Sixty years ago, British Airways, then called BOAC – British Overseas Airways Corporation – became the first airline to fly a turbo jet engine aircraft between Europe and New York, reducing the journey time from 18 hours to around seven.
First jet engine flight across the Atlantic
On October 4, 1958, the airline flew two de Havilland Comet 4 aircraft, one from New York to London and the other from London to New York.
One of the original cabin crew members, Peggy Thorne, 91, had joined BOAC in 1950 and was hand-picked to serve customers on the first flight.
Recently, British Airways hosted Peggy, and Captain Hugh Dibley FRAeS, a former Comet 4 navigator, at an event to celebrate the historic achievement.
“It was marvellous” Peggy remembers. “We were used to travelling to New York on Boeing Stratocruisers, which took up to 20 hours. We couldn’t believe the flight was possible in such a short time.”
US airline Pan Am had been promising that it would be the first airline to do this, but was beaten by Britain’s BOAC with its new jet engine aircraft by several weeks. It was front page news.
How things have changed
Back in 1958, Comet 4 could fly just 48 customers every day from London. Today, British Airways operates up to 12 flights a day from the capital, offering around 3,500 seats.
On the Comet there were two cabins, Deluxe and First Class. Today, British Airways flights feature four cabins, to suit all budgets – World Traveller, World Traveller Plus, Club World and First.
In 1958, a ticket to travel on the Comet staggeringly cost the equivalent of £8,000. Today, a return flight costs far less – from £292.
Celebrating 60 years of transatlantic jet engine flying
Despite 60 years having passed, Peggy fully recalls the inaugural: “It was so exciting to be the first – it was wonderful. There were all sorts of dignitaries on board, press and the chairman of BOAC.
“It was a thrilling experience. We served customers Madeira biscuits and coffee when they came on board, followed by cocktails and canapes, and then a five-course lunch with wines. Petit Fours followed and then there was Afternoon Tea! Our customers loved it – they ate and drank from when they got on board until the time they got off.”
Hugh said: “The Comet 4 was delivered to BOAC on September 30 and flew across the Atlantic on October 4, which was quite a surprise to some people, not least because it was so fast!”
“The Comet 4 was a firm favourite with pilots, as it was nice to fly and the design meant it was quite easy to make smooth landings. It also had great passenger appeal due to its beautiful appearance and take-off performance.”
Peggy was also invited to see how the airline now trains its cabin crew members: “It’s overwhelming. The technology and the number of aircraft training cabins – we had nothing like this in our day.”
British Airways celebrates its Centenary next year
With just a few months left before British Airways begins its Centenary celebrations, Alex Cruz, British Airways chief executive and chairman, paid tribute to the crew of the first flights: “British Airways and its predecessors have always pioneered innovation and hospitality and this is a great early example.
“Next year, we celebrate 100 years of taking Britain to the world and bringing the world to Britain, and the quality of service we provide to customers is better than ever.”