test it.
We asked the programme's senior producer, Richard Sattin, for copies of the secret letters proving this. It seemed curious that Ralph Hare, the de Havilland structures expert whom they had interviewed, hadn't been shown them, though the letters had been biked round to an aviation editor for his opinion.
Mr Sattin has yet to keep his telephone promises to show us the secret letters and to reply to our letter of complaint.
In 1949 we built two full-scale test sections of the Comet 1 fuselage for testing in the Hatfield pressure tank (using water instead of air to avoid explosive decompression). Chief designer Bishop's objectives were to prove bursting strength ('static' strength) and then to test fatigue strength with repeated loads. These tests, from 1949 to 1952, were a world first.
In those days professional structural engineering opinion was that fatigue strength could be demonstrated by static strength. That's still basically true, but now we know that fatigue has a mind of its own, and must be treated accordingly. History Rule No 1 _ Don't judge the past in the light of the present.
First we proved fuselage static strength. We pumped up one test section to 2P, twice normal working pressure, without failure. We believed we had demonstrated the Comet's fatigue strength by proving its static strength.
Chief designer R E Bishop went further. He said 'Show me 2.5P'. We did that too. Bishop then ordered 16,000 repeat loadings or 'flight cycles' of 1.25P. That was a world-first fatigue test, and it went beyond the professional structural engineering practice of the day. Carried out in 1952, two years before the disasters, the test suggested a fuselage fatigue life of at least ten years.
Bishop went even further. He ordered the repeat-loading of individual windows to 1P every day for three years, and their static loading to a frightening 10P - ten times normal working pressure. We did that too (behind a thick brick wall). An apprentice in the structural test department at Hatfield had to polish the individual test windows each morning with Ajax to check whether daily window-cleaning in airline service would affect the transparency's strength. Far-fetched, but a measure of Bishop¹s conscientiousness.
In 1949 and 1950 we also tested a full-scale Comet wing, attaching it to a fuselage section and applying thousands of fatigue reversals before loading it to destruction.
We explained all these tests in filmed interviews with Mr Ruggi and Mr Coward. Too technical and boring, perhaps. They edited it all out. But then to state as fact that de Havilland refused to fatigue-test the Comet 1 is just wilful untruthfulness. It makes you wonder how much you can believe of any Channel 4 documentary.
Yes, the Comet 1 window frame failed catastrophically from fatigue. Why, if it had been fatigue tested so thoroughly? Because, as we explained on camera, the production window frames were riveted to the fuselage skin hand-made test section.
Bishop had agreed to riveting, which would be stronger than Reduxing if heavier, because the production people could not get consistently good glued joints on the production line. Forty years later Bishop called that 'my biggest mistake'. But it was a perfectly sound engineering decision, and still would be. All 15,000 jetliners built since have had riveted window frames.
There was another 'causal factor' test section used for fatigue-testing had been toughened by the 2.5P load applied to it before its 16,000 'flights'. That was a new structural discovery.
Engineers who try to do things that have never been done before will sometimes make mistakes. Bishop accepted complete responsibility. A lesser man would have blamed the production or structures departments, or both.
Comet Cover-Up will doubtless be profitably sold, repeated and believed all over the world for years to come. Beware the lesser men who so cheaply denigrate the great.

16th Aug 2002, 08:16
Mike Ramsden's letter is also published in Aeroplane Monthly this month (September issue? - Seahawk on the cover), also John Maynard blasts the programme in his "Crosswind" column.