You Wouldn't Want To Fly On The First Jetliner

History |

If you've ever seen a Bogart or a Jimmy Stewart movie, you know that air travel used to be a much different affair than it is today. Formal dress was the rule of the day in the "golden era" of flying, typically considered the period of time before the advent of the jet-engine airliner. Women wore their nice dresses and their nicer hats. Men sported full suits. It was a grand time.

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Except that sometimes it really wasn't. Despite the glitz and glamor, life in the sky before jetliners was not nearly as comfortable. Airliners flew by means of piston-powered propeller engines that posed quite a few difficulties we no longer have to contend with in the modern day. For one, if you fly on a prop plane, your journey is going to take significantly longer than you've become accustomed to. Those aircraft just did not have the power, or the ability to climb to as high of an altitude, as modern planes. The engines were also extremely loud. So, imagine you're flying across the country, and it takes way longer to get to where you're going, and you have the thundering sound of pistons in your ears the whole time. Those pistons are also vibrating you in your seat, giving you the full "cheap vibrating motel bed" experience. For hours.

Now consider the fact that because the prop airliners couldn't get a lot of altitude, you were prone to fly through every bit of bad weather that lay between you and your destination. If you think turbulence is a problem now, it's nothing compared to the lunch-losing wonder of flying during that cherished golden era.

All of this changed with the introduction of the world's first jet airliner. It would change the world forever. But not without some of its own very serious bumps along the way. As much as you wouldn't want to ride on those old planes, you wouldn't want to ride on the first jet plane, either. Here's why.

The stage was set for air travel to be radically changed. The world was not fully prepared for the first jet airliner, which appeared seemingly overnight, much to the shock of aeronautics companies around the world who were set all the way back on their heels and sent scrambling to the drawing board. The first jet airliner was the de Havilland Comet. When it first debuted in 1949, it looked like a vision straight off the cover of a science fiction pulp magazine.

The de Havilland Comet

BAE Systems

Its sleek, aerodynamic design actually still looks futuristic today. It featured four jet turbines set into the wings (something you never see anymore, and which still looks cool) and a very modern profile. It was also a total powerhouse, able to provide a level of comfort and technological sophistication previously totally unseen in the world of civil aviation.

The Comet upended received wisdom that jet travel was not feasible, due to technological limitations. The critics were proven very wrong. The public was exhilarated by the Comet, though the plane's honeymoon period would come to a quite literally screeching halt soon after the Comet was put into service. Within months of the debut, the Comet was proving to be not quite the technological marvel that had been hoped.