Several members of the Royal family, including two corgis, board the new DeHavilland Comet at London’s Heathrow Airport, bound for New York.
Prince Philip remarked about how exciting it was to be flying on the most advanced jet airliner in the world. Some time after reaching a cruise altitude of 30,000 feet, Captain Caryl Ramsay Gordon asked him if he would like to sit in the left seat. Captain Gordon had known the Prince for years, having been his flight instructor back in the 50s, and was well aware of his reputation as a cracking stick and rudder man.
After a few minutes of straight and level flight during which he became familiar with the controls and instrument layout, Prince Philip took the yoke in both hands and expertly put the plane through a 360 degree roll, maintaining positive Gs throughout the maneuver. The Queen and Princess Anne both complained that they had been quite disturbed to look out and see the sky in the bottom of their window and the earth above. Upon returning to his seat next to the Queen, Prince Philip promptly apologized with a kiss and a promise never to do it again. But it was several minutes before he stopped grinning.
Three days later a commercial Comet with a full load of passengers disappeared from radar over the North Atlantic 800 miles west of England, leaving a long debris field and few bodies to recover. No distress call was heard.
At that point all Comets were immediately grounded until the problem could be sorted out and the mystery solved. Fourteen months later, during stress tests on the fuselage, metal fatigue starting at the corners of the square windows was discovered to be the flaw in the design that brought the great plane down.
By the time DeHavilland had re-designed and solved their production problems, Boeing had completed the design and development of their new 707 jet liner. They went on to dominate commercial aviation for more than half a century with many editions of their seven series airplanes flying from 112 different countries throughout the world.
The next time the Royal family flew, they used an older piston engine DeHavilland, (DH-104 Dove), one that had served them well for many years. On board in a special compartment were nine tiny parachutes, one for each of their dogs.
Editor’s Note: The beauty of this piece is the author’s fascination (if not obsession) with aircraft. The story itself is fiction but the specificity in the technical details lend an air of authenticity. We think Prince Philip would appreciate it, too, himself having stated, regarding his own service in WWII more than 70 years ago: “As most elderly people have discovered, memories tend to fade.” A special debt of gratitude to JP for lending samples from his extensive photo collection to our class on March 3.