This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
BOAC and Pan American World Airways were fierce transatlantic rivals in the 1950s.
In 1958, BOAC was in a race with Pan Am to operate the first transatlantic jet flight from London to New York. Pan Am had even taken out advertisements in UK newspapers promising to operate the first jet flight.
However, on 4 October 1958, BOAC flew two de Havilland Comet 4 aircraft between London and New York International Airport, Idlewild.
Pan Am actually had a Boeing 707 aircraft in London ready to operate its flights. This was a larger aircraft with capacity for 86 passengers in First Class, 143 in tourist class and 163 in economy class. However, it did not begin scheduled flights until 17 November 1958, partly due to difficulties in negotiating with pilot unions.
BOAC’s first flight was a mere 24 hours after the Port Authority of New York granted approval for passenger jet services following concerns over noise. It was also less than a month after the aircraft had been delivered to the airline and it had received its certificate or air worthiness.
The westbound flight left London at 09:55 local time and landed in New York at 15:15 local time after a refuelling stop for one hour and ten minutes in Gander, Newfoundland. The total journey time was 10 hours and 20 minutes.
There were 31 passengers out of a capacity for 48 on the aircraft. They included Sir Gerald D’Erlanger, Chairman of the board of BOAC. He carried a letter from the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Denis Truscott to Mayor Wagner of New York.
There were 12 paying passengers, many of whom had made reservations in anticipation of passenger jet services years ago and were only called to travel at very short notice. There were two classes of travel, First and Deluxe.
The eastbound flight left New York at 07:01 local time and arrived in London at 18:13 local time. This was a record journey time of 6 hours and 12 minutes for a commercial aircraft flying across the atlantic. It had arrived 32 minutes ahead of schedule, travelling at an average speed of 580 miles an hour and hitting a top speed of 640 miles an hour.
This cut the journey time in half compared to piston driven aircraft. The flight initially operated weekly, but soon increased to daily.
“British Gloat As Their Comet Wins Race To Inaugurate Transatlantic Services” was the headline in the New York Times on 5 October 1958.
The transatlantic rivalry did not abate. “707 Outruns The Comet At Sea” was the headline in the New York Times on 19 November 1958 after a Pan Am Boeing 707 overtook a BOAC Comet, beating it by 11 minutes to fly to New York.
The Comet was initially considered a success for BOAC with transatlantic traffic up by 40% in one year. Services to Boston and Toronto soon followed. However, success proved be short-lived as the Comet did have the range to operate westbound flights non-stop on a regular basis. In 1960, BOAC inaugurated its own Boeing 707 flights from London to New York.